Iain Banks (1954-2013) was a Scottish writer of fiction. For publishing purposes, he chose to divide his works into two streams - 'mainstream' fiction was published under the name Iain Banks without a middle initial, while science fiction was published as Iain M Banks1 with an 'M'.
Banks' science fiction is very highly regarded. It is hard science fiction, where the impact of new science and technology on humanity is discussed in great detail. All this is set against a background of space, megastructures, artificial intelligence and virtual worlds. It has been described as a return to the Golden Age of Science Fiction. It's also a very enjoyable read.
Most of Banks' science fiction books are in a setting where the galaxy's most important and prominent civilisation is the 'Culture'. The inhabitants of the Culture are human-like, although they do not appear to be our descendants2. The Culture is by most people's standards an idyllic place; poverty, hunger and illness have been abolished. It is often described as a 'post-scarcity society', in that people have an unlimited supply of anything they want. Advances in technology allow people to live as long as they like and to do whatever they want.
Civilisation has adopted a live-and-let-live attitude – as long as what you want to do harms no one else, you are free to do it. There are many other civilisations in the galaxy, some the technological equals of the Culture, but most still struggling along the path towards the same goal. While the Culture officially leaves them alone to arrive at their own destiny, in fact it is constantly prodding the other societies, trying to ensure particular outcomes, often with disastrous results. In this respect the Culture can be likened to modern America in its habit of interfering in the running of 'less civilised' countries around it.
Features of the Culture
Technology has advanced to the point where people can have whatever they want. Nobody is short of food, living space or material possessions. If someone wants a million square miles of savanna occupied by herds of wildebeest and a mansion made of diamond to live in, then the machines of the Culture can easily produce this for them.
Since anyone can have anything they want, the political systems of the past have disappeared and have been replaced by a form of anarchy in which people do what they want. Everyone is equal.
Despite this, the people of the Culture will unite if there is an attack on the Culture by another civilisation - the first book in the Culture series takes place during a war between the Culture and a super-military race called the Idirans. The Idirans are surprised to find that the anarchic and apparently soft Culture will fight hard for its principles of equality and freedom. All the later books take place after the Culture/Idiran war and mark it as an important point in the Culture's self-image.
The people of the Culture like to live in space - some permanently travel on huge spaceships. Others live on constructed worlds in space - the 'orbital' is a common Culture habitat. It is similar to a small ringworld. A number of massive rectangular plates are strung together into a ring which is spun around its axis to provide artificial gravity on the inside of the ring3. There's usually a structure known as the 'hub' at the centre of the circle where the administration of the orbital is carried out by machines. An orbital will orbit a star in the same way as a planet does, the centre of the orbital tracing a circular or elliptical orbit around the star. An orbital like this provides living space for billions of people.
Due to advanced medical techniques, people are no longer subject to disease or any form of physical ailment. They can have themselves surgically altered to look any way they like, can change from male to female or vice versa and can add extra limbs if they think they might need them. Although most bodies only survive about 400 years even with this advanced medicine, people can have their personality and memories transferred to a newly-grown young body so they can effectively live forever.
Computers have progressed to the point where artificial intelligence is commonplace. This comes in a few different levels:
Spacesuits, shuttlecraft, weapons, houses, etc, have a low level of intelligence and can carry on simple conversations with their owners on a limited range of topics.
Drones are robots, usually slightly smaller than humans, with antigravity technology which allows them to float around. They are as intelligent as humans or slightly more so and are considered to have the same rights as humans: they are full citizens of the Culture. Drones tend to be more serious than humans and lack a sense of humour. Their disapproval of all things frivolous provides humour to the stories.
Minds are the ultimate thinking machines. They have a level of intelligence millions of times that of humans, have vast memories and are connected into a multi-dimensional universe where they can extract energy from the 'energy grid', so they don't need to worry about staying alive. The Minds are god-like beings who can manipulate the universe in ways humans cannot even conceive. They are usually put in control of spaceships so that they can move around wherever they want, but some choose to be the controllers of orbitals, living at the hub and seeing everything that happens on their world. Some Minds create robots called 'avatars' which act as a human-like representation of the Mind, allowing humans to talk to them as if they were people. Although Minds are far superior to humans, they are grateful to humanity for having created them, so they treat humans as equals and look after them.
Contact and Special Circumstances
While the Culture doesn't have anything like a central government, it does have a sort of Civil Service called 'Contact' whose purpose is to supervise and co-ordinate all contact between the Culture and other civilisations. The Culture doesn't officially fight in wars any more since the end of the Culture/Idiran war - they have a general principle that they don't use their advanced technology against more primitive civilisations. But there's nothing to stop Contact from hiring mercenaries from other civilisations to fight in their own wars.
