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Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas was published in 1987, the first book written of what would come to be known as the Culture sequence (or cycle). Released just this year, The Hydrogen Sonata marks the tenth book in the long running, award winning Space Opera series. But what makes for a good Culture novel, what is the secret to Banks’ longevity?
We asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
I’m going to be honest and note that the reason that I read the Culture novels are not for the stories themselves — which are very good, mind you — but because I like wandering around the books like a tourist, gawking at all the cool shit that’s in the Culture. So I suppose what I really want is an “encyclopedia of The Culture” sort of book with pretty pictures and maps and a timeline and crap like that. Which is the exact opposite of a novel. I’m not sure if this makes me a bad reader of Culture novels or just a highly specialized one. What I do know is that I’m always looking out for the next one. So for me, what makes a good Culture novel is that Iain Banks has finished it and his publisher has offered it up for me to buy.
Is the Culture series different simply because it’s well-written? Hardly. True, bad writing and bad storytelling characterizes far too much space opera, and, indeed, far too much science fiction. But there’s also plenty of space opera that, like the Culture series, tells stories about what characters who the reader cares about will do next, and why, in transparent, well-constructed prose.
Is the Culture series different because it postulates human co-existence with, hybridization with, or eclipse by, thinking machines? Nope. Boatloads of science fiction since Philip K. Dick have mined that vein.
What about vast, generation-spanning, interstellar war, cold and hot? Nah. That’s a virtual sine qua non of the sub-genre.
Ah, but the Culture stories are connected one to another more by their universe than by through-line characters! An example of the often-used through-line structure would be, well, the Orphanage books. Those being my five-book history of the Pseudocephalopod War. Hachette Orbit publishes both the Culture and Orphanage series, and actually calls my books the “Jason Wander series,” because all five books follow that through-line character. However, the Culture stories’ structure is scarcely ground breaking. Heinlein’s numerous stories and novels about disparate characters who fit into his “future history” has been emulated countless times.
Well, don’t the Culture stories carry larger messages about contemporary social issues? Sure. In non-writing life Iain Banks is a vocal liberal (he cut his UK passport into pieces and mailed it to Ten Downing Street to protest Britain’s participation in the Iraq war). The “Culture” of the Culture stories is often described as a kind of top-down liberal anarchy. But authors’ art reflecting their view of life is hardly different. Heinlein’s politics, often oversimplified as right-wing (sure he was a cold warrior, but he also campaigned for the socialist candidate for governor of California), permeate his fiction. And today, the series of other Times-list authors like John Ringo’s Posleen War books leave no doubt about the author’s views on contemporary social and political issues.
All that said, probably the thing that sets the Culture series apart is its author’s resume. Iain Banks is a crossover author from “serious” mainstream fiction, and as such his space opera attracts attention from readers and critics of same that a genre science fiction author simply doesn’t get. SFWA Grand Master Joe Haldeman and I once marveled to a convention audience that in 2004 Philip Roth wrote a story speculating that America elected Charles Lindbergh President during the 1940s (The Plot Against America) and it was hailed as a totally new concept, and as brilliantly imaginative literature. But when twelve years earlier, in 1992, Harry Turtledove wrote a story (The Guns of the South), speculating that the Confederacy won the Civil War and elected Robert E. Lee President, the mainstream media dismissed it as mere genre Alternative History. Don’t misunderstand my point. Iain Banks needn’t apologize for the advantage his body of mainstream work earned him, and certainly not for the quality and success of the Culture series. But I think it’s a level of earned reputation that sets his work off from other space opera, rather than anything structural.
Well, once upon a time space opera was largely defined by the American experience, along with the unspoken doctrinal belief that the military was some kind of repository of high-minded canny super-admirals. Yet recent reports have suggested that the US is developing autonomous combat machines, which implies the deployment of lethal firepower targeted and directed by algorithmic AIs. And then we turn to look at the Culture, a galaxy-wide civilization run by ferociously intelligent AIs apparently hardwired to look after the best interests of the Culture’s constituent races. The foundations of the Culture begs a million questions, of course, but it also presents a picture of multicultural tolerance which I find inspiring.
Also, the culture of the Culture is relaxed and enabling – although I sometimes wonder if, in a civilization of abundance,
the incidence of egotism and narcissism might present a significant blip in the picture. In other space operas, the narrative sometimes looks at the experience of the lower classes, the laborers, service industry workers, etc, but in the Culture there seems to be no need for them, which inevitably skews society along lines where there is no resource/commodity scarceness to foster friction.
