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SF elements: super-rich anarchistic culture, superior artificial intelligences, mega-large artificial environments

Iain M. Banks (note the ‘M’ — Iain Banks may be the same person, but he’s not the same author) writes about The Culture, a super-rich, super-advanced anarchic galactic civilisation of the future. Nearly everything is legal, everyone is fabulously wealthy and powerful, but not many seem to be very happy.

Books : reviews

Iain M. Banks.
Against a Dark Background.
Orbit. 1993

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 1 July 2014

Sharrow was once the leader of a personality-attuned combat team in one of the sporadic little commercial wars in the civilisation based around the planet Golter. Now she is hunted by the Huhsz, a religious cult which believes that she is the last obstacle before the faith’s apotheosis, and her only hope of escape is to find the last of the apocalyptically powerful Lazy Guns before the Huhsz find her.

Her journey through the exotic Golterlan system is a destructive and savage odyssey into her past, and that of her family and of the system itself.

The Thrial system, comprising main planet Golter and a few other inhabited planets, is a million light years away from anything: the night sky is dark excepts for the other planets and very distant smudges of galactic light. Civilisation is 20 millennia old, but with nowhere to go, has cycled, fragmented, and stagnated. Lady Sharrow, impoverished aristocrat and ex military team leader, is being hunted by the Huhsz, a bizarre religious sect who believe she is the last obstacle standing in the way of their messiah’s return, since they killed her mother. Her only hope for surviving their assassins is to find the last Lazy Gun, which her ancestors stole from the Huhsz, and return it to them. She gathers her remaining ex-team, and sets off to find it. But first, she has to recover a priceless antiquity that holds a clue to the Lazy Gun’s location, despite having been lost millennia before the Lazy Gun was hidden.

This is Banks, so the story of questing for plot coupons is done very well. Sharrow and her motley crew traipse around the Thrial system, allowing us to see a huge variety of government styles, including solipsists, monarchies, religions, cults, and corporations. Carefully crafted flashbacks of deep tragedies and petty rivalries let us see how Sharrow got to be they way she is.

There are touches of Banksian humour, and marvellous invention, but this is apparently a rewrite of a much earlier work, maybe before he found his full voice, and the ability to pull it all together. The main feeling from this tale is the crushing weight of history, of having tried everything and nothing working, resulting in the fragmented claustrophobic cultures (here definitely with a small ‘c’).

There is a bleak, but satisfactory, conclusion. Available online, but not in the published work, is an epilogue, which ties up a few loose ends, but doesn’t add much to the outcome. Overall, I found it difficult to engage with the characters or story: an interesting tour of a complex world, but not enough point.

Iain M. Banks.
Feersum Endjinn.
Orbit. 1994

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 3 July 2022

Count Sessine is about to die for the very last time…

Chief Scientist Gadfium is about to receive the mysterious message she has been waiting for from the Plain of Sliding Stones…

And Bascule the Teller, in search of an ant, is about to enter the chaos of the crypt…

And everything is about to change…

For this is the time of the Encroachment and, although the dimming sun still shines on the vast, towering walls of Serehfa Fastness, the end is close at hand. The King knows it, his closest advisers know it, yet still they prosecute the war against the clan Engineers with increasing savagery.

The crypt knows ft too; so an emissary has been sent, an emissary who holds the key to all their futures.

It is a far future, post diaspora Earth. The majority of the population left ages ago. They left behind the AI-hating few, whose descendants are now surrounded by an ancient technology they barely comprehend. But they will need that technology to save them from the Encroachment, a vast darkness slowly blotting out the sun.

This story tells of the unfolding crisis through four viewpoints. We gradually learn the world, which, in typical Banksian fashion, is huge, old, varied, and complex. Most of the plot is this discovery, with the resolution being relegated to one character explaining the problem to the rest, plus a deus ex machina.

One notable feature of the book is that one of the four viewpoints is “narrated” by Bascule, who “thinks differently”, which means he can only spell phonetically (we are reading his journal).

[p.16] Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u 1/2 a holiday? & I agreed & that woz how we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in thi I-ball ov thi gargoyle Rosbrith.

This takes some getting used to, as reading it requires figuring out the words from what the spelling ‘sounds like’. I’m not quite sure of the point of this is, other than it allows some funny moments when Bascule is relaying the speech of other characters with different ways of speaking. Maybe slowing down the reading process is the point? And I’m not sure how Bascule thinks particularly differently from any of the other far future characters who are accustomed to the weird world they live in.

