Banks' Culture series has a not-insignificant place amongst the debaters of future societal models as a post-scarcity society. It's given as a utopian example of how people live and find meaning in a benign, tolerant society where no wants for anything.

However, in all the Culture novels I've read the narrative is concentrated amongst the movers and shakers, the jet-set 1% of human overachievers.

For example, IIRC, Diziet Sma is important enough to warrant flying around on a special mission by a Ship. Ditto the protagonist in The Player of Games. These are special people, with special skills.

We know that the Culture is rich and that no one wants for anything. But does the Culture ever explore the theme of how the masses live? What do the folk that are not in Special Circumstances, recognized top-end artists, etc... actually do? Is that ever alluded to in the depiction of Culture?

Or is it just handwavium that everyone is fully engaged and fulfilled in their life, with none of the drudgery or boredom that a cynic might expect from some of our current implementations of extensive welfare states?

(The above sentence is key to my question. Don't like it? downvote or vote to close, don't edit it out. Without it, there is no need for this question).

i.e. Is the life of the "common person" ever explored in detail, in-universe, with respect to how they find engagement and meaning in their life?

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    If Banks' books were just another space opera, with lasers, spaceships and guys/girls, with no great claim to social criticism, then it would be somewhat churlish to question this absence. But that is just not true of the Culture books, which dissect other cultures mercilessly (and politically too - read the one about virtual torture). And Banks himself became more and more political from Dead Air on. Star Trek, also quoted in happy Utopia circles, took explicit stands within their episodes, from the Uhura-Kirk kiss to the black/white vs white/black war. So, where's the beef? Jul 12, 2020 at 17:43
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    "asking how a full-on welfare state manages to remain positive, rather than dystopian, and how that challenge is addressed in the books" I see what you mean @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica . I understood the sense of the Culture to be that (a) it is "ridiculously" post-scarcity (they can literally spin up from nothingness whole - say - ring planetoids) coupled with (b) Switzerland-like "extreme local voting". (Do you recall the incident with the citizen who gets to build an entire planetary-sized sort of "hanging wire sailing rig thing" on a vote.) Not a full answer here, just my sense
    – Fattie
    Jul 12, 2020 at 18:33
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    It feels like you are trying to analyze the Culture as "like our current various forms of capitalism, but everyone's pretty rich", whereas Banks was writing a thought experiment about a fundamentally different society. E.g. the word "economy" has no meaning in the Culture, except when interacting with other civilisations Jul 13, 2020 at 10:23
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    Isn't the opening of Player of Games the answer to the question? Before getting selected to become an operative the player is just an ordinary citizen. He's a good game player, but everything he has in his life is available to all.
    – Jontia
    Jul 13, 2020 at 11:32
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Maybe an edit to the question title, causing it to be along the lines of "How do the vast majority of citizens of the Culture occupy their unlimited free time?" or "Do the overwhelming number of people living in the Culture that are not in Special Circumstances experience a dissatisfied ennui from having every material desire met for free?" might help. As written it seems like the question is asking for a concise, definitive answer about how 99.9% of 30 trillion people all live, and how they feel about their lifestyles.
    – Upper_Case
    Jul 13, 2020 at 22:23

2 Answers 2


If we turn to A FEW NOTES ON THE CULTURE by Iain M Banks, we get a pretty decent overview of the life (and death) of an ordinary Culture citizen.

In short, they party, they have hobbies that entertain them for weeks or a lifetime (like the games seen in Player of Games) or until they get bored, they attend cultural events (like the concert seen in Look to Windward), they travel, they partake all kinds of weird and wonderful artificial environments, they spend a considerable amount of time blissed out of their heads on glanded drugs (at least in their youths) as well as fornicating with anything and everything that moves.

Unless they don't want to. Gestra Ishmethit, for example, spend his entire life hating the Cultural lifestyle and ended up living as a hermit on a Rock.

Briefly, nothing and nobody in the Culture is exploited. It is essentially an automated civilisation in its manufacturing processes, with human labour restricted to something indistinguishable from play, or a hobby.

