The last time I had anything of length to say about the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks, I remarked with regard to Consider Phlebas, Player of Games, Use of Weapons, and the novella The State of the Art that “one of these four works is, in my opinion, Banks’s finest; which one and why I think so is a matter for another, longer examination.” Well, the time has come for that longer examination and … I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a little while longer for the details. But I hope to make it worth your while.
Over the next several months (well in to 2019 and possibly beyond, if I’m honest, given a biweekly publishing schedule and novels that get increasingly doorstop-like as we progress), I’ll be making my way through the Culture novels, in order of publication. We’ll kick things off properly in two weeks, but before we begin, I thought I’d launch with a little background on the series and why I love it, and some remarks on how I’ll be going about this.
The first published Culture novel was Consider Phlebas in 1987, though Banks had made an earlier stab at writing a Culture story in the 1970s, with a draft of a novel that would eventually be shaped into 1990’s Use of Weapons. At the time of Phlebas’s publication, he had already made a splash with the memorably upsetting non-SF novel The Wasp Factory, and until his death in 2013, he would publish with hair-raising regularity and speed; he left us with nine Culture novels and a collection of stories, as well as a brace of non-Culture SF novels and an entire body of non-SF work published as “Iain Banks”, sans the M.
Of the Culture’s origins, Banks, in an interview with Jude Roberts published at Strange Horizons, said, “Partly it was in reaction to a lot of the SF I was reading at the time. The British stuff mostly seemed a bit miserablist and the US’s too right wing. I wanted SF that combined what I regarded as the best of both: the thoughtfulness and sense of proportion of the UK’s and the energy and optimism of the US brand.” Earlier, in an interview with Spike magazine, Banks had also claimed that, “It’s basically a lot of wish fulfilment, I write about all the things I would like to have … I’d had enough of the right-wing US science fiction, so I decided to take it to the left. It’s based around my belief that we can live in a better way, that we have to. So I created my own leftist/liberal world.” I rather think Banks sells himself a little short here. If the Culture novels were simply about the pleasures of a post-scarcity socialist utopia, they’d have gotten really boring, really quickly.
There’s no denying that Banks’s sympathies and ideals lie with the Culture—he says as much in the Roberts interview: “let’s face it; La Culture: c’est moi.” But the complexities of his project are readily apparent from the start. Consider Phlebas doesn’t begin within the Culture, or even with their allies—the protagonist is an agent for a different spacefaring civilization that is at devastating interplanetary war with the Culture. Our first glimpse of Banks’s utopia is through the eyes of someone deeply skeptical of it, who finds their entire civilization to be soft, suspect, and far too dependent on the artificial intelligences that, he suspects, run the show to the detriment of the Culture’s humans. (In the Roberts interview, he self-deprecatingly claims that this was bending over backwards to present the opposing view, but I’d argue that his having done so actually makes his worldbuilding more effective. More on this in the coming weeks.)
To live within the Culture, if you take Banks at his word, is to be comfortable, to have the freedom to pursue your interests without the burden of financial dependence, to be treated equally regardless of gender or biology, and to never be exploited. But how does such a civilization sustain itself? How does it react to opposition? How does discontent manifest in a setting in which opposition is simply another valid point of view? What is your responsibility to others whose lives are subject to authoritarian rule, famine, disease, or other hardships, and how do you fulfill that responsibility without becoming a colonizer?
A few years back, Mordicai Knode remarked here that the Culture’s answer is to essentially turn the Prime Directive inside-out; interference in civilizations with the potential for improvement is treated as a moral necessity. This is the zone where the Culture, to a writer and to a reader, becomes truly interesting. Thus, the Culture novels chiefly involve the arm of the Culture known as Contact, and particularly the subsection called Special Circumstances, a dirty-tricks organization that puts any real world spy organization in the shade. Here is where the ethics of the Culture’s philosophies become grey; here is where its very structure can be interrogated. The Culture way of life, it’s argued, is a net good—but, Banks suggests through his stories, the citizens of such a society must always examine the costs of how they got there and how they sustain themselves; they are obligated by their privilege to help those less fortunate, but in going about it, the answer to “what is permissible” is rarely clear-cut, and there are always consequences.
These ideas can get very heavy, but of course, Banks is also funny. The Ship names are practically legendary among SF readers (just ask a Banks fan about the “Gravitas” running gag), and the dialogue and narration sparks with jokes and humor that can be delightfully dry or shockingly dark. And Banks probably delivers more eyeball kicks per chapter than some writers manage in entire novels. His imagination is capacious; little ideas that might spawn whole other novels are mentioned in an aside and let go in the next chapter. A Culture novel may be excessively twisty, or rambly, or long, but there is always something exciting to be found, something you probably haven’t read or thought of before. And—one should note—some of it can be absolutely nightmare-inducing. Just wait until we get to Fwi-Song in Consider Phlebas, or the identity of the Chairmaker in Use of Weapons.
All of these factors are what make the Culture novels classics—this unusually heady blend of politics, philosophy, psychological drama, humor, and sheer imagination, all wrapped up in truly excellent prose. And there’s so much more to discuss; I haven’t even mentioned the intriguing complexities of gender in the Culture novels, for instance. Over the coming months, I’m looking forward to discussing all of these things, exploring how Banks develops his themes through his novels, and just generally sharing my love of these books. Each post will tackle two to four chapters at a time; depending on the structure of a given book, I’ll adjust my approach as necessary. (I already know that I’ll be taking on Use of Weapons in two-chapter segments, for instance.) There will probably be some spoilers mixed in there, though if you happen to be reading the Culture novels for the first time alongside my re-read, I’ll try to be circumspect.
So join me here again in two weeks, when we dive into Consider Phlebas, and wade into the Culture’s war with the Idirans. I hope you enjoy it.
Karin Kross was introduced to the Culture novels by her husband, who she met by way of a shared affection for William Gibson and Jane Austen. This is clearly proof that all good relationships should be founded on shared love of literature. She can be found elsewhere on Twitter and Tumblr.