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A few notes on The Culture
August 15, 2010 11:57 AM   Subscribe

The Culture, in its history and its on-going form, is an expression of the idea that the nature of space itself determines the type of civilisations which will thrive there ... The thought processes of a tribe, a clan, a country or a nation-state are essentially two-dimensional, and the nature of their power depends on the same flatness ... The contention is that our currently dominant power systems cannot long survive in space; beyond a certain technological level a degree of anarchy is arguably inevitable and anyway preferable.

Iain Banks' A few notes on The Culture was written in 1994 (mirror here), and as well as giving some background to the Culture Novels, contains some fascinating musings on space-politics, artificial intelligence, and market-forces.
Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive - and more morally desirable - than one left to market forces. The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is - without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset - intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.
Bonus: A new Culture novel, Surface Detail, is due in October 2010.
posted by memebake (78 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yay Culture! The SF series with, among other great qualities, the best starship names ever.
posted by griphus at 12:05 PM on August 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


Thanks for this. I finally acted on an old intention to read this series, and I'm just 200 pages into Consider Phlebas. I've been a bit disappointed thus far, drowning in ancillary characters, plodding through action sequences, and generally NOT reading about a super-advanced civilization engaged in a galactic-scale war.
posted by rlk at 12:08 PM on August 15, 2010


I liked the sort of flipside of this in Against A Dark Background, where there was a hugely advanced technological society that couldn't expand or flee outwards towards Utopia like the Culture had but instead they were trapped in their home solar system forever, and everything had descended into decadence and madness and disparate weird cults.
posted by dng at 12:10 PM on August 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Rlk - probably not the best place to start, really - it's got some great moments but it's a bit of a sprawling mess. Use of Weapons or Player of Games would be my recomendation.
posted by Artw at 12:15 PM on August 15, 2010


rlk: ymmv, but I've always thought 'Consider Phlebas' was the least interesting one. Use of Weapons, Excession or The Player of Games may be better places to start. The books aren't really a 'series' as such, so you can start anywhere you like.
posted by memebake at 12:15 PM on August 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


heh
posted by memebake at 12:15 PM on August 15, 2010


Part of me wishes he'd saved the bits in the tunnels for when he had a bit more restraint, because that whole section is flat out amazing.
posted by Artw at 12:18 PM on August 15, 2010


It's also nice to see that the post below this on the main page has been made by Bora Horza Gobuchul.
posted by dng at 12:21 PM on August 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


I just recently read The Player of Games, after seeing it recommended again and again on metafilter. It was about as much fun as being cornered at a party by someone who wants to describe his current game of Civ with you for two to four hours.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:21 PM on August 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


A new Culture novel. Thank you Jesus.
posted by ovvl at 12:22 PM on August 15, 2010


Seconding Player Of Games. Still one of my favorite novels bar none. And more or less the novel version of the convictions that lead Banks to create the Culture.

Look to Windward is also a great book.
posted by lumpenprole at 12:22 PM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Consider Phlebas takes a deliberately outside view of the Culture. Anyway, as Banks is first to acknowledge, most of the interesting stuff happens on the fringes - in Special Circumstances territory.

I know I'm not alone on this site counting Banks as my favorite active SF author.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 12:25 PM on August 15, 2010


It was about as much fun as being cornered at a party by someone who wants to describe his current game of Civ with you for two to four hours.

I think all books should be able to be reviewed in this manner.

Illuminatus! Trilogy: It was about as much fun as being cornered at a party by someone who wants to describe his last acid trip at the sci-fi convention.

The Last Temptation of Christ: It was about as much fun as being cornered at a party by someone who wants to describe his New Testament fanfic.

&c
posted by griphus at 12:34 PM on August 15, 2010 [13 favorites]


To me, the most important thing about the Culture series, the thing that has kept it in amongst the cogitational lego sets which form my worldview, is its portrayal of an economics of abundance; the basic idea that the rules totally change when nobody is worried that they can't have whatever they want.

I happen to be re-reading Excession right now, so this is a fortuitous post :)
posted by hob at 12:37 PM on August 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I just recently read The Player of Games, after seeing it recommended again and again on metafilter. It was about as much fun as being cornered at a party by someone who wants to describe his current game of Civ with you for two to four hours.

Funny you should mention that.

Civ V is coming out this autumn.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 12:45 PM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


rlk: ymmv, but I've always thought 'Consider Phlebas' was the least interesting one.

