This mini-site serves as companion to Moonbound, the new novel by Robin Sloan, coming from MCD×FSG in June 2024.

Muscular imagination

A future you might actually want to live in

When I peer into the far reaches of science fictional imag­i­na­tion, way out beyond the easy extrap­o­la­tions and consensus futures, beyond the Blade Runners and the Star Treks, the name that looms largest is Iain M. Banks.

For those unfa­miliar with his work in this genre, I’ll tell you a little bit about the Culture novels and recommend a reading approach. Then, for Banks beginners and devoted Culturephiles alike, I’ll explain why his future means so much to me.

What is the Culture? A civilization. An agreement. The subject of a collec­tion of books, written across decades, which offer clues and suggestions, glances and reflections. A big part of the fun of reading those books is assem­bling your own mosaic. Here’s mine:

The Culture is a spacefaring, free­wheeling admixture of anarchism and socialism. In most ways, it promises its citizens radical, breath­taking freedom … but in a few other ways, it requires their submission — to super­human systems of planning and manufacture, the Culture’s ineffable Minds.

The Culture is a utopia: a future you might actually want to live in. It offers a coherent political vision. This isn’t subtle or allegorical; on the page, citizens of the Culture very frequently artic­u­late and defend their values. (Their enthu­siasm for their own politics is consid­ered annoying by most other civilizations.)

Coherent political vision doesn’t require a lot, just some sense of “this is what we ought to do”, yet it is absent from plenty of science fiction that dwells only in the realm of the cautionary tale.

I don’t have much patience left for that genre. I mean … we have been, at this point, amply cautioned.

Vision, on the other hand: I can’t get enough.

How to read the Culture

The Culture novels aren’t connected by an over­ar­ching plot, and there is no canonical reading order. For all my appreciation: I have not even read all of them! If you search online, you’ll find plenty of proposed approaches.

Here is mine, which is unorthodox; call it a recipe for enjoying the Culture. It proceeds in three stages:

A Few Notes on the Culture is, for me, THE thrilling Culture document. It helps that it’s this odd sort of web samizdat — you are always reading a mirrored copy on some random website. The original was posted to a Usenet newsgroup in 1994!

I should say, I don’t generally love “raw worldbuilding” of this kind — RPG source­book material. This document is a brilliant exception, because the ideas are so big, so fresh, and so confi­dently artic­u­lated; and of course because it’s Iain M. Banks behind them, his voice inimitable, wry and winning.

Why not begin with A Few Notes on the Culture, if it’s so great? Well, it IS raw worldbuilding, and even the best exemplar of that genre benefits from narrative context. Read it on its own, and it’s a wonky thought experiment. Read it after a couple of novels, and it’s a backstage pass.

You ought to meet a character or two — hear from a few of the rollicking Minds, learn their wonderful names — before you go behind the curtain.

Why to read the Culture

There are, in science fiction, several close peers to Iain M. Banks, at least in terms of the scale of their storytelling. I think in partic­ular of Olaf Stapledon, his Last and First Men, which gallops across millions of years; and of Cixin Liu, his series starting with The Three-Body Problem, which bumps up against the death of the universe. I like both of these authors, but/and their futures are cold and grim. You wouldn’t call either one utopia.

So, I suppose it’s not just the scale of Iain M. Banks’s stories that I want to praise, but their warmth. His megas­truc­tures overflow with weird char­ac­ters pursuing inter­esting projects. Their voices are ironic and funny.

There’s no utopia without irony and humor; this fact really narrows the field.

In my novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, the ambitious and brilliant Kat Potente asks:

“Have you ever played Maximum Happy Imagination?”

“Sounds like a Japanese game show,” I replied.

Kat straightens her shoulders. “Okay, we’re going to play. To start, imagine the future. The good future. No nuclear bombs. Pretend you’re a science fiction writer.”

Okay: “World government … no cancer … hover-boards.”

“Go further. What’s the good future after that?”

“Spaceships. Party on Mars.”


“Star Trek. Transporters. You can go anywhere.”


I pause a moment, then realize: “I can’t.”

Kat shakes her head. “It’s really hard. And that’s, what, a thousand years? What comes after that? What could possibly come after that? Imag­i­na­tion runs out. But it makes sense, right? We probably just imagine things based on what we already know, and we run out of analogies in the thirty-first century.”

I’m trying hard to imagine an average day in the year 3012. I can’t even come up with a half-decent scene. Will people live in buildings? Will they wear clothes? My imag­i­na­tion is almost physically straining.

Fingers of thought are raking the space behind the cushions, looking for loose ideas, finding nothing.

I have often described imag­i­na­tion as a muscle — one that, like any other muscle, can be developed.

Steady exposure to Star Trek gives you a minor workout, for sure; the bump of an imag­i­na­tive bicep. But there’s much further to go. You can read your way into some of it, and some of it, you have to dream up for yourself.

Even among elite athletes, there must be titans: Schwarzeneg­gers striding across the stage. (I conjure body­builders because I like the idea of these imag­i­na­tive muscles BULGING.) Iain M. Banks, who died in 2013, way too young, was Mr. Universe. Here was a great writer, sure; but here was an imag­i­na­tion unmatched.

He simply pushed further and thought bigger.

For me, the Culture is the standard, so, for a long time, the challenge has been implicit: can you, Sloan, imagine on that scale? And not just technically, but humanely — with warmth and irony?

I don’t get to Culture scale in Moonbound, but the plan — and there is a plan — is to ratchet up book by book, so my notional trilogy can culminate in a feat that takes seriously the scale of the universe, as we now understand it.

It’s easier to write the defeat than the victory, isn’t it? Easier to write the failure than the success. For some reason, the success seems like it might be … boring.

Iain M. Banks shows us the Culture harnessing matter and energy on incred­ible scales. He tells us that citizens of the Culture live for hundreds of years; that death is generally a choice. In these books, the Culture basically always wins!

At first glance, this seems fatal to plot. Endless energy, immortality … aren’t these the GOALS of the story? Are we just talking about heaven here? Heaven: which ought to be occluded, unknowable, unsayable. Heaven: because it’s boring.

Turns out, no, it’s not boring at all. Plot gallops on, even at the outer limits of matter and energy. Even at the far reaches of freedom, the stories are only just beginning.

In the writerly reticence to dramatize abundance, I detect humility — it requires serious imag­i­na­tive muscle, beyond what most folks are working with — and I detect also cowardice. What if my utopia isn’t good enough? What if I say, “this is gonna be so great”, and readers reply, “eh, doesn’t sound that great”?

Easier to conjure some tyrant machines, some fast-spreading plagues. Everybody can agree on those.

Plenty of readers might indeed read the Culture novels and say, “eh, doesn’t sound that great”. The point is, there is something here to inspect, and consider, and, sure, even reject. In these novels, Iain M. Banks hoists the imag­i­na­tive burden. He twirls it in the air. His muscles bulge. It’s amazing to behold.

P.S. Culturephiles will note I’ve mentioned only obiquely the Culture’s greatest aesthetic bounty, the names of its ships. That’s because they are actually not funny or inter­esting until you step inside the magic circle of the books, and begin to intuit the rules of the game. Of course, after you’ve read one or two Culture novels, learning new ship names becomes a large and growing fraction of the fun!

First published: March 2024
Last updated:  June 2024