What makes a great Culture novel for me is dangers, a plot full of urgent (and even ancient) mystery, AIs with human characteristics, humans with mechanistic characteristics, vile miscreants getting their comeuppance, possessors of towering arrogance coming unstuck, humour and wit when the chips are down, the fire is in the hole, and the pin has been pulled. Give me all that and I’ll be a happy bear!
Because of that wonderful research tool called the Internet I can say without doubt that the first time I read Iain M Banks’ stuff was in 1987. It was A Gift from the Culture published in Interzone. This was a story that grabbed me at once and tightened its grip when the gun the protagonist had obtained started talking to him. Obviously this grip remained in place because later, maybe months or years later, I walked into a book shop and saw a large format copy of Consider Phlebas and didn’t hesitate in picking it up and buying it – bear in mind that at the time I was getting most of my SF fix from a second-hand book shop and the library. Thereafter I bought every ensuing science fiction book from him, loved The Player of Games and rate Use of Weapons as one of the top ten best books I’ve ever read.
But what is it about his books that do it for me? Always in SF I’m looking for sensawunda and Banks delivers it in spades. He hits a nerve in me every time when he writes about GSVs the size of worlds. There’s that moment too, in The Player of Games, when it becomes evident that full knowledge of the sheer power and size of the culture is being kept from a smaller realm because such knowledge would cause that realm to implode. Then there are the drones and AIs. These have been knocking about in some form or other for decades. We’ve seen the former in films like Star Wars and Dark Star where they were called ‘droids’ and the latter have been with us since before Hal in 2001 (1968).
But Banks’ drones and AIs are different. They are a breath of fresh air because they aren’t at one of two opposing poles: either trying to exterminate the human race or adhering to Asimov’s laws. They are sarcastic, funny, smart-talking and often a perfect foil for the sometimes far too serious human characters. In this respect Banks’ books have provided, along with everything else I look for in science fiction, something quite rare in the genre, which is humour. Who did not laugh out loud when the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw brought a gift to Zakalwe? During a particular mission, the man had suffered the misfortune of losing everything below his neck. The gift was a hat.
(Incidentally does anyone remember a book in which an AI called something like Logos was zipping about like a giant glass brick? Perhaps someone can help me out there?)
Compassion. The Culture novels are meditations on ideas of altruism, utopia and values of good and evil. My favourite of the series, Look To Windward, is as much a story about coming to terms with grief as it is a Space Opera. More so maybe.
From another perspective Banks is a successful writer of anti-genre. Other writers in this model are J G Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, China Mieville. It’s interesting that those I can think of are British. Whether its a British ‘thing’ or I’m just better versed in UK writers is hard to say. Anti-genre writers set out to offend the prevailing values of a genre. They’re only interested in the rules of a genre as far as breaking them provides a springboard to do something new. So the Culture novels are anti Space Operas. Whether that makes them still part of the genre is an open question.
Also, Banks has a lot of humour. People who enjoy Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman will also like Banks, by and large. We need more humour in SF. It takes itself too seriously sometimes.
Iain Banks is a very smart fellow. One of his unique accomplishments is to see past what I call the “idiot plot.” Yes, as an author, you must contrive ways to keep your hero and heroine in pulse-pounding jeopardy for 500 pages … or ninety minutes of film… but most writers and producers do it by grabbing the simpleminded cheat — assuming that society as a whole is unwise and filled with fools who cannot or will not help people who are in peril. If you posit that civilization sucks and is incompetent, then sure, a story of lively antics and hairs-breadth escapes can ensue without the inconvenient presence of skilled professionals (exactly what you hope and expect to see, when you’re in real life danger) arriving to muck up the tension! (Sure, most adventure stories show such professionals, briefly, in order to kill or write them off, or else showing them in cahoots with the villain.)
Banks chose another route, which I also travel. He asks: “Suppose humanity as a whole makes a truly wonderful and wise civilization. Operating under that brutal handicap, can an author still find ways to throw the protagonists into lovely peril?” I like a challenge. So does Iain Banks. He shows us how our descendants might be vastly better than us – the goal for which we live our lives! But that it still may be possible — even probable — to find the cracks, the chinks, the gaps, the inevitable errors that call for courage. That call for heroes.