Interesting I personally enjoyed Consider Phlebas, read about a third of the next one, and quit the series altogether after fifty pages of the third. I respect that others find Banks' writing stimulating; personally, i find him as one-note as Orson Card. I actively seek out science fiction with a larger scale intent, and I find Banks' concepts interesting. But despite the general acclaim, I find him a tedious storyteller and a particularly mediocre writer of dialogue.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 12:49 PM on August 15, 2010


Gurgeh stared at the space chess. He considered moving the space king over to the space rook, but then he didn't. Instead, he moved it to the right. He nodded. The robot flew over, and said something bitchy. Gurgeh chuckled, then sighed. "Robot," he said, "please fly away." The robot made a light from his head and then he flew away.

Gurgeh stared at the board. He reflected that the best games were the games that were so hard. And that what this game was. Where would he move the space piece next?

"Well, Gurgeh!" harrumphed the space alien. "Perhaps now you see that the game is so hard?" Gurgeh nodded. The game was so hard. That night, he thought about the space board. He glanded a drug that made the game less hard, but even then, it was still so hard. Gurgeh was immortal and rich, but still he didn't want to lose, because it would be better to win. But the game was so hard.

The robot flew over. "Gurgeh!" said the robot. If you don't win, there will be a space murder, and maybe a space rape!" Gurgeh was appalled. "I must win the space game," he said. He sighed.

The next day, the alien bragged: "I will win the space game! I am the best at winning the space game!" Gurgeh sighed. But then Gurgeh saw what he would do: instead of moving the space piece to the left, he would move it forward. The alien was so surprised. "But... but the game is supposed to be so hard!" But Gurgeh was very smart. He moved the piece again, and in a way that was so smart.

"NOOOOO," shouted the space alien. Gurgeh had made the best move. He had made the best space move. The robot congratulated him, and the girl wanted to have sex with him. "Well," thought Gurgeh, "I will have sex with her. I am, after all... THE PLAYER OF GAMES."

posted by Greg Nog at 1:01 PM on August 15, 2010 [58 favorites]


So unfortunately I can't find a freely accessible version--not in the space of a couple of minutes' googling, anyway--but those of you who have access to an academic library might be interested in checking out an article about Special Circumstances that was published by Prof Chris Brown of the London School of Economics. Speculative IR, you might call it.

Brown, Chris (2001) 'Special circumstances': intervention by a liberal utopia. Millennium: journal of international studies, 30 (3). pp. 625-633. ISSN 0305-8298

Anyone who doesn't have access to an academic library but really wants to read it could, uh, memail me.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 1:12 PM on August 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


I should say, though, that for as angry as Player of Games made me, I quite like the Notes On the Culture article, and indeed, after reading Banks, I spent a few hours reading through all the Culture-related Wikipedia articles. I think he's onto some really cool concepts, just not my favorite writer -- in my ideal world, there would be a collective of tenty to thirty people who all write little stories taking place within the Culture-universe, like the Star Wars expanded universe or something.
posted by Greg Nog at 1:13 PM on August 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


IMHO.
Consider Phlebas is a film really. 2 dimensional, series of action sequences, redeemed by background of 'the culture'.
Player of Games is turgid, predictable and formulaic.

I'm not really coming across as a big fan am I?

Excession is amazing. I had to read it twice; the second time I knew to take notes so I could tell who was what and what was happening. Brilliant. Also the best fast-as-f@ck chase moment ever.

Banks has been patchy; he seemed to go through a bit of a low in the past few years but I thought Matter was pretty good, and I've high hopes for the next one.

Can I recommend Alastair Reynolds to anyone who enjoys Banks? Similar epic books, similar clever imagination, but focussed on technology more than philosophy. 'Revelation Space' the classic, and I liked 'pushing ice' though opinion divided on that one!
posted by BadMiker at 1:30 PM on August 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


Excession is definitely my favorite, despite the fact that the most interesting characters are hyperintelligent spaceships.
posted by Mars Saxman at 1:34 PM on August 15, 2010