No machine is exploited, either; the idea here being that any job can be automated in such a way as to ensure that it can be done by a machine well below the level of potential consciousness; what to us would be a stunningly sophisticated computer running a factory (for example) would be looked on by the Culture's AIs as a glorified calculator, and no more exploited than an insect is exploited when it pollinates a fruit tree a human later eats a fruit from.

Where intelligent supervision of a manufacturing or maintenance operation is required, the intellectual challenge involved (and the relative lightness of the effort required) would make such supervision rewarding and enjoyable, whether for human or machine. The precise degree of supervision required can be adjusted to a level which satisfies the demand for it arising from the nature of the civilisation's members. People - and, I'd argue, the sort of conscious machines which would happily cooperate with them - hate to feel exploited, but they also hate to feel useless. One of the most important tasks in setting up and running a stable and internally content civilisation is finding an acceptable balance between the desire for freedom of choice in one's actions (and the freedom from mortal fear in one's life) and the need to feel that even in a society so self-correctingly Utopian one is still contributing something. Philosophy matters, here, and sound education.

Education in the Culture is something that never ends; it may be at its most intense in the first tenth or so of an individual's life, but it goes on until death (another subject we'll return to). To live in the Culture is to live in a fundamentally rational civilisation (this may preclude the human species from ever achieving something similar; our history is, arguably, not encouraging in this regard). The Culture is quite self-consciously rational, sceptical, and materialist. Everything matters, and nothing does. Vast though the Culture may be - thirty trillion people, scattered fairly evenly through the galaxy - it is thinly spread, exists for now solely in this one galaxy, and has only been around for an eyeblink, compared to the life of the universe. There is life, and enjoyment, but what of it? Most matter is not animate, most that is animate is not sentient, and the ferocity of evolution pre-sentience (and, too often, post-sentience) has filled uncountable lives with pain and suffering. And even universes die, eventually. (Though we'll come back to that, too.)

In the midst of this, the average Culture person - human or machine - knows that they are lucky to be where they are when they are. Part of their education, both initially and continually, comprises the understanding that beings less fortunate - though no less intellectually or morally worthy - than themselves have suffered and, elsewhere, are still suffering. For the Culture to continue without terminal decadence, the point needs to be made, regularly, that its easy hedonism is not some ground-state of nature, but something desirable, assiduously worked for in the past, not necessarily easily attained, and requiring appreciation and maintenance both in the present and the future.

We do see a fair few of the "little people" in the books.

Player of Games.

Yay Meristinoux is busy designing mountains for her home orbital. She's frustrated because they won't let her design entire plates. She spends her spare time having casual sex, going to parties, running naked in the rain and playing a variety of board games and live-action gun games. Gurgeh's unnamed (lady)friend is keen on casting iron, having graduated from 'pokers and fire grates' to the cannon she presented him with as a gift. Professor Boruelal evidently runs a university course specialising in game theory and practice (and has various adult students).

Use of Weapons.

Zakalwe goes on a tour of the (Contact-affiliated) GSV Size Isn’t Everything. During his time he meets a middle-aged man who's waiting tables in a restaurant, having taken time off from his day job cataloguing alien religions. Another resident is busily building a GCU with a team of friends. She acknowledges that it's both purposeful and pointless at the same time, undertaken for personal enjoyment and self-satisfaction.

Look to Windward

Ambassador Kabe is busily recording the mores of the Culture citizens that live near to him. They party (as Kabe notes, endlessly), play music, make fine jewellery, attend concerts and sports events as well as flying light aircraft, riding the lava rapids and glacier caving. 

“Well, yes, and why not? They socialize, they have work-hobbies, they play in more gentle forms, they read or watch screen, they go to entertainments. They sit around grinning in one of their glanded drug states, they study, they spend time traveling—”


“—apparently just for the sake of it or they simply … potter. And of course many of them indulge in arts and crafts.” Kabe made a smile and spread his three hands. “A few even compose music.”

