Jan 11 2013 12:00pm

Iain M. Banks’ Culture Novels: Star Wars For Adults?

John Bonner

A comic by Anthony John Bonner about Iain M. Banks' Culture novels: Are they Star Wars for adults?Comic artist John Bonner recently got a chance to sit down with Iain M. Banks’ newest Culture novel The Hydrogen Sonata. In this comic strip, he nails down just what it is about the Culture series that enthralls and delights him.

Every so often, comic artist John Bonner reviews books, audio, and more, then turns his reactions into a comic strip. You can check out many more of them at Bonner’s site and more of them here on


Emmet O'Brien
1. EmmetAOBrien
The novella "The State of the Art" does directly and explicitly address the Fermi paradox in the Culture universe from our perspective.
D. Bell
2. SchuylerH
It's a pretty good description of the Culture, though I don't think Banks ever quite managed to live up to his early high standard. Still, the run from Consider Phlebas until Look to Windward might be one of British SF's most significant contributions to the genre. (Then again, I am the only person who would name Look to Windward as their favorite Culture book.) Also, no love for Feersum Endjinn?
Kate Nepveu
3. katenepveu
SchuylerH, it is inevitable that as soon as you say "I'm the only one," someone else will turn up to say "No."

That is: _Look to Windward_ is my favorite Culture book too.
D. Bell
4. SchuylerH
@3: I'm not alone! There is someone else like me! (I know that Use of Weapons is objectively better, it just doesn't re-read as well...)
5. helbel
Add me to the Look To Windward fanclub too.
Emmet O'Brien
7. EmmetAOBrien
SchuylerH@4: I find Use of Weapons rereads really well, because it becomes clear how entirely fair he was playing in setting up the ending in plain sight.

Look to Windward felt to me like Banks had spent a while browsing through online discussions of the Culture and felt the urge to set a few minor misconceptions straight and defend a number of political points from earlier books, loosely wrapped in a novel. It's probably the one I like least. I've not yet read Hydrogen Sonata, but if it follows the upward trend through Matter and Surface Detail I have high hopes for it.
D. Bell
8. SchuylerH
@7: I think The Hydrogen Sonata is most like Surface Detail. The plotting isn't as strong as its predecessor but its depiction of the Gzilt civilisation (which never quite made it to full Culture-level status) is very interesting and there's quite a lot of backstory about how the Culture came to be.
9. Eric Saveau
I cried my heart out at the end of Look To Windward. Literally sat in my chair and silently wept. It was one of the most moving climaxes to a written work of fiction I've ever encountered.
David Lomax
10. dlomax
@SchuylerH: I've decided I'm just not smart enough to have a favourite Culture novel. I love them all. It may be that some don't add up to wholes that are as pleasing as others, but while I'm reading, I'm always having a good time. I think of reading a Culture novel as getting to be a tourist in a universe that's always got a plethora of new sights with which to astonish me. I end up so mind-blown at the end of it all, that I can't evaluate.

I don't have that relationship to his non-Culture novels. I thought Dead Air was very weak, for example, and I loved Whit and The Crow Road to pieces.
Kate Nepveu
11. katenepveu
EmmetAOBrien, the last time I re-read _Use of Weapons_ I didn't agree with you (oblique spoilers, ROT13'ed: V sryg gur obbx jnagrq zr gb zvfgnxr bzavfpvrag sbe yvzvgrq-guveq, bgurejvfr vg qvqa'g jbex), but really I'm commenting to say ack, I'm _three_ Culture books behind now? Drat, I thought it was only two. Man, I gotta get me some more reading time.
D. Bell
12. SchuylerH
@9: I know exactly how you feel.

@10: Specifically, it's about being a lost tourist. You don't visit the standard destinations and where you're going, there won't be crowds. And yet, unlike so many other SF series, I feel I've been to Schar's World and the Masaq' Orbital. I've seen antimatter annihilate in the inside of Sursamen and intrige in the courts of Haspidus. Of all the sights, how could you ever forget these?

It's notable how many of his books have the "stranger in a strange land" to guide you through it: Isis Whit and Bora Horza Gobuchul are two of the best examples.
Kristoff Bergenholm
13. Magentawolf
Look to Windward was my first Culture book, which makes it my second-favorite novel. The first is still Excession, which always seems to get a bad rap.
Soon Lee
14. SoonLee
"Look to Windward" is also one of my favourites; don't know if I can choose just one. And I'm finding he's found his mojo with his more recent ones; I enjoyed "The Hydrogen Sonata" a great deal.

dlomax @10: I agree that "Dead Air" is one of his weakest. It might have been written too soon after 9/11.

Is it just me or is Banks more appreciated outside of the US?
Soon Lee
15. SoonLee
Magentawolf @13: "Excession" seems to polarise opinion. For me it's one of his best.
D. Bell
16. SchuylerH
@14: i think there are two reasons:

1: Banks is a commited socialist and many of the political themes in his work are the left-wing reaction to the explicitly libertarian ethos of Heinlein, Anderson, Niven et al.

2: Additionally, the Culture is pure space opera and the US market tends to demand at least a veneer of Hard SF. (By contrast, Charlie Stross tends to at least look like Hard SF.)

As such, while the British market snaps up his books, it can be a hard sell in America. (As it happens, there is a right-wing libertarian reaction to the Culture, Neal Asher's Polity stories, the first of which was published (by Tor I believe) in 2001. In my experience, it's like Niven and Pournelle's version of the Culture.)