From a K5 article I typed years ago:
Banks himself appears to be in two minds about the plausibility of the Culture. In interviews, he has said explicitly that the Culture would not work for humans in our current state. In a Spike magazine interview he has said:
"It [the Culture] doesn't exist and I don't delude myself that it does. It's just my take on it. I'm not convinced that humanity is capable of becoming the Culture because I think people in the Culture are just too nice - altering their genetic inheritance to make themselves relatively sane and rational and not the genocidal, murdering bastards that we seem to be half the time."
In a Scrawl interview he has said:
"Is the Culture a possible future..." Iain mused, "Probably, eventually, but not for us. It will be the future for another species perhaps, different from us as we are today. We're too tied up in bigotry, hatred, war, economics, oppression, competition... The Culture would only work with people who are nicer than us - less prone to violence and genocide. Perhaps aggression is necessary to achieve sentience, consciousness, space travel, and we don't know if we're a particularly violent species or a relatively mild one compared to others out there..."
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:50 PM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's an interesting bit from that Chris Brown 'Special Circumstances' paper (Journal of International Studies 2001)
Contact and SC operatives worry about what they are doing, but they never (or hardly ever) worry about the good intentions of the Culture. Here is the crux: Banks is a very politically conscious writer, but he has created a social world in which, because of the energy grid and the Minds, the nineteenth century dream of replacing the government of men by the administration of things has been realised; there are no longer political choices to be made. The Friend-Enemy distinction is no longer meaningful, the free-rider problem has been solved (in a way, everyone is a free-rider) and tough decisions about the allocation of resources have disappeared ... Even the transactions costs of anarchy have disappeared; the Minds can run unbelievably complex habitats with a fraction of their powers. The Minds can make mistakes, as the Chelgrians can testify, but they can’t make political mistakes because they aren’t making political decisions in the first place; what one might call, adapting Hume, the ‘circumstances of politics’, that is, moderate scarcity and unreliable benevolence, simply do not exist.
Also, here's another short piece of Banks exposition: A few Notes on Marain (Marain being the AI-designed language of The Culture)
posted by memebake at 1:54 PM on August 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've just got to defend Consider Phlebas a little bit. For me, it's the best example of Space Opera out there. The scale is more than massive, the plot sprawling, the action is intense. His other books are certainly more cerebral, but are they as much fun?
posted by conifer at 1:58 PM on August 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Greg Nog: It was about as much fun as being cornered at a party by someone who wants to describe his current game of Civ with you for two to four hours.

I'm sorry about that. I was just really excited after I had maneuvered Montezuma into attacking that fucker Bismarck. In hindsight keeping you from going to the bathroom by pushing you down into the sofa with my foot was a step over the line, but I just really wanted to explain the fine details of how I was going to swoop in and annex all of Bismarck's southern lands once he had Montezuma on the run. Most people would've simply taken the cities nearest to their border, but by taking Bremen, Leipzig and Heidelberg I would be able to isolate his army from the luxuries-rich south, letting me take the entire region over at my leisure. I'd like to apologize separately for calling you "more pathetic than Gandhi" and making irrigation jokes when you peed yourself. Again with 20/20 hindsight, I shouldn't have then restrained your movement for another hour as I described the order in which I researched technology, why I had avoided the religion techs after founding Hinduism, and how my future tech tree path would ensure an easy domination victory now that I had broken the might of Bismarck. The tears and pleading to be let go should've been a hint, and refusing to take your money unless you also gave me two of your cities and Gunpowder was meant as a joke, but I realize that it was not the time and a place. For that too do I apologize. I hope you find in your heart to accept. If not, would you reconsider if I also offered two incense, a world map, Military Tradition and Replacable Parts?
posted by Kattullus at 1:59 PM on August 15, 2010 [24 favorites]


It was about as much fun as being cornered at a party by someone who wants to describe his current game of Civ with you for two to four hours.

Well, you know, tastes differ. Me, I thought he did a reasonably good job of not wanking about the games too much, and focusing on what Gurgeh was getting out of it or how he was understanding it (the bit at the end where he figures out how to play like the Culture).

But, you know, some people really love Patrick O'Brien. Me, I wouldn't mind a version that periodically condensed five pages down to "They fucked around with the sails to try to go faster, and it worked."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:03 PM on August 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


This is a rich vein of comedy, but it's marred by how the reality of how ear-fuckingly awesome some of the narrated playthroughs of games recorded here actually are.

Viz: Boatmurdered and its hubristic cousin Headshoots, this magisterial Civ game and the wonderful (yet terrible) secret of Animal Crossing.

As for Banks - Consider Phlebas is great widescreen Baroque sci-fi and was unlike anything else I'd read at the time, but is so grim I'm not sure I could stomach it again. My least favourite thing about Banks is his fondness for gruesome torture and grotesquerie. Something about being Scottish, maybe.