'Special Circumstances' (or just SC) is the branch of Contact where the special agents work - they carry out secret missions to influence the other societies, interfering in wars, swaying public opinion to topple governments, and generally ensuring that the Culture comes out on top in any inter-civilisational contact. SC agents always have the latest and coolest technology, including 'knife missiles', which are are intelligent weapons about the size of a breadknife, which can fly, cut things, fire miniature fusion or matter-antimatter bombs and run rings around their opponents, all in the name of self-defence of the SC agents.
Grotesque and Gruesome
Banks has a sense of humour and many of his books, both mainstream and science fiction, are very funny. But he mixes the humour with a grotesque and gruesome element. This can be very off-putting. It's probably at its most extreme in his first science fiction book, Consider Phlebas, and his penultimate one, Surface Detail. You may find that his books are not for you.
There are ten 'Culture' books. Eight of these are clearly set in the universe of the Culture. One book, Inversions, is ostensibly about a primitive world similar to Mediæval Europe and has the feel of a 'swords-and-sorcery' fantasy book. There are clear hints, however, that two of the characters in the book are from the Culture. The remaining book, The State of the Art, is a collection of short stories, some of which are or may be about the Culture. Included in this collection is the novella of the same name, 'The State of the Art', which outlines the Culture's relationship to Earth and our civilisation.
1. Consider Phlebas (1987)
The story is set during the Culture/Idiran war. Horza is a mercenary hired by the Idirans to go into neutral territory and capture a Culture Mind. Its ship has crash-landed and is incapacitated. The Idirans hope to use the Mind against the Culture. Horza is a shape-changer so he can impersonate a Culture human and get past the security checks into the neutral territory. Along the way, many aspects of the Culture are introduced, including Special Circumstances, orbitals, the giant spaceships and the Minds.
There's one grotesque, stomach-churning episode involving cannibalism which could quite easily be omitted without affecting the plot, although it does bring home the point that absolutely anything is allowed in the Culture.
2. The Player of Games (1988)
Gurgeh is an expert at board and card games of every sort. During a high-profile game he is playing, a drone 'accidentally' reveals to him some information which allows him to cheat in an important game. The drone then uses evidence of this cheating to blackmail him. He is forced onto a Special Circumstances mission: the Empire of Azad is negotiating to join the Culture, and their entire society revolves around game-playing. He must go and compete with the best of them in a competition for a prize he doesn't understand.
3. Use of Weapons (1990)
This book deals with the subject of the Culture hiring mercenaries to fight in wars taking place in other civilisations whose outcomes might affect the Culture. Zakalwe is one such mercenary. He fights to the best of his ability, but not always on the winning side. Sometimes his actions cause the side he is on to lose their war, but it turns out that this is what the Culture intended.
The structure of the book is unusual - there's a central, terrible act which someone has carried out. The book tells the story as a sequence of scenes leading up to this act in chronological order, interleaved with a series of flashbacks from long after the event, each one going back further towards the event. We're kept guessing all the way until the end.
4. The State of the Art (1991)
This is an enjoyable set of short stories, most of them fairly grotesque. Some of them may be set in the world of the Culture. The eponymous novella, 'The State of the Art', tells of how the Culture discovered Earth in the 1970s and sent down Contact agents in disguise before deciding whether to allow Earth to join the Culture or not.
5. Excession (1996)
This is the book which really introduces the Minds as characters. It also introduces civilisations outside of the Culture which are technologically equivalent: the Elench, who explore the galaxy and adapt themselves to whatever they find, and the Affront, who like to kill, maim and torture, all in the name of a bit of fun.
A strange object known as the Excession appears from another dimension. (The name Excession is given to it because it exceeds normal physical descriptions in many ways). In appearance it is a large, black sphere. It defies all attempts to investigate it, but appears to be extremely powerful. Various parties try to get control of the Excession - the Elench and the Affront are certainly interested in it, and there is a conspiracy by a group of Minds to use it to take control of the Culture, or possibly they are attempting something else entirely: Banks delights in leaving many things unexplained, allowing the readers to make assumptions, then changing everything with a sudden, unexpected plot twist.
There's also the story of a reclusive woman living alone in a tower by the sea. But the tower, the seashore and the sea are all within a giant spaceship which is controlled by an equally reclusive Mind. This may or may not have something to do with the conspiracy.
6. Inversions (1998)
Set in a mediæval world where kings have absolute authority and where knights in armour fight with swords, a man and a woman each try to bring a bit of rationality to the world. It is strongly hinted that they are Culture Special Circumstances agents. The man acts as a bodyguard to a king, protecting him from assassination. He tries to improve the standard of security in the kingdom in which he lives, causing it to become one of the major kingdoms of the world. The woman works as a doctor, trying always to improve the standard of medicine in the world, gradually bringing it from a collection of old wives' tales to a science. Each has a different approach, but each pushes society slowly towards a point where it can eventually come into contact with the Culture, a task that is clearly going to take centuries.
