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Can the Culture be reasonably considered a Utopia? Why or why not? What are its chief problems?

Optionally, compare and contrast with Brave New World.

Comments

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    It's certainly post-scarcity, and people can broadly do whatever takes their fancy with almost no restrictions. The conflicts are almost entirely "round the edges" ie with unintegrated groups such as the Empire of Azad here, which typically regard the Culture as enfeebled and despicable. It's not unlike how The Federation is regarded by other major spacefaring species in Star Trek. However, in Star Trek the Federation is sufficiently new that it is still potentially vulnerable to the others, whereas I have never got the sense that the Culture is seriously threatened.

    The chief problems seem to be related to boredom! What is a bright ambitious member of the Culture supposed to do with their time? And the answer seems to be that they go off and join Special Circumstances and piss off other groups around the periphery!

    Brave New World relied crucially on the overwhelming majority of people not thinking, and being so constantly plied with drugs of various kinds that they never think to question the point of it all. The Culture goes to the opposite extreme of surrounding everyone with vast amounts of information, so that (one supposes) it is so self-evident that it is just Better that nobody seriously dissents. For Gurgeh, it took deep immersion in the Empire for him to begin to see the opposing viewpoint. I found it especially interesting this time through that the use of the language Marain is a key part of maintaining the CUlture self-image and world-view, and that as Gurgeh stopped using Marain he began to absorb difference.

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    Yes, it's a communist utopia. No-one wants for anything, and people are free to concentrate on the important things, like playing games, writing poetry, and hobby-building GCVs.

    On the other hand, the Minds are so far above humans (and most drones) that the people are little more than pets. The continued existence of humans is a moral decision by the Minds, not a pragmatic one.

    It's very similar to Brave New World in that people want for nothing and are appeased by having their needs met. On the other hand, there's no particular suppression of people or ideas. @RichardAbbott brings up an interesting point about how Marain may self-censor people into not wanting to rebel against the Culture.

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    There don't seem to be a lot of rules - it sounded like humans could do more or less whatever they wanted to. And yet everyone's getting along? That sounds pretty utopian. The spin that @NeilNjae puts on it that humans are basically the pets of the minds is interesting, and opens the door to this being a dystopia - but I'm not sure we can go quite that far.

    Unlike Brave New World, where it's easy to see that what we'd need to give up to create that world, and that makes it unpalatable to us, it's very had to see what we've given up to get to The Culture. So that separates the books, in my mind.

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    For me it's definitely utopian. Effectively unlimited resources makes it almost easy. And there are very few constraints on freedom. There's also plenty of art going around, and people seem able to find purposes. There's no starvation, disease, etc. and people live for centuries.

    Which makes me think SC is an internal as well as external moral point - it's something constructive for those who crave genuine risk to do.

    What's interesting is that in some ways things would need just a small twist in attitudes to be dystopian. Huge constraints on freedom would also be easy with the Minds and resources available, for instance.
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    @dr_mitch said:
    What's interesting is that in some ways things would need just a small twist in attitudes to be dystopian. Huge constraints on freedom would also be easy with the Minds and resources available, for instance.

    Especially as, as we saw with Grugeh, that it's easy for the Minds to manipulate people into behaving as the Minds would like.

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    It's actually another view of Brave New World from a fan, and it scares me... :D

    Actually it does what most post-scarcity novels do and posits this is utopia, just like post-human novels posit everyone wants to be non-human, and steampunk novels posit everyone is a British noble. Surprise! What sets it apart from the metric buttloads of post-scarcity fiction is what always sets good fiction apart. Excellent writing.

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    Yes, The Culture is definitely a utopia. People want for nothing. I love the detail that scary urban legends start with “and they left their Terminal at home” the same way ours start with “I had no cell phone reception”, because being in contact with civilization through your Terminal means that you’re almost completely safe. Two people died in what sounded like a HUGE explosion and it was the talk of the town months later, because it’s so rare.

    The Culture is kind of like an exaggeration of what life is like now for those with enough reliable income to insulate themselves from threat, except that everyone has access.

    The comparison to Star Trek is apt, as Roddenberry was also working from utopian impulses. I could definitely see Starfleet evolving into Special Circumstances over a few thousand years.