As for the Culture, the implicit critique of socialism is surprisingly strong - that we need godlike, benevolent AI and infinite resources before it will work.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:14 PM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, I'm going to pitch in and nominate Use of Weapons as the ultimate Culture novel. Maybe I'm biased because I read it when I was about 17, but it was conceptually the first Culture book Banks developed (the original story dating from 1974), making it the canvas that he first developed the ideas of the Culture upon. It grapples with the central problem of intervention by a utopia that needs to recruit warriors from outside its own conceptual borders. It has a lovely structure of alternating forward and backward moving chapters. It has Skaffen Amtiskaw in it. It starts a little slowly but then it really ticks along, to one of the best character-based resolutions I've read. Yay.
posted by memebake at 2:14 PM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I try to like Iain M. Banks and the Culture books, but they're a wee bit too dry for my tastes. It's clear that Banks is furiously intelligent and that there are a lot of ideas packed in his books, but they often leave me a bit cold. He also has a surprisingly (for such an intellectual writer) and consistently annoying trope of writing "Star Trek/Star Wars" aliens: aliens that may look physically different, but talk and interact and make silly jokes and get angry, much like humans. I like my aliens to be alien.
posted by zardoz at 2:19 PM on August 15, 2010


Some more Culture academia:

Outside Context Problems: Liberal Societies and the Paradox of Otherness, Heilman, James. and Jackson, Patrick - Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association 48th Annual Convention
full text available online
posted by memebake at 2:43 PM on August 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I just recently read The Player of Games, after seeing it recommended again and again on metafilter. It was about as much fun as being cornered at a party by someone who wants to describe his current game of Civ with you for two to four hours.

You might want to avoid Complicity then were the protagonist is addicted to a thinly disguised version of Civ in the novel...

Banks is just about my favourite writer and his early sf is just about some of the best I've read. There's an argument that he's a bit lazy and went through a period of just churning them out and there was a definite drop in quality of some of the none-M novels (possibly due to his marriage braking down). But for me he remains one of the most literary sf writers and unlike so many know he has actual three-dimensional characters. I read a lot less sf than I used to but I still read every Banks as soon as it comes out.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:46 PM on August 15, 2010


My least favourite thing about Banks is his fondness for gruesome torture and grotesquerie.

Same here. The Wasp Factory was appalling, and A Song of Stone almost put me off Banks altogether. I stick to his "M." stuff now.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 2:48 PM on August 15, 2010


Well, I could argue (and have) that The Algebraist is my favourite Culture novel, but my use of these terms is very limited to certain inferences towards the conclusion of the story where one of the characters is revealed to be a renegade AI in camouflage, and very loosely implying a connection to the Culture universe, perhaps in a different time-frame.

You cannot argue against the fact that The Algebraist is my favourite novel written by someone with the last name Banks.
posted by ovvl at 2:49 PM on August 15, 2010


As a huge fan of Banks - ever since "The Wasp factory" - I have to say that with the exception of "Consider Phlebas" I have found his SF to be less wonderful than his non-SF. "Wasp Factory", "The Bridge", "The Crow Road" and "Complicity" are tremendously sharp, modern novels. While I appreciate the idea of The Culture I honestly think most of his SF novels are less than the sum of their parts. He basically lost me with "Excession", which, while I was still only maybe a third of the way in, I realised was essentially going to rip off the central conceit of "2001". And yeah, the funny ship names were amusing and all, but come on. It's basically intelligent and thoughtful space opera. Which is no bad thing, but the best of hos straight novels aim higher than that, and sometimes hit.

That said, The only one I've loved since the magnificently depressing "A Song of Stone" was "Dead Air", and that mainly because it contained hugely enjoyable ranty goodness that totally tallied with my personal opinions. I would very much enjoy going out for a few drams of the finest single malt with Mr Banks.
posted by Decani at 3:28 PM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh yeah, and "Espedair Street" was hugely entertaining too.
posted by Decani at 3:31 PM on August 15, 2010


<pedant-mode&gt
Sorry, ovvl, Algebraist can't be a Culture novel because it's explicitly set in 4034AD, whereas The State of the Art shows that the Culture fictional-universe would pre-date that by a long way - it depicts a Culture mission to 1970s Earth. Hence the human expansion across the galaxy described in the Algebraist (and also the Dwellers) would definitely have run into The Culture if they were set in the same fictional universe.
</pedant-mode>

From The State Of The Art:
Also while I'd been away, the ship had sent a request on a postcard to the BBC's World Service, asking for 'Mr David Bowie's "Space Oddity" for the good ship Arbitrary and all who sail in her.' (This from a machine that could have swamped Earth's entire electro-magnetic spectrum with whatever the hell it wanted from somewhere beyond Betelgeuse.) It didn't get the request played. The ship thought this was hilarious.
posted by memebake at 3:35 PM on August 15, 2010