@13 and 15: While Excession isn't a favorite of mine, I don't really understand the dislike. It deserved its BSFA.
For my part, I confess an attachment to Player of Games as well as Use of Weapons and Excession; the first Culture novel I read was Consider Phlebas and as a result I considered changing my name to Bora Horza Gobuchil or Perosteck Balveda ...

Internationsl Secret Conspiracy for the Oppression of Teddybears ISCOT
18. CA
And it can even be read with a political lens.
See for example Yannick Rumpala, Artificial intelligences and political organization: an exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks, Technology in Society, Volume 34, Issue 1, 2012,
(Free older version available at: )
19. a1ay
As it happens, there is a right-wing libertarian reaction to the Culture, Neal Asher's Polity stories

...really? I admit I've only read a few of them but they don't seem anti-Culture to me. Extending the Line of Polity to cover a new world is a good thing for the inhabitants, and Polity are, more or less, the good guys. Or have I been misreading them?
20. a1ay
"Excession" seems to polarise opinion. For me it's one of his best.

It's good, but... too many notes characters, Herr Banks, too many characters.
D. Bell
21. SchuylerH
@19: I didn't mean that they were anti-Culture in the slightest. As Asher explained, his only real intellectual problem with the Culture was that the average inhabitant of the Culture couldn't hope to achieve Mind status, so in the Polity he let his human characters have the ability to become Polity Drones as well. That's the main difference. A couple of the first contact bits are more The Mote in God's Eye than the Culture normal, but, in all fairness, it was the Prador who commenced hostilities, not the Polity.
lake sidey
23. lakesidey
Player of Games was the first one I read, and my favourite so far (not that I have yet read one I didn't like, but I have a lot left to read!)

Bruce Cohen
24. SpeakerToManagers
Excession was my first Culture novel, and I still love it well, but my favorite (not by a lot, given Inversions, but still ...) is Look To Windward. I also cry at the end; just can't help it.

The thing I like most about Excession, and The Hydrogen Sonata as well, is how they show the way that the Minds think about their relationship to the rest of the Culture, and how they go about dealing with each other.

And yes, here is some love for Feersum Endjinn, which was the first Banks novel I read. I was very impressed with the way he handled the descriptions and plot points in a post-post Singularity world.
25. Ian Lev
what other authors besides Neal Asher might interest an Iain M. Banks fan?

maybe i should try some of the non-M "Iain Banks" books?
do they hint of the M even though they are "not sci fi" ?
('Transition' was sold as non-M in england..)

or maybe a good question is:
what Iain M. Banks books should one read *again*, ten years on ?

the Mind of Iain M. Banks makes the lens of other writerminds seem kinda small or dull or wrongheaded.. and it has been very hard to find any recommendations of something that "someone who likes IMB" might "like" (ie, find as worthy of a week of lifetime)..

or maybe a "fantasy" author... ?

i'd like to find myself saying.. "dang, wish i had read THIS twenty years ago"
26. a1ay
what other authors besides Neal Asher might interest an Iain M. Banks fan?

If you are into space opera, Big Dumb Objects etc, then Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space books. If you like the left-wing faintly military SF slant, then Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution series (he's a friend of IMB, Use of Weapons is dedicated to him) or Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon and Broken Angels.
D. Bell
27. SchuylerH
@25: I'm going to second @26. Here's some more, all Culture influences:

M. John Harrison: A writer of dark, fractured anti-space opera (The Centauri Device, Light) and cynical anti-fantasy (A Storm of Wings). He's something of an acquired taste though.

Barrington J. Bayley: A major if not often recognised influence on modern British space opera, characterised by a high level of inventiveness and a rather cynical view of the universe. His most substained novel is probably the Vancean space opera The Garments of Caean, his best book is probably his collection The Knights of the Limits.

Ursula Le Guin: In a similar zone to Banks for characterisation and, particularly, politics. Her "Hainish" civilization seen in The Left Hand of Darkness could be called a "proto-Culture" and The Dispossessed is a significant study of the nature of utopia.

Samuel R. Delany: An author of space opera that is inventive in a literary dimension. Babel-17 and Empire Star are particularly fine but for sheer exuberance I recommend Nova.

Vernor Vinge: You don't get much higher-tech than A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky.

Other authors of potential interest include: Brian Aldiss, Alfred Bester, Jorge Luis Borges, John Brunner, Arthur C. Clarke, Alasdair Gray, Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Aldous Huxley, Franz Kafka, Michael Moorcock, Larry Niven, Jeff Noon, Kim Stanley Robinson, Dan Simmons, John Sladek, Olaf Stapledon, Kurt Vonnegut, Ian Watson and Gene Wolfe.

Here's Banks's top ten SF novels:

1. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (Robert A. Heinlen)
2. Tiger! Tiger! (aka The Stars My Destination) (Alfred Bester)
3. Hyperion (Dan Simmons)
4. A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge)
5. Neuromancer (William Gibson)
6. The Dispossessed (Ursula K. Le Guin)
7. The Müller-Fokker Effect (John Sladek)
8. The Pastel City (M. John Harrison)
9. Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner)
10. Babel-17 (Samuel R. Delany)

There is some SF in the non-M. About a third of Walking on Glass is set in the far future and perhaps his best novel, The Bridge, has several SF elements. The Business, arguably, is a Culture novel set on Earth.

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