Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #82 of 107: “A Gift from the Culture” by Iain M. Banks

I strongly disliked “A Gift from the Culture” by Iain M. Banks. Not because it’s badly written, but because the main character kills an untold number of people, and because he doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing. I also hate this story because its plot engine is so uninspiringly cliché that I picture Banks stealing it from an ancient film Noir B-movie.

Wrobik is coerced by mobsters into committing mass murder to pay off his gambling debts. The gambling debt plot motivation is as hoary as tying damsels in distress to the train tracks. But to make matters worse, this story is set within the Culture series, a fictional universe of the far future, where humans are now posthuman, and society is post-scarcity. I’ve read about Culture novels for years and thought it was a great theme. But when I tried one of the novels in the past, I was immediately put off because the plot was about assassins. I quit the novel in disgust. I hate stories about assassins.

If I read a novel about a utopia, I want to read about citizens of that utopia. I want a superior character to follow. In both tries at a Culture story, I get amoral characters. That’s why I hated this story. If you’re a science fiction writer creating a utopian future, I want stories that inspire hope, not make me think human failure is endless.

I assumed while reading “A Gift From the Culture” that Banks would find a clever way to allow Wrobik to escape his role as a mass murderer. But no, evidently Banks felt he promised his readers a spaceship shot down with a handgun and he had to deliver.

I also wondered why Wrobik just didn’t shoot the driver when Kaddus and Cruizell forced the gun on him, and then shoot Kaddus and Cruizell. If the gun can blow up a spaceship, it could blow up a mobster’s limo.

I don’t mind stories with amoral protagonists, but those stories have to justify our observations of evil in some way. There was nothing in Wrobik’s situation or personality to care about. He was weak and despicable. Nor was there anything interesting about the criminals in this story. They were so cardboard and cliché that they made the story cartoonish. Kaddus and Cruizell were no better than Snidely Whiplash. Wrobik is no Walter White.

I’ll have to keep trying to find a Culture novel I will like. I just hope they aren’t all about criminals at the edge of utopia.

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James Wallace Harris, 2/1/22

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