I recently made my way through a spate of Banks' works, reading The Algebraist, rereading both Excession and Consider Phlebas, and reading Use of Weapons for the first time. I'm pleased to see many recommending Use of Weapons, which is now my favorite IMB book. Not only do I not recommend starting with Consider Phlebas, I can't recommend it a all. Too much of the plotline seemed excessive. I understand Banks' need to argue the inevitability of "a degree of anarchy" in space, but I think he made the point a little too well.
posted by grimjeer at 3:37 PM on August 15, 2010


A roll-call of mefites named after Culture characters:
Zero Gravitas, ROU_Xenophobe, Bora Horza Gobuchul, EndsOfInvention, I Said, I've Got A Big Stick, experiencing a significant gravitas shortfall
any more?
posted by memebake at 4:02 PM on August 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


I came here just to page ROU_Xenophobe but, of course, he was already here.

Anyway, as someone who can find almost nothing at all bad to say about the Culture novels (except, perhaps, I wish he'd explain a little more about how they can travel faster than light, yet not see "more than a few microseconds" ahead in time), and who wishes there were a hell of a lot more of them to read, what other authors can people recommend me? I've taken BadMiker's suggestion of Alastair Reynolds onboard.
posted by Jimbob at 4:15 PM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sebmojo: As for the Culture, the implicit critique of socialism is surprisingly strong - that we need godlike, benevolent AI and infinite resources before it will work.

I don't think this is quite what Banks is trying to say. The article linked at the top of this FPP shows that Banks considers socialism to be a reasonably natural path for a space-based civilization to take (if not an inevitable one), for the various reasons he describes.

The AIs in the Culture are very powerful, but its clear from the novels that they don't need that power to organise the economy or systems of the Culture - which take a negligible part of their attention - they need it to deal with the tricky but non-essential complexities of interfering in developing planetary systems that lie outside the Culture. The infinite resources they have access to are of course very handy, but my reading of the novels is that they attained those resources some time after the formation of the Culture, rather than as a precondition to it.

Having said that, the interviews that TheophileEscargot posted show that Banks doesn't think we could grow into anything like the Culture, although this seems to be because of his despair about our aggressiveness as a species rather than due to lack of AI or resources.
posted by memebake at 4:31 PM on August 15, 2010


Reynolds and Banks are sometimes classified as new (UK) space opera, along with Ken MacLeod, Peter F. Hamilton and a handful of others.

If you're looking for something something in that vein WP has a list in their Space opera article.

They all share some of Banks' heavily character based, Grand Stories approach although the quality may vary a bit.
posted by Greald at 4:34 PM on August 15, 2010


Unlike conventional opera, space operas do not usually feature people singing.

Thanks for that, Wikipedia. I was uncertain on that point.
posted by Jimbob at 4:38 PM on August 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


Jimbob: Ken MacLeod's Cassini Division is an awesomely tight diamond of a sci-fi novel, which like Banks, contains a lot of political musings.
Peter F Hamilton's current series: The Dreaming Void, The Temporal Void and forthcoming The Evolutionary Void have been really good so far, a really imaginative universe with Big Ideas that is only slighly marred by some decidedly odd sex scenes.
Mefi favourite Peter Watts' Blindsight isn't particularly Banksian but has some very creepy ideas and a very very alien sort of alien in it.
Revelation Space by Reynolds was a fantastic book, although I found the sequels to not have the same coherence or pace.
er... Iain Banks' Feersum Endjinn hasn't been mentioned here yet. Its non-Culture but IMHO it is the most epic and mind bending of all his sci-fi books, although you really need to be able to read phonetic prose to get through it.
posted by memebake at 4:48 PM on August 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I tried Feersum Endjinn, but couldn't get past the first two chapters. And yet I read Trainspotting without any trouble at all. If you're going to write a book like that, you'd better make something interesting happen at the start so I'm willing to go on.

That's the only Banks book I haven't been able to get into, though. I guess I'll try again.
posted by Jimbob at 4:52 PM on August 15, 2010


Can't wait for Surface Detail.

Jimbob: Yeah I'd also second Alastair Reynolds, they were recommended to me, as a huge IMB fan, and I really enjoyed them. The Revelation Space trilogy is a good place to start, then there's a few separate stories set in the same universe as Revelation Space, and a few other stories in different settings. All good stuff though.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:04 PM on August 15, 2010


Richard K. Morgan's Kovacs novels might appeal to Banks fans. It's another vast, sprawling (but all human, except for one other, extinct alien civilization) civilization, complete with powerful AI and posthuman genetic and cybernetic technologies. Decidedly not the Culture, though - a thoroughly believable and livable dystopia, instead.

