My first taste of Iain Banks was The Bridge (1987), a fantasy novel of sorts in which a comatose accident victim lives in a consistent dream world consisting primarily of a gigantic bridge which may or may not have a terminus at some point. The bridge is home to a bizarre and varied culture. The protagonist is a mental patient, suffering from amnesia, whose own status varies arbitrarily during the course of the novel. The surreal landscapes and odd, almost random events vaguely reflect the condition of his real body. Although many of the images were very deftly drawn – I remembered airships hovering over the bridge even ten years later – the rest of the novel had receded in my memory. When I reread it recently, only that single sequence seemed familiar.
Consider Phlebas (1988) was the first novel of the Culture, although there had been earlier short stories. In form, the book is a far future space opera involving a conflict between two civilizations, each a mix of human and alien. The Culture, which is shown in retreat throughout the novel, although it is clearly implied that they will ultimately triumph, glorifies the machine and in fact it appears to be artificial intelligences that are actually running that society. The opposition, led by a belligerent alien species, emphasizes the superiority of individuality and spontaneity. Although the protagonist, a shapechanging human, sympathizes with the latter, it is not clear if the author’s sympathies lie with either side. Both have their good points and both have their flaws, though some of these are not revealed until later books. Consider Phlebas is a fast paced space opera which at times felt like a serious take on the Hitchhiker books by Douglas Adams. There’s a roving, cult level game in which devotees willingly surrender their lives, a mutiny in space, a stolen spaceship, a gigantic artificial habitat which is subsequently destroyed, and a downbeat ending that almost seems to invalidate everything that has gone before.
The Player of Games (1989) is set many years later, and has a narrower focus. This time the protagonist is one of the hedonistic citizens of the Culture, a professional game player who is enlisted by the mysterious intelligence service to enter a competition within a smaller empire, ruled by a race whose civilization is so cruel, repressive, and downright evil that it is almost a caricature. Against all odds, he proves to be superior to every player from that civilization, which is critical because the ultimate winner is, theoretically, the next emperor. Although the government manipulates things to prevent him from actually achieving that goal, his ability is so disconcerting to the actual emperor that he becomes mentally unstable and in due course undermines the entire empire. Rather implausible, obviously, but good fun.
Banks has written very few short stories, almost all of which appear in his collection, The State of the Art (1991). The book opens with the surrealistic vignette “Road of Skulls”, which has virtually no plot although the image of a roadway paved with the skulls of vanquished enemies is striking. There’s more plot in “A Gift from the Culture”, but just barely. The protagonist has left the Culture and lives in a comparatively primitive and more violent society, where he is pressured by criminals to perform an assassination. Efforts to avoid the situation come to naught and he eventually complies. Nicely written, but the resolution struck me as both inevitable and pointless. “Odd Attachment” is an amusing joke story about an oversized sentient plant plucking the petals/digits from a human being. “Cleaning Up” is also a joke story, this one about the misdirection of defective technology to Earth and its affect on our international balance of power. ‘Pieces” is not SF, and is a rather talky bit about the conflict between faith and reason, science and religion.
The quality level rises sharply with “Descendant”, another story of the Culture. The protagonist is the sole survivor of a military attack on an orbiting base, unless you count the sentient environmental suit he wears and which manages to convey him to the surface of a nearby planet. Both man and machine are damaged, but they set out on an extended trek toward a ground base, during which the human learns that there is little difference between organic and inorganic life, that both are essentially systems with very similar programming. As the trek progresses, he and the reader are both less capable of distinguishing between the two personalities, although ultimately only the suit survives.
The title story, a novella, is also set in the Culture, which has discovered 1977 Earth and is trying to decide whether or not to open contact. One of their agents goes native, deciding to remain on Earth because, for all its faults, it is not trapped in the cultural stasis of the Culture. Banks is clearly more at ease when he has enough space to maneuver and this is the best story in the collection, although the latter half becomes bogged down in lengthy and sometimes repetitive speeches. The collection concludes with a small stream of consciousness commentary on the insanity of the then current international tensions. All in all, the collection is very minor and doesn’t measure up to the quality of the author’s novels.
Use of Weapons (1992) reminded me a bit of The Player of Games, but with an even more bitter undertone. The protagonist, Zakalwe, is an ex-agent of the Culture who became supposedly disenchanted with the way they manipulate other civilizations, although he attempts to meddle in similar ways, and with less success, while on his own. One of his old assignments has had a sudden reversal and he is enticed out of retirement to attempt to fix the problem, which he agrees to with unsettling speed. The story of his return to that world unfolds in due course, but only after lengthy preliminaries including a series of flashbacks which, although they are obviously intended to provide depth to the character, interrupted the story flow a bit too much for my taste. There’s another witty machine intelligence, but the banter doesn’t flow quite as well this time and I had trouble maintaining my interest half way through. The surprise ending in which we find out the protagonist’s real identity was nicely done, but on balance I still thought this failed to live up to the quality of its predecessors.
