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August 20, 2010

Review: Iain M. Banks' Culture Novels

Posted by on Aug 20, 2010

Enormous centripetal-force ring worlds.  Religiously-inspired multi-species alien societies.  Snarky droids and ship-board A.I.s.  Now stop: after reading all that, what came to your mind first? Halo, right?  In fact, Iain M. Banks already incorporated all of those ideas into his first sci-fi book, Consider Phlebas, 14 years before Halo.  This post isn’t so much a review of Banks’ work as it is an exhortation to read a fantastic sci-fi series.

Hit the jump if you want more convincing (you know you do).

Banks has written a LOT of books.  He publishes his non sci-fi work under the name Iain Banks – there’s some quirky trivia I’m sure you’ll love.  Many, but not all, of his sci-fi books are set in the world of the Culture, and these are the books I have been reading and absolutely loving recently.  In his novels, a human society (though not Earth’s humanity) has developed into a large group known simply as the Culture: they can make anything so poverty doesn’t exist, they have no governing body other than the A.I. Minds which monitor each ship, planet, or other installation, they exist within a large part of the galaxy, and they generally behave as a socialist anarchist society.

The one exception to that last trait would be Special Circumstances, the military/covert department of Contact, the group responsible for exploring the galaxy and interacting with newly-discovered societies.  Special Circumstances, or SC, is known as the “dirty tricks” department, since they are often used to manipulate other societies into cooperating with the Culture.  The inherent contradiction of such a department within an anarchist society is commented upon frequently within the books, and creates a large amount of the dramatic tension.  Special Circumstances is also frequently featured in the books, since they are mostly about the Culture’s interaction with other societies.  This makes sense, since reading solely about a utopian society would probably get boring rather quickly.

The books I have read so far are Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, Excession, and The State of the Art, the last being a collection of short stories, some of which are about the Culture.  Consider Phlebas is a great first book, since the main character is actually a mercenary fighting for a society engaged in a large war against the Culture.  The reader actually approaches the Culture first from an outsider’s perspective, and an antagonistic one at that.  In The Player of Games, SC sends the main character to play in a large tournament game in a society that might soon be considering an attack on the Culture.  This society is dominated by the game, so much so that the winner of the tournament actually becomes the ruler of the society.  Use of Weapons has an extremely interesting narrative structure.  The first chapter marks the starting point for the story of the main character, and the following chapters alternate between moving backwards and forwards in the character’s story, so that as you move further forward in one chapter, you move further backward in the next and learn more about the character’s history.  The twist ending is also quite excellent.

I could go on and on about these books, but I won’t.  They contain some amazing ideas, which is really the necessary element for great sci-fi.  What really sets Banks apart for me is his ability to be objective.  When I say that, what I mean is that he manages to never tip his hand in favor of any one group or position.  These books are about the Culture, but they are neither for nor against a society with the Culture’s ideals and traits.  In every moment, every debate, Banks simply lets the conflict happen, and still invests both sides with a great deal of emotion and energy.  He somehow inspects these people and events with the precision and unbiased viewpoint of a scientist observing a sample under a microscope, but the drama still touches you and the action is still visceral and real.  Honestly, in almost any other work, it is possible to determine where the author’s sympathies lie.  In Banks’ Culture series, though, he is like a deistic god who has set his universe in motion and simply lets it proceed as it will, without concern or comment.