5 things that can go HORRIBLY wrong adapting The Culture


I don’t consider myself a true fan of many things, but I am an unapologetic Iain (M) Banks fanboy.

Which is an easy thing to be. Banks is a brilliant, brilliant writer. A storyteller in the class of Neil Gaiman, with the muscular prose abilities of J G Ballard, and the conceptual imagination of an Asimov or Le Guin. I read his Culture books in my teens, his literary novels in my twenties, and re-read nearly all of them in my thirties. Just this year I’ve been working my way through Peter Kenny’s spot on audio adaptations.

So, like all true fans, I’m a little worried by news of a tv adaptation. Banks was fairly outspoken about his decision not to allow movie or tv adaptations of the Culture novels. I totally respect any decision his estate makes on this, and nobody doubts Amazon have the cash to make it happen? But do they have the skill, creativity and imagination?

How many ways could a Culture tv adaptation go wrong? Let us count the ways.

Even when they are good, tv special effects aren’t cinema grade. Shows like Altered Carbon get a lot of positive feedback, but to me they still seem second rate. The Culture is a VERY visually demanding universe. Can tv sfx do justice to a 30 km long General Systems Vehicle? Or a ringworld / Orbital?

On this score I expect the answer is: yes. Amazon have money to burn, and to pay for the very best.

Banks was a truly great novelist. Adaptations of his writing have been fair to middling at best. Great prose fiction is very hard to adapt. Books like Game of Thrones adapt well in part because their limited writing style means not much is lost in the transition. Can Bezos put a team in place with the skills to adapt Banks?

On this second point I also think the answer is yes. The Culture books are Banks at his most cinematic, there’s plenty to put on screen here.

The Culture are a pan-human civilization who can look however they want. But their standard appearance, from Banks occasional descriptions, is brown skinned. Whitewashing is a real thing, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels have been victim of it, and it’s very possible that Banks creation could suffer it as well.

The adaptation of Consider Phlebas may sidestep this, because the Culture appear only at the edges of the story. Bigger picture, I suspect in the post Black Panther era, that any ongoing Culture series will at least address race intelligently.

The Culture are, as standard, bisexual, transgender, polyamorous, and totally open to any kind of sexual activity as long as nobody gets hurt…unless they want to. They’re almost permanently high on an exotic cocktails of drugs, and frequently engage in trans-species sex that would make a Welsh sheep farmer blush. They are, in short, conservative America’s worst nightmare. Will Amazon put the kinky Culture on screen?

I think the answer here is: probably yes. In fact I suspect Amazon will go all out to one up HBO and make a show that pushes all the bouandaries of what is acceptable for tv audiences.

Iain Banks wrote in a tradition, strong in the UK, of science fiction authors who had a pugilistic relationship to the genre. Consider Phlebas is really an anti-space opera. The macho agent-on-a-mission hero is a bit of a piss take. He’s on the wrong side, he makes terrible decisions, and his mission is utterly futile. Many readers bounce off Phlebas because of this. It’s an ironic satire of space opera, that goes out of its way to poke fun at the genre’s core conceits.

I have a terrible feeling that this is the point any Amazon adaptation is very, very likely to fail on. And even if they bravely present Bank’s full, irony laden vision on the screen, I fear a big chunk of the tv audience won’t appreciate it.


I think Amazon are the best people for this job. I look forward to details of casting and the production team, for hints of answers to my questions above. And I’m willing to give everybody involved the benefit of the doubt…until Consider Phlebas hits the small screen.

I tell stories about the future, technology and culture. Published by The Guardian, WIRED, BBC etc.

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