But all this is fine. It is a typically Banskian grand tour through a mind-bending world full of people hugely different from us, but still recognisably human.

Iain M. Banks.
The Algebraist.
Orbit. 2004

Iain M. Banks.
Consider Phlebas.
Orbit. 1987

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 1 April 1996

A brilliantly drawn view of a future where the warring civilizations of The Culture and the Idirans are racing to recover a valuable lost Mind. It's wonderful space opera, with malevolent superior artificial intelligences, and destruction of mega-large artificial environments. Also a treat for coprophiliacs: gross out on the early "death by slow drowning in sewage" scene, and the later "ritual cannibalism and feces eating worship" scene. Although these scenes do rather stay in the mind, around them there are many other brilliant, if less gross, chapters.

Iain M. Banks.
The Player of Games.
Orbit. 1988

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 21 July 1996

In the Lesser Magellanic Cloud the Culture has discovered the Empire of Azad, a brutal and cruel, but surprisingly stable, regime. Meanwhile, Jernau Gurgeh, the Culture's best game player, is bored (boredom is a real problem in the Culture: what to do if you are so rich and powerful that nearly every whim can be catered for?). To neutralise Azad's threat, the culture manipulates Gurgeh to take on a five year mission, to beat the Empire at its own game: where the winner becomes Emperor, and losers can die.

There is more living in mega-large artificial environments, and some interesting ideas about synthetic languages affecting thought patterns. It is definitely "lighter" (for the most part) that his usual style. Example: when the drone Flere-Imsaho is trying to stop the Empire learning the Culture's synthetic language, Marain, from listening to its translations. A good place to start the 'Culture' novels.

Iain M. Banks.
Use of Weapons.
Orbit. 1990

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 9 March 2008

Cheradenine Zakalwe is a soldier with a shady past, recruited by the Culture's Special Circumstances to fight its battles, on whichever side they deem most useful. Diziet Sma has to pull him out of retirement for one last job. But his past is threatening to catch up with him.

This is another great Culture novel. Most of the action is set outside Culture space, showing the (alleged) benevolent humans and Minds interfering in others' problems, all for their own good, of course. It is, in turns, hilarious, and horrific, and is always inventive. Half the chapters present the current story, with each alternate one covers an event from the past, slowly flashing back to the truly horrific event that formed the protagonist (a structure suggested by Ken MacLeod). Great stuff; I don't know why it's taken me so long to get round to reading it.

Iain M. Banks.
The State of the Art.
Orbit. 1991

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 22 January 2011

This is a collection of short stories, plus the title novella. It's a mixed bag, really. The best of the shorts, I think, are "Odd Attachment", which might make you think before pulling the petals off a flower next time, and "Descendant", about a man and his smartsuit travelling across a planet: you feel how big planets are. The novella makes the whole thing worth the read. The Culture's Special Circumstances ship Arbitrary and crew arrives at Earth in 1977 on a survey mission. The story is an examination of freedom, the right to intervene, utopia, boredom, what gives life zing, and is it worth it. Good food for thought.


Road of Skulls. 1988
A Gift from the Culture. 1987
Odd Attachment. 1987
Descendant. 1991
Cleaning Up. 1987
Piece. 1989
The State of the Art. 1989
Scratch. 1987

Iain M. Banks.
Orbit. 1996

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 22 September 2015

Two and a half millennia ago, the artifact appeared in a remote corner of space, beside a trillion-year-old dying sun from a different universe. It was a perfect black-body sphere, and it did nothing. Then it disappeared. Now it is back.

Something weird has happened in remote space. There is fear this might be an Outside Context problem: an event so outside anything known or imagined that even the vast intellect of the Culture's Minds cannot predict the outcome. Various factions of peculiarly-named Ships investigate. The Affront investigates. Other factions investigate. Things happen; factions interact; flashbacks illuminate; subplots thicken.

Like any Banks’ Culture novel, there are oodles of intersecting subplots of ever-increasing implausibility and imagination. These subplots weave together, interacting to form a glorious mix, although I remain to be convinced that any overall plot actually emerges from them.

Iain M. Banks.
Orbit. 1998

Iain M. Banks.
Look to Windward.
Orbit. 2000

Iain M. Banks.
Orbit. 2008

Iain M. Banks.
Surface Detail.
Orbit. 2010

Iain M. Banks.
The Hydrogen Sonata.
Orbit. 2012

The scavenger species are circling. It is, truly, the End Days for the Gzilt civilisation.