“They spend time. That’s just it. They spend time traveling. The time weighs heavily on them because they lack any context, any valid framework for their lives. They persist in hoping that something they think they’ll find in the place they’re heading for will somehow provide them with a fulfilment they feel certain they deserve and yet have never come close to experiencing.”

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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica - We see lots of ordinary folk going about their lives in the novels, just not for any extended period of time. Usually they're just gadding about, having sex, eating on balconies, enjoying various cultural (small c) events, etc etc
    – Valorum
    Jul 11, 2020 at 20:39
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    Theres a quote from use of weapons which underlines the uselessness argument: “I could try composing wonderful musical works, or day-long entertainment epics, but what would that do? Give people pleasure? My wiping this table gives me pleasure. And people come to a clean table, which gives them pleasure. And anyway" - the man laughed - "people die; stars die; universes die. What is any achievement, however Jul 12, 2020 at 0:44
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    great it was, once time itself is dead? Of course, if all I did was wipe tables, then of course it would seem a mean and despicable waste of my huge intellectual potential. But because I choose to do it, it gives me pleasure. And," the man said with a smile, "it's a good way of meeting people. So where are you from, anyway?” Jul 12, 2020 at 0:44
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    @user1937198 Why dont you put that as an answer? Jul 12, 2020 at 17:30
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica if you want to ask the question "why isn't the life of ordinary-Culture-people described in Banks' books much" then that's a very different question, but a reasonable short answer is that utopic, happy day-to-day life devoid of conflict is pleasant to live but does not breed stories that would be as interesting for readers as the outliers and actual conflict or adversity. If "that level of scrutiny" was applied towards the Culture for more than a couple pages then it would be simply boring; it's background exposition that does not advance the story for a book plot.
    – Peteris
    Jul 12, 2020 at 19:07

In 1994, Iain Banks posted to a usenet group the following:

Philosophically, the Culture accepts generally, that questions such as 'what is the meaning of life' are themselves meaningless... in summary, we make our meanings whether we like them or not.

Philosophically speaking this is a marriage of Comte's Positivism and Sartre's Existentialism. Moreover, the political philosophy of the Culture is Liberalism writ large across the galaxy. It's modern secular European civilisation showing its best side and best foot forward in a dreamt up utopia. It's Huxley's Brave New World rewritten as a utopia rather than the dystopia it really is. Banks admitted that this was his 'secular heaven'.

All this means that the 99% find meaning exactly as the 1% do, through making their meanings (whether this works depends on just how justifiable you find Existentialism to be - personally speaking, not very).

So why the focus on the 1%? Well, let's look at another writer - Shakespeare - he had all of Europe to focus on, but what he showed us mostly were European aristocrats of Italy, Denmark and England. Though, if one goes by his remark 'somethings rotten in the state of Denmark', it seemed he rather thought they certainly weren't representative of what aristocracy names itself after - the best. A dramatist of Shakespeare's calibre could probably make a drama out of a teacup, never mind the 99%. Much of this will be for reasons of patronage,  also of what his audience expected and also because this is how drama itself was seen then - a demand of the form itself.

Likewise here, Iain Banks is writing within a genre - science-fiction. Here, the epic reigns supreme. We have vast space operas on the scale of Star Wars and the like. Thus he gave the audience what it expected and not the whole 'reality' of Culture. If Culture was real, like Shakespeare's Europe was real then we would expect to find other writers who explored different worlds from that of the nobility or royalty. Like Dickens or Victor Hugo who explored the life of the 99%. But this was well after the French Revolution when the demotic found it's voice.

  • 1
    I am not sure what to make of this. Are you stating that Culture citizens find happiness through knowledge of/following the guidance of philosophers? Is that in the books? And this question is most definitely not about why Banks chooses to mostly cover the 1% rather than the 99% because of readership interest - that's self-evident already, although you're not the first to base your answer/comment on that aspect. Jul 16, 2020 at 17:46

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