It is interesting how many great sci-fi novelists are from north of the Clyde these days. Is it something in the water?
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:18 PM on August 15, 2010


Let me clear things up.

Excession is the best Culture novel.
The Algebraist is the best Iain M. Banks novel.
Bora Horza Gobuchul is the best character in Banks' novels.
Frank Exchange Of Views is the best ship name.

On the space opera tip, I recommend:

Peter Hamilton's Night's Dawn Trilogy, Commonwealth Saga and current Void Trilogy
Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky
Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos and Ilium/Olympos set
posted by Argyle at 5:24 PM on August 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Richard K. Morgan, speaking of odd sex scenes.

Don't know what it is about contemporary sci-fi from the British Isles, its generally very very good but it seems to involve a lot of very drawn out sex.

If listening to Morgans "The Steel Remains" audio book at work, make damn sure you're coworkers can't listen in. Unless they're OK with hot man on man action in excruciating detail that goes on forever and ever and ever.(notthatthersanythingwrongwiththat).

As for recommendations. I really liked Reynolds' House of Suns better then the revelation Space series. All tough I suspect its very much a sci-fi novel for people who already read lots of sci-fi.
posted by Greald at 5:42 PM on August 15, 2010


Consider Phlebas clearly isn't to everyone's tastes (I love it myself), but it's important to read it if you're going to read all the Culture books, because it's the only one to give such a truly outside and negative view of the Culture, and if it's your first exposure to the Culture the other books feel quite different. Plus, it's a massively entertaining big-budget space opera, and it has delightfully icky side trips like the Eaters and Damage, and Horza is one of my all-time favorite characters. It's better with subsequent readings, I've read it more than any of the others except for The Bridge (which I think is still his best work, and one of the best books ever) and The Crow Road (which is like a family reunion).

Excession may well be the "best" Culture novel, however.

Also it is because of Iain (M) Banks that I met my husband. The man can do little wrong (my husband, that is, Banks wrote Canal Dreams after all).
posted by biscotti at 5:50 PM on August 15, 2010


Argyle: Peter Hamilton's Night's Dawn Trilogy

Few books have made me as mad as The Reality Dysfunction. The villain, Quinn Dexter, is one of the most awful examples of the depraved bisexual trope I have ever come across. Let me quote TVTropes:
In Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy, there is exactly one bisexual: the satanic cult member/anti-Christ/messiah of the coming apocalypse, Quinn Dexter, whose sexual depravity is constantly shown as being one of the most important facets of his character. He murders, tortures, rapes and mind rapes almost everyone he comes across and opens millions to possession by the spirits of the dead. In the third book we finally meet the person who turned him into who he is now... a depraved hermaphrodite. There may be one or two gay characters in the novels, but none of them stick out in this editor's mind...
This is completely unacceptable in modern fiction. I put the book down as soon as I realized what Hamilton was doing and have never read anything that he has written since. I can look past that kind of characterization in older literature, but not a book written in the 90s.
posted by Kattullus at 6:17 PM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


/me runs to the kitchen, opens all the cupboard doors, and leaves cackling madly
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:27 PM on August 15, 2010


I hadn't noticed that about Night's Dawn before.

For me, it faces the problem of being a huge, expansive space opera about... the dead returning and possessing humans as zombies? Huh? Of all the stories you could set in the Confederation, and Hamilton gives me that one?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:30 PM on August 15, 2010


hot man on man action in excruciating detail that goes on forever and ever and ever

Yeah, he does kind of go on - with straight characters as well, and not just in The Steel Remains. Morgan seems at some point to have decided that sci-fi/fantasy has been ruled by prudes for too long, and is trying to make up for the past fifty years or so all by himself. He's worth reading despite, though, in my opinion (or because, if you like that sort of thing).

Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy, there is exactly one bisexual

Really? I thought Ione, or whatever her name was, was bisexual as well. But its been a while since I read those books. I rather liked the Night's Dawn universe, found it rather more to my taste than the Culture, to tell the truth. And the "dead coming back" malarky was redeemed for me by the sheer inane fun of watching Al Capone conquering an interstellar empire.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:13 PM on August 15, 2010


I'm always surprised when people recommend Player of Games. I think the 'space-chess' characterization above is mostly right. It's probably the least interesting Culture novel.

Excession is probably the best, but is best enjoyed after you've put a few other Culture novels behind you.