Banks stepped outside the Culture universe for Against a Dark Background (1993), an amalgam of quest, chase, caper, and space opera motifs. Lady Sharrow is the last of her line, a family which has been locked in a struggle with the fanatic Huhlse who are determined to kill her unless she locates the last of a collection of fantastic weapons, the Lazy Gun, a device that has an almost magical ability to destroy its targets in the most appropriate fashion. She and a small group of friends set out first to locate a similarly missing ancient book which supposedly holds a clue to the present location of the Lazy Gun, helping them with a complicated jewel heist along the way. As if her situation wasn’t already bad enough, she has been infected with a bioweapon that allows a mysterious group of conspirators to inflict blinding pain on her remotely, and they also want the Lazy Gun.
All of this takes place in a solar system occupied by a race that has had space travel for 7000 years but which has never managed to reach another star. The rise and fall of situations has left a mishmash of technology behind, some of it obsolete, some of it inexplicable, as well as a fragmented social system and a quilted political map. At times the technology approaches magic – e.g. the Lazy Gun, which appears to have a sense of humor – and in some ways the novel reads like an elaborate fantasy quest with the cursed heroine and her companions searching for the magic artifact with which they can defeat the evil sorcerers. After a grand tour of the planets and a series of exciting encounters, Sharrow discovers the painful truth
Although I enjoyed the first couple of hundred pages, I began to have trouble with the book during their visit to the land of the Useless Kings. Banks appears to have been uncertain whether he wanted to write a straightforward adventure story or a satire, and the book switches back and forth. It is difficult to feel empathy during a tragic death scene when it appears in the same narrative as an encounter with such amusing but unrealistic nonsense. I was also bothered by the flashbacks which, though they helped develop the characters, interrupted the story entirely too often. The situation was not improved by the fact that in several cases it is not immediately evident that we are in fact in a flashback. Finally, and I’ll try to avoid a spoiler here, one of the chief revelations at the end is in fact no surprise because if that wasn’t the case, one of the supporting characters would have served no useful purpose.
Feersum Endjinn (1994) is set on a far future Earth. Some sort of interstellar cloud is about to engulf the solar system and a new ice age is imminent. Civilization on Earth has descended into a kind of technological barbarism, amidst which warfare and virtual reality co-exist. Each person is given eight lives in the real world, thanks to recording of personalities, and then eight lives in the virtual reality world. Alandre Sessine is assassinated, bringing his life in the real world to an end, but in the virtual world he sets out to investigate his own murder. Unfortunately, someone promptly murders him seven times there as well, leaving him with only a single lifetime to discover the truth. Two other main story lines are interwoven with this. One involves a senior scientist who is secretly conspiring to keep information from the King while investigating a strange phenomenon that might be a relic of ancient, lost technology. The other involves a woman apparently created out of nowhere by the intricate and extensive computer system that underlies the entire world, whose existence is designed to fulfill a significant purpose.
There are some things about this novel I liked very much, particularly the evocation of the ruined palace and Sessine’s adventures in virtual reality. There are other things I disliked, particularly the intervals in which the narrative is told in an inarticulate, misspelled pigeon English, a device Banks has used before (and which I didn’t care for then either). By the end, I was pretty much alienated from the novel, I think because Banks crammed it so full of mysteries and wonders and technologies indistinguishable from magic that I was unable to set my anchor anywhere in the narrative and say “okay, this I understand, now let’s deal with the other unknowns”. So for me, at least, this was his weakest novel to date.
Excession (1996), a much better novel, returned to the Culture. I was pulled into this one quite quickly as Banks reveals his opening mysteries. Somewhere in space, a Culture ship encountered a star that was literally older than the universe, a star which mysteriously disappeared a short time later. Elsewhere, a ship belonging to the Elenchers, who split away from the Culture, is overcome by a force which takes over the ship’s artificial intelligence, leaving only a simple, self contained module cast loose in space to tell what happened. The protagonist is Byr Genar-Hofoen, a diplomat who may have identified a bit too closely with his assigned contacts, the belligerent alien Affronters, who also have acquired intelligence about an anomalous artifact which may provide a portal to older universes. The title refers to an incident or object which takes outside the context of the known universe, which is what the Culture, and others, have discovered here.
The novel is all about plots within plots. One group schemes to provoke a war in order to address the evils of the Affronter regime. Another is opposed to any course which leads to further violence. Some want to plumb the secrets of the anomaly; others wish it had never been discovered. Ultimately war breaks out, the focus being control of an object which might change the balance of power, but also an object that might have designs on accruing power to itself. Although ultimately we discover something of its nature, the various characters do not and it vanishes, leaving mystery and mixed feelings behind. The climax is a deliberate anti-climax; the war fizzles out, the excession disappears, the various personal conflicts are incompletely resolved. A more pointed resolution probably would have been less satisfactory, however, because the point seems to be that motives, methods, and results are rarely clear cut in their creation or their eventual unraveling.
The Culture society is interesting in part because it is not clear that the author is always sympathetic to their ideals. Although they ostensibly seek to improve the lot of other species, overturn tyrants, address injustice, and quell war and other horrors, there is also the suggestion that even though Culture citizens enjoy a great deal of freedom compared to most they do so at the expense of individuality. Nor is the Culture above coercing its citizens into performing “good” deeds or of murdering oppressors and dictators, even provoking wars in some cases to prevent wider conflicts. Their pragmatism is often cold and some elements within Culture society have broken off to pursue their own courses. The hero of Consider Phlebas is actively working for a more belligerent race to counter the expansion of the Culture, for example, and the Elenchers of Excession are in fundamental disagreement with the interference promulgated by the Culture’s secret service. Another character from Excession, Gestra Ishmethit, has been forced into exile by the relentless pressures to conform to the usual gregarious, hedonistic attitude of Culture citizens.
Banks’ aliens really aren’t. They may have tentacles and breathe methane, but they are essentially human. For the most part, so also are the drones and sentient starships. Every once in a while, particularly in Excession, there is a hint of alienness about them, but their motives and responses to stimuli are essentially the same as those of a human would be. In context this really doesn’t seem to matter, but it does give the Culture universe a kind of sameness that renders it slightly flat.
Inversions (1998) does not take place in the Culture universe. The novel alternates between two major characters, both living on what appears to be a human colonized world that has descended into barbarism and ignorance of the past, although that’s never explicitly stated. It could be another race entirely. DeWar is the chief bodyguard to the Protector, a dictator who overthrew the Emperor and installed a modified form of democracy and who has numerous enemies. The other is Vosill, a doctor who finds herself serving a brutal king in a foreign land, virtually a prisoner though valued for her skills. The prose in this one seems to have moved up from its previously high level and I became engrossed much more quickly than in any of the previous novels.
DeWar is a compulsive worrier. When no attempts are made to assassinate the Protector, the man he is sworn to protect, he worries that there is a subtle plan in the works. His only friend is one of the Protector’s chief concubines, whose insights into his psychology make him uneasy. Vosill, on the other hand, is completely isolated. Even the servant/apprentice assigned to her is a spy watching for treachery. Through stories that DeWar tells to the Protector’s son, we learn that he and Vosill are – possibly – offworlders who used to know one another and who differed in their attitudes toward undeveloped races, one believing that kindness was essential, the other believing in more direct action.
Both nations are troubled by internal politics, although neither leader is ever in any serious danger until the very end. The King, despite his absolute, arbitrary, and often brutally repressive policies is a counterpoint to the relatively progressive, anti-authoritarian, and reformist Protector. But despite the apparent disparity, it is the former nation which appears to be better administered, and which is certainly more capable of dealing with international politics. An unusually thoughtful novel that merely makes observations and lets the reader draw conclusions based on their own predisposition.
Banks returned to the Culture universe for Look to Windward (2000), nearly as good as Inversions. The Chelgrians were a rigid, caste dominated civilization which was manipulated by the Culture to move toward a more open society. Unfortunately, this was one of those rare instances when the intervention went badly, resulting in a devastating civil war. Quilan was a soldier who fought to maintain the status quo. His wife was killed during the conflict and he is bitter toward the Culture and toward what he views as upstarts among his own people. He is enlisted for a mission to convince Ziller, a prominent Chel composer, to return from his self imposed exile among the Culture as a protest against the elitism of his own people. Quilan has also been conditioned to perform a second mission, about which we are initially unaware, and is secretly carrying the personality of another military officer inside his brain. That mission requires the death of Ziller.
Interspersed with the main narrative are the experiences of a Culture scholar on a bizarre world whose dominant inhabitants are gigantic, floating gasbags that manufacture creatures to accompany them on their eons long voyages through the atmosphere. One of their kind is found dead, carrying outsiders, whom of whom is a dying Culture agent who knows about a deadly plot. We then learn the details, which require Quilan to destroy the Hub, the artificial intelligence which dominates the artificial world where Ziller is living. If successful, fatalities could be numbered in the billions, revenge for the deaths suffered during the Chelgrian war. The resolution involves a number of twists and turns. This is, so far, the best of the Culture novels.
Banks’ next novel was The Algebraist (2004), set in a distant future that bears some superficial resemblance to the Culture novels, but is radically different in many other ways. Artificial intelligences are prohibited and sentience is split between the Slow and the Quick races. The Slow races live for millions of years and are, as the name implies, in no hurry about much of anything. The Quick, which includes humans, are comparatively short lived and frantic. Fassin Taak is a Seer on a remote planet which has been temporarily severed from the rest of the universe thanks to the destruction of its wormhole by the possibly anarchist Beyonders. Seers are those few of the