    It’s been a long, long time since I read Brave New World (I couldn’t bear to read a dystopia this year), but I seem to recall that everyone is formed to fit in their caste and only their caste in an oppressive hierarchy. Those who buck the system are exiled. Those who outlive their usefulness are euthanized. Even though everyone has lots of drugs and sex and pleasure, they have no choice. In The Culture, choice is very important, and the system values the sanctity of life, rather than seeing people as disposable. I guess you could say that The Culture is like Brave New World if everyone were alpha-double-plus.

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    It depends on what level of need you focus on in determining whether this is a utopia. At the basic levels of existence, all physical needs are met. If that’s all that matters in life, this is a utopia. But the higher levels of the hierarchy of needs are undermined, in my opinion, but the ease by which an individual’s whims can be turned into reality. The things that are important to the average person in the Culture remind me of aristocracy (whether in a feudal or capitalistic system) who engage in nothing but polite society or their own personal enrichment projects. They don’t have to struggle for anything, and they do not reach the human potential within them, even though there are no (or limited) external constraints placed in them.

    A few caveats here. I know that this doesn’t describe all aristocracy. Some devote themselves to the burdens of noblesse oblige or to the real work of governing. My comments are about a subset of aristocracy. In addition, the physical needs of the aristocracy in the real world are met by other human beings, often human beings who are dominated by the systems set in place to maintain the aristocracy. That doesn’t seem to be the case in the Culture. There’s no underclass on which an aristocracy is built. Lastly, I realize that some people who didn’t have to work for their physical needs have produced amazing art. Virginia Woolf, not aristocratic but certain bourgeois, dug down into what it means to be human even when the setting of her writing was almost always that of a middle-class family with servants who met those physical needs in question earlier. Some people (Woolf and many other bourgeois or aristocratic artists) transcend their setting, but most people do not.

    Not all players of games are of Gurgeh’s caliber; almost no one who plays games in the Culture is. And of those who are, what meaning do they derive from playing, or winning even? Meaning-making is a task inherent in the higher needs of belonging and self-actualization, an interplay between being part of a group and being oneself. Most people in the Culture seem to flit from interest to interest, from group to group, from gender to gender. This last part is not an anti-trans sentiment; contemporary trans persons express their identity; people in the Culture have no idea what their identity is.

    What do any of the activities engaged in by the average person in the Culture matter?

    ————

    On a another level, I think the Culture definitely controls its people by language that has been carefully crafted to allow certain ideas and to disallow others, not in the paring down of words like in 1984 but in the proliferation of language that conforms to the radical individualism of Culture ideology. This controls people just as much overt force and, of course, is much more insidious. I also wondered whether people have been genetically engineered to be amenable to this pleasure-seeking individualism. Not that we would need much nudge to seek pleasure. :)

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    @WildCard said:
    Not all players of games are of Gurgeh’s caliber; almost no one who plays games in the Culture is. And of those who are, what meaning do they derive from playing, or winning even? Meaning-making is a task inherent in the higher needs of belonging and self-actualization, an interplay between being part of a group and being oneself. Most people in the Culture seem to flit from interest to interest, from group to group, from gender to gender. This last part is not an anti-trans sentiment; contemporary trans persons express their identity; people in the Culture have no idea what their identity is.

    What meaning to people here-and-now derive from game playing and winning? Once basic material needs are met, what's the point in anything? I think that's one of the issues brought up by the book, about what people could or should do to make their lives have meaning. It's especially true in the Culture, where there are near-omniscient and near-omnipotent Minds. Contact is one such place, where people can make lives better for those less fortunate than themselves.

    (This just gets closer and closer to Christianity and Christian missionaries...)

    As for the gender issue, I'd like to live in a society where gender isn't a significant part of anyone's identity.

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    @WildCard that's a really interesting take. I think that is the element from which a dystopia could be drawn - the absolute ease of pretty much everything, the lack of need to struggle for, well, everything, and the corresponding lack of meaning.

    And yes, the aristocracy without having a servant class.

    For me, I think the contrasting point is that most of the people in book seem able to find their own meaning. If the absolute worst problem possible is boredom, that's pretty good going.

    It's interesting that other science fiction novels examining similar sitautions reach different conclusions and see struggle and suffering as vital and necessary. To an extent there's Brave New World, but I'm thinking more here of Asimov's last three robot novels.
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