Consider P is such classic Banks - from the opening torture scene ("[T]hat was when he felt he might vomit. It had been almost comforting to work out that it would make no difference to the time of his death.") to the giant barges, the Eater and one of his best finales. It was my first Culture novel (I'd read the awesome Bridge and Wasp Factory), enjoyed on a vacation. I spent the better part of an afternoon siting on the rocks in Bluffer's Park reading the first half.

Look to Windward was fine - my paperback has an awful scifi-trope cover, though. It seemed to have a good hook with the active-yet-Sublimed Chelgrians but I ain't sure it came through. The two things that stick with me about that book are Kabe and the prologue, which really delivered its imagery.

The Crow Road is what I wish my family reunions would be like (read on vacation to Portugal). Even my wife liked it. Then she tried to get my mother to read it, which was a horrible idea (Sex! In a car!).

Someday I'll read Against a Dark Background again, it seemed very, uh, dark. That was also read on a vacation to New Mexico.

No real chance of any vacations in the next year, so not sure how Surface Detail will get read.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 7:37 PM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sorry, ovvl, Algebraist can't be a Culture novel because it's explicitly set in 4034AD

If time is a number, then I stand corrected.
posted by ovvl at 8:27 PM on August 15, 2010


In my view, Excession was the best, the rest are about all even, except for Against a dark Background and Matter being rather weaker than the rest. I like Reynolds and Richard Morgan, too, but they're not as good as Banks. I think they created decent and interesting books but did not create a new world. John C. Wright is really great, though, I often feel like he out-bankses Ian Banks and whereas Ian repeats the same stories, albeit making them different enough to be interesting, Wright covers vastly different ground with each series. The last one I've read was Null-A continuum and now I will have to read Van-Vogt's null a books!
posted by rainy at 8:35 PM on August 15, 2010


Since we're all weighing in with our opinions... I found Excession to be shallow. It's basically about Minds having internet-style flame wars, and the outside context problem didn't really seem weird enough to cause all the Minds to go apeshit.

My favorite Culture novel may be Matter, largely because the Culture has so little to do with it. The Culture itself isn't very interesting; it's the frayed edges, where Special Circumstances gets involved, that hold the good stories.

Probably my favorite Banks novel overall, though, is Against a Dark Background. The worldbuilding is superb, and the story feels like Banks has done a really good job of writing up a really good RPG campaign.

Oh, and on the topic of Against a Dark Background: dng, you should've given a spoiler warning! Your summary kinda ruins a big part of the plot.
posted by jiawen at 8:37 PM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Kattullus: Few books have made me as mad as The Reality Dysfunction.

Hrrm, interesting take. Never really considered it that way. I simply took Quinn as pure evil, not representing a particular group.

IIRC, there were all kinds of people having happy-good times sex in the series of a variety of ways. I took it as very much in the classic space opera mode. In the recent Void trilogy, there's a lot more happy-good times sex with various flavors. The main evil person is a priest...

Heaven help you if you read any of the later Heinlein stuff.
posted by Argyle at 8:42 PM on August 15, 2010


Frank Exchange Of Views is the best ship name.

I was with you until this. "Excuses and Accusations" is the best ship name, IMHO.
posted by A dead Quaker at 8:45 PM on August 15, 2010


My vote's for Meatfucker.
posted by Jimbob at 8:57 PM on August 15, 2010


Argyle: Heaven help you if you read any of the later Heinlein stuff.

I have. It's no good and terrible and not just for its celebration of incest, but that's enough for me to discount it completely. Of course, this is the same author who wrote a novel about a death ray that kills only Asian people. Though, to be fair to Heinlein, he did seem to genuinely regret the novel and later went on to challenge the received racist ideas of his time. The incest thing, however, seems to have been something he was really keen on. Having been exposed to the later Heinlein fairly early I never sought out his earlier stuff (though I've read and enjoyed quite a few of his short stories).
posted by Kattullus at 9:01 PM on August 15, 2010


I liked Consider Phebas, but I read it after reading a few other culture novels. I find Banks hugely entertaining - and indeed his books are like the best sf movie you never saw
posted by the noob at 9:44 PM on August 15, 2010


<pedant-mode&gt

oh lol
posted by the noob at 9:47 PM on August 15, 2010


These threads always make me feel like the only Neal Asher fan on MeFi.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:40 PM on August 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I read the whole thread waiting for someone to mention Matter, which is so far my favorite of his novels. (I think it tells you more about not only The Culture but the known universe as a whole than any of the others.) Then I see this:
My favorite Culture novel may be Matter ...

