2017 marks the 30th anniversary of Consider Phlebas, the first novel in Iain M. Bank‘s highly acclaimed side-line in science fiction and the first Culture novel. By 1987, Banks had already achieved success (if not infamy) with his debut novel, The Wasp Factory; a disturbing but highly original tale of family secrets, depravity and torture. He followed this up with Walking on Glass, a contemporary thriller set in London which experiments with narrative and plays with the reader’s perceptions of chance and relation. With these under his belt, Banks had made a name for himself as a writer of exceptional mainstream literature.
So it must have been something of a revelation when he presented Consider Phlebas to an unsuspecting readership: a novel of sprawling, complex hard science fiction ideas, set on multiple planets and involving beings so diverse and detailed it feels like there is enough material to fill a series just based on this book alone. It follows the missions and misadventures of Bora Horza Gobuchil – a member of the “Changer” species – who is hunting down a rogue Mind; a sentient, hyper-intelligent machine and a valuable Culture artefact.
In this particular novel, the entire Culture is shown through the prism of one particular being: Horza is an enemy of them and a genetically-engineered mercenary. Through Horza we learn that the Culture are a hyper-advanced society, existing for millennia, and that it has been at war with the Indirans for some time. But as sprawling and complex Consider Phlebas might be, it feels as if it has only tantalisingly touched on this unusual society, and leaves the reader hungry for more.
Consider Phlebas was a success… even if what it claims the Culture are exactly seems tricky to grasp. To put it in Banks’ own words:
“The Culture is a sort of star-fairing, multi-level society with sort of very, very intelligent artificial intelligences, drones, which are the equivalent of robots and small, floating, sarcastic suitcases. It’s [the Culture] a post-scarcity but basically human society. Lots of big spaceships. But I’m trying to annoy right-wing Americans – I call it communist – but I think, technically, it’s anarcho-syndicalist or something. They’ve got no money. And they haven’t really got laws either, just sort of good manners.”
What makes Consider Phlebas so good is that, as well as the anatomical detail of the lives, thoughts, habits and technologies of the characters which populate it, and as well as the satisfyingly-descriptive hard SF elements, it’s also just really amusing and readable. Banks’ own infectious humour permeates the page, providing sharp relief against episodes of prolonged depravity or horror, and giving the narrative a familiar Hitchikers Guide-esque timbre. With this, it makes it difficult for the reader to take events too seriously, whilst at the same time making sure they aexist completely formed and authentic. It’s a satisfyingly engaging balance.
Following Consider Phlebas, Banks released The Player of Games. As with its predecessor, this novel refracts the Culture through the eyes of an individual – this time, a member of the Culture itself. Jernau Morat Gurgeh is an accomplished player of complex board games, competing and winning on an intergalactic scale. He lives on an Orbital: a vast Culture space-habitat megastructure, home to billions of inhabitants with a controlled, varied synthetic environment. Gurgeh is sent by the Culture to compete on a savage outside world, where he discovers more about foreign societies and also the Culture itself. Although less sprawlingly dense as Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games peels back layers of the Culture further, revealing their motives behind occasional contact with alein societies.
The Player of Games reflects Banks’ own love for RPG and involved board games (think Civilisation). Through this relatability, Culture society becomes humanised and a little more familiar in some ways, whilst all the time remaining distant and more advanced than our own. Where the utopian elements of the Culture work is one thing – where they fail is another. In Use of Weapons (third novel in the series), Banks abandons the straight-forward third-person narrative and puts chapters into a structuralist pattern (although how accurate a description this is is characteristically questioned by Banks himself…), testing the reader’s memory and ability to arrange events in sequence. And with this we have a moral conundrum regarding the Culture, revealed eventually through a tale of revenge, love and abandonment.
For some, Use of Weapons is considered the best of the Culture series. It features similar man-on-a-mission determination as Consider Phlebas, and it sort of features a “final” reveal, like The Player of Games. But it delves further into the history of the Culture, and its tendency for manipulation. But if, like me, you want to know more about the Culture’s infrastructure as well as how it treats its subjects, Excession is perhaps the most enthralling of all the novels.
As well as the huamoid characters, the true stars of the series have to be the Minds, drones and the star ships. The Culture Minds are hyperintelligent machines that have evolved way beyond the capabilities of their original manufacturers, and have redesigned themselves. Generally benevolent, the Minds monitor and manage the day-to-day lives of all Culture citizens, and are also chief architects of all intergalactic expeditions and missions. Contrasting their technological complexity and sentient abilities to outsmart, out-design and outlive their humanoid passengers, Banks gives the minds offbeat personalities and names; some of the vessel names include “Sleeper Service”, “Attitude Adjuster”, “Anticipation of a New Lover’s Arrival”, “Recent Convert” and the darkly ambiguous “Grey Area”, which tend to betray elements of their complex personalities.
In Excession, the Minds and star ships are the dominant characters, and because they represent the pinnacle of Culture achievement, when they come into contact with something that can only be regarded as an OCP (Outside Context problem- something beyond their vast Culture comprehension and knowledge), the actual limits of Culture are challenged. In possibly the most famous passage from Banks’ works, this situation is illustrated thusly:
“The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you’d tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass… when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you’ve just been discovered, you’re all subjects of the Emperor now, he’s keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.”
In other words, an Outside Context Problem is something that “…most civilizations would encounter just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop.”
As well as the novels, Banks also developed the Culture through short stories. His short story collection, The State of The Art, features several Culture-related tales. In Descendant, a wounded Culture explorer walks the surface of a barren alien world with only his sentient protective suit for company. During his delirium, he reveals how strange it is to walk on a convex surface (the Orbital he originates from resemble a galactic concave “wheel” which the inhabitants live inside of). These comparisons of the Culture with Earth-like situations are taken further with the collection’s eponymous short story, where a Culture expedition party visit our own world – with its unhealthy dependences on religion, money and warfare – and find more than just another savage outside-Culture society.
Iain M banks died in 2013, aged 59. It’s completely possible that he would still be writing Culture novels if he was still around. It’s also completely possible that future SF writers might take us back to the Culture through their own imaginings. That doesn’t sound like too bad a thing at all. In fact, I could imagine it’s the kind of thing Sun-Earther Iain El-Bonko Banks of North Queensferry* would have actively championed.
The first 3 Culture novels, Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games and Use of Weapons are all available from LRC WISE.
2 of Bank’s non-SF novels, The Wasp Factory and Dead Air are available from LRC Filton, all on Standard Loan.
*Banks’ own Culture name.