In Iain Bank's 'Culture' novels, what is the Culture's relation to mankind on Earth?

This series of novels revolves around a galactic civilization called the Culture, which is mostly made up of various species of humanoids and sentient machines. Though there are various species of humanoids, most of them are described as being similar to humans on Earth. I thought at first that the first novel I read in this series was set many thousands of years in the future, but I found out in the end that it is set around the 13th century AD (there are excerpts from a history published for Earth in the 22nd century that use our dating system at the end of the book).

So, how is there an 8000+ year old civilization of essentially human beings scattered across our galaxy long before mankind left Earth? I see a few possible explanations.

My favorite idea is that humans left Earth sometime in our prehistory, spread rapidly, and speciated. This fits in with what I know of the setting so far, as many civilizations interfere with primitive races on other planets - maybe someone took some cavemen as pets and they got out of control.

Another possibility, which I’m not sure fits with the setting as I know it so far, is time travel - maybe humans from Earth travel back in time sometime in our future, and start over in our prehistory.

Then there’s the possible explanation that parallel evolution lead to humanoids evolving elsewhere in the galaxy, but I don’t think this fits with the setting, which is fairly ‘hard’ SF. This Star Trek-ish explanation doesn’t seem to fit, especially as the book has several believably alien alien species.

So, does this ever get explained? I know there is one novella where an agent from the Culture comes to modern-day Earth, but the collection it is in was checked out when I last went to the library - maybe it explains it. I know there are some fans of the series on this board (that’s why I decided to check it out), and I was hoping someone could explain it to me.

<hijack> Iain Banks is the same guy as Iain M. Banks, who wrote “The Wasp Factory”. Everybody should read that book. “The Business”, on the other hand, can be missed. </hijack>, sorry.

Actually, he uses his middle initial in his SF works, and uses just Iain Banks for his more mainstream novels, such as “The Wasp Factory”.

Sorry, I was assuming the OP was right. Heh, Wasp Factory is mainstream. I have to go hide now.

This is probably the most likely. Banks’ series has a series of “human” species, called “humans”, which are all closely related but often having significant changes (some are furry, some have different bodily proportions, some have more than two genders). But he doesn’t explain these closely-related species aside from pointing out that there’s a LOT of history to the galaxy, and the Culture has only been around for an eyeblink of it.

Nope. No mention of time travel in Banks’ books. In fact, the way he has his fictional universe set up pretty much rules out time travel in the sense that we typically imagine it.

For some good reading: A Few Notes on the Culture

… and…

The Culture FAQ

The novella “The State of the Art”, in the collection also entitled The State of the Art, is about a Contact team from the Culture exploring contemporary Earth. In that story, Earth is just one planet that happens to have an intelligent species that’s classifiable by the Culture as “human”.

AFAIK, the dates in, for example, Consider Phlebas are standard Earth CE dates … indicating that the events of Consider Phlebas actually took place some centuries ago.

Ha! The Out of Context Problem in Excessionis ALL time travel, bay-bee! So neener, neener, neener!

But not time travel within the same “universe”. The OOCP only potentially allowed travel to younger and older “universes”.

/pointless nitpick

Yep. And instead of contacting us, Special Circumstances is monitoring to see what we will do to ourselves. We’re probably the cautionary planet for the Culture. :frowning:

I hadn’t noticed that. Interesting.

To the best of my recollection, Banks has never dealt directly with the issue of which came first: Earth humans or Culture humans. My best guess is that in Banks’ universe, human-like species have developed independently in several locations. See Against a Dark Background, which takes place in a solar system explicitly stated to be at an enormous distance from any other habitable system, and Inversions, which involves a civilisation existing in the Culture’s sphere of influence but at a level of technology roughly equivalent to Earth’s Medieval period.

Glad to see someone else here has been reading these great novels.

It’s interesting that the two books you mention actually have the least amount to do with the Culture. You can only recognize Inversions as a Culture novel if you’ve read other Culture novels before (though there is one fairly obvious clue) and I don’t think that Against a Dark Background is a Culture novel at all.

I agree that Banks never really explains why there are so many “human” species running around the galaxy (or beyond it; doesn’t Player of Games take place in the Magellenetic Cloud?) but I’m not sure Against a Dark Background makes a good example.

Yep. I really like Banks’ stuff. I’ll admit I just picked up a copy of Look to Windward this weekend but I’m leaving for vacation Thursday and expect it to make great reading on the flight.

Or, perhaps, in my reckless enthusaism to contribute, I’ll just go ahead and post an enormous swath of copyrighted material.

So, please delete that bad boy if it poses a concern. Sorry, Mr. Banks. Everyone should buy at least one of his books, really.

Well, I agree AADB isn’t, but I think it takes place in the Culture’s universe, albeit in a location so distant that it is outside the Culture’s domain, if that makes any sense.

Mild hijack: fave Iain M. Banks SF novel? Of the Culture novels, probably Use of Weapons (so come I didn’t remember that quote?). Of the non-Culture novels, probably Feersum Endjinn.

Well, I agree AADB isn’t, but I think it takes place in the Culture’s universe, albeit in a location so distant that it is outside the Culture’s domain, if that makes any sense.

Mild hijack: fave Iain M. Banks SF novel? Of the Culture novels, probably Use of Weapons (so how come I didn’t remember that quote?). Of the non-Culture novels, probably Feersum Endjinn.

Finished Consider Phlebas, knocked out part of Excession today. There is mention of a planet that they believe may have been the homeworld of the ancestors of those who make up the Culture, and there are historical records of battles fought in it’s pre-industrial era app. 14,000 years ago. It shows that the Culture is somewhat uncertain of their origins, which seems unusual. Perhaps all the potential homeworlds of humanity were lacking a clear fossil record showing how they evolved there…also, in reading Excession mention is made of how a certain artifact could be used to travel into a younger universe before there was an established galactic culture. I think Banks is hinting at both the time travel and the prehistoric astronauts explanation, unless in some book I haven’t read yet I find out about some Eccentric like Meatfucker planting fake fossils on Earth and manipulating our minds.

True. Just because there are no Culture references in AADB it doesn’t mean that it isn’t in the same universe. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence and all that. Still, I tend to think of it as different.

I’ll agree with you about Use of Weapons; great book, I never saw the “twist” at the end coming and the revelation of why chairs have such an effect on Cheradenine is one of the most memorable “oh sh*t!” scenes I’ve ever read.

OTOH, I never managed to finish Feersum Endjinn, mainly because I got tired of trying to “reed fonetiklee”. Did he really have to write a third of the book like that?

I would have put AADB as my favorite non-Culture book since I don’t consider it to be one. YMMV, of course.

Great thread for great works.

Banks SF aside, Wasp Factory is an EVIL, EVIL book. You should all read it. Complicity, while not as grand is filled with quite cool revenge scenarios.

Banks has left the relationship between earth and the Culture deliberatly vague. I’ve gathered this from what interviews and articles I’ve read. My guess he doesn’t want to write himself into a corner.

Perhaps he will write that great novel that explains all the secrets of the culture. (unrestrained fanboy drooling)

Thanks all, off for tea with Ms. Sma…something about a job offer…

He’s the only SF author I really look forward to new work from. His conventional fiction can be damned good too. I recommend Espedair Street and The Crow Road.

Of course, you know you’re moving in the wrong social circles when you read The Wasp Factory and find yourself thinking “Didn’t I once share a flat with this guy?” (Meaning the protagonist, not Banks … )

I don’t think Against A Dark Background is a Culture novel … that one lone star floating in intergalactic space is sufficiently interesting that a ship Mind would have been along to visit it, if there were Minds around in the AADB universe. I think.