Probably my favorite Banks novel overall, though, is Against a Dark Background...
At which point it became obvious to me that there is no one agreed-upon ordering of quality for Banks' novels. To wit:

I loved Matter, Use of Weapons, and The State of the Art.

I mostly enjoyed Consider Phlebas, but I completely agree it makes a lousy introduction to The Culture (despite having the most thorough fact dump about it).

Against a Dark Background was just a grind -- I never got into it at all, and was happy when it finally ended.

I also learned from this thread that not having read Excession is a serious oversight, and one which I look forward to remedying.
posted by bjrubble at 10:42 PM on August 15, 2010


I loved Matter, but The Algebraist was fantastic fun; I loved the twist at the end, and the way the answer to the central puzzle of the novel is hung out in the open so early, and Banks spends so much time misdirecting you away from it.

Alistair Reynolds, on the other hand... such lurching, clunky dialogue and cardboard cut-out characters. Yeah, some interesting ideas, but it's painful.

and who wishes there were a hell of a lot more of them to read, what other authors can people recommend me?

Tony Ballantyne's Recursion and Capacity are brilliant, but I refuse to read any more of his stuff because Capacity upset me so badly; the fate of one of the characters in the book... I finished it over a lunchtime at work. I had to go home early because I it upset me so much; I spent the afternoon hugging my daughter and not being able to stop crying. I say that as someone who considers American Psycho a fairly comfortable reading experience.
posted by rodgerd at 1:18 AM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I must be crazy, because Player of Games and Use of Weapons have been the only two I haven't been able to finish, even though I've liked every other Culture novel.

Another vote for The Algebraist being Banks' best sci-fi novel. I loved it.

I also really enjoyed Feersum Endjinn, but I cheated and read a version with translations of the phonetic text.
posted by neushoorn at 1:43 AM on August 16, 2010


Huh. Interesting dicussion, particulary with regard to the polarising effect of "Consider Phlebas" (which I consider to be head and shoulders above the subsequent Banks SF works) and "Excession" which, as I mentioned, was the book that made me give up completely on Banks's SF. It just struck me as a huge amount of gee-wow waffle around a slim central idea that was both unoriginal and predictable.

Still, it's clear that people take different things from Banks. I read him for his darkness, his black but occasionally playful sense of humour, his sense of irony, his evident love of things and ideas I love too, and his natural way with words - particularly in the context of conversation and dialogue in his non-SF stuff. He's good at writing real, believable people - or at least many of his characters talk and act in ways that completely tally with my real-life experience.

As someone else mentioned, "Canal Dreams" was a major clunker. I wasn't too keen on "Whit", "The Business", "The Steep Approach to Garbadale" or the recent "Transition" (which mas mystifyingly overrated by reviewers, I thought). He kinda phoned those in, I think.
posted by Decani at 3:46 AM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Fuck the flying cars, I want my drug glands.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:39 AM on August 16, 2010


You gotta be careful with that, Meatbomb. Drug glands without sufficiently interesting externalities (ie, flying cars) probably lead to nothing but basement-dwelling.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 6:11 AM on August 16, 2010


His best non-M remains The Crow Road. I'm actually quite fond of Whit and Steep Approach, but they basically seem like slightly less good reruns of it.
posted by Artw at 6:34 AM on August 16, 2010


I got hooked on Banks with the Algebraist and have been chasing the dragon ever since.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:28 AM on August 16, 2010



Excession is definitely my favorite, despite the fact that the most interesting characters are hyperintelligent spaceships.

I am baffled by the use of the word "despite" in this sentence.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 8:02 AM on August 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm a big fan of Inversions, though you really want to read at least one other Cultire book before it ( probably Use of Weapons).
posted by Artw at 8:09 AM on August 16, 2010


Fuck the flying cars, I want my drug glands.
posted by Meatbomb at 12:39 PM on August 16


Dude, I want your drug glands.
posted by Decani at 11:48 AM on August 16, 2010


Bought "Consider Phlebas" as my first fiction ebook yesterday; racing through it.

It's a space opera, for sure. I hope the other books are more philosophically inclined.
posted by flippant at 1:39 PM on August 16, 2010


Yay Culture! The SF series with, among other great qualities, the best starship names ever.
These sound like race horses.
posted by LiteOpera at 2:05 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Bought "Consider Phlebas" as my first fiction ebook yesterday; racing through it.

It's a space opera, for sure. I hope the other books are more philosophically inclined.
posted by flippant at 9:39 PM on August 16


It's a very knowing space opera that his extra levels. Read it with that in mind.
posted by Decani at 3:43 PM on August 16, 2010


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