7. Look to Windward (2000)
The Mind in charge of Masaq' Orbital is unhappy. Many years before, it fought in the Idiran War. It was responsible for the destruction of an entire enemy planet with everybody on it and still feels guilty, despite the fact that this action saved the lives of countless other innocent people. The Mind decides to hold a ceremony to commemorate the dead, and invites many people to it, including Ziller, a cynical renegade Chelgrian composer who has defected to the Culture from his home planet of Chel.
Meanwhile, a young Chelgrian, Major Quilan, bears a grudge against the Culture. He lost his wife in a civil war due to interference by the Culture and blames them for his wife's death. He volunteers for a secret mission to attend the commemoration ceremony, nominally to try to persuade Ziller to return to Chel. He carries with him a secret device which will destroy the entire Orbital and everybody on it.
This is a slow and reflective story, with a fair amount of humour. Since the climax of the book is the performance of a newly composed piece of music, you won't find the action and mayhem in it that you might expect from some of the other books.
8. Matter (2009)
This book is set on a curious structure: Sursamen is a 'shell world'. This consists of a number of concentric spheres. Each sphere acts like a planet, with a surface on which people can live, but all levels except the top one have a roof over the sky, made by the next level up, so they can't see the stars. Mini-suns ('rollstars') roll around the sky each day to provide light and heat. Each level of the shell world is occupied by a different race or species. The shell world was built by some long-forgotten galaxy-wide civilisation.
The story mainly concerns the Sarl, a primitive, human-like race living on one of the shell world's levels. They are still in a feudal society with a king who is absolute monarch and with a level of technology equivalent to Earth's 19th Century. They have steam power, guns and cannons but fight battles on horseback.
Prince Ferbin gets cut off from his troops in a battle and ends up secretly witnessing the murder of his father, the King, by his Chief Minister and best friend. The Prince, fearing that he himself will be murdered, goes on the run. He seeks out the alien supervisors of the shell world, asking for justice, but their policies prevent them from interfering in the day-to-day lives of the races they are 'mentoring'.
Ferbin's sister Djan Seriy Anaplian, who long ago left the world to travel to the Culture, returns as a Special Circumstances agent. Can she use her Culture powers to interfere in the affairs of her own primitive society? And what wonder is about to be revealed in the archaeological dig on one of the other levels?
9. Surface Detail (2010)
This is probably the most elaborate book in the series. It introduces the concept of a virtual after-life - when a person dies, their consciousness can be stored and then either continue to live in a virtual universe or be implanted into a newly-created body to allow them to live indefinitely. Some civilisations have decided that if there is a virtual equivalent of Heaven where people can live in happiness for ever, there must also be a virtual hell, where their minds are punished forever for crimes committed in their original life. A significant part of the book explores the horrors of one of these virtual hells, which is tough going for modern readers, although it would be very familiar to the hell-fearing Christians of former times.
There are a number of sub-plots involving death - in one a soldier repeatedly fights and dies in a virtual war, the outcome of which will decide whether the virtual hells will continue or be dismantled. In another, a young slave woman is murdered by her owner. She wakes up to find herself in a new body, and decides to seek out and revenge herself on her murderer. There's an intelligent but insane space-station, a leftover from a lost civilisation. And there's a group who have come up with an ingenious way of matching the fire-power of the Culture and starting a war against them.
10. The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)
This was Banks' last science fiction book and it is somewhat lightweight compared with previous ones, but highly amusing nevertheless.
The sonata of the title is a piece of music for solo performer. It is played on an 'Antagonistic Undecagonstring', a sort of twin cello d'amore. This is so difficult to play that the performers have themselves surgically altered by the addition of extra arms in order to control it. One young woman has the performance of the sonata as her life's ambition. But this is more-or-less a side issue to the main plot of the story.
When a civilisation has been around for a long time, they've been everywhere and done everything so they start to get bored. While some will fizzle out, most will take the next step which is to 'sublime' - this is a movement to a higher set of dimensions where things are much better and more interesting. Generally all the individuals in the civilisation take the decision to sublime together. Sometimes some of them come back or communicate with the normal world, and all of them admit that the new life is so much better than the old, but they are never able to coherently explain why, because there is so much more to it than in the old world. So everyone accepts that sublimation is the way to go and that we'll all go that way if we live long enough.
The Gzilt, an ancient civilisation, are just reaching the point in their development where they will sublime soon. But a secret has just been uncovered that, if revealed, may threaten the whole sublimation process. The Gzilt government are trying to hush it up, but some of the military have discovered the secret and want to verify its audacious claim. Meanwhile, the Culture have realised that there is something fishy going on and are trying to get to the bottom of it. Perhaps the oldest man in the galaxy, who claims to have lived 10,000 years, may throw some light on the situation - but he appears to have gone into hiding.
About two thirds of the way through the book, there's a long trek to a special place at the end of the world, where people listen to a message from the Universe. This appears to be modelled on the scene in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series in which the depressed robot Marvin is taken by his friends to the end of the world to hear God's Final Message to Creation. This may be a tribute from Banks to that other great British science fiction writer of our time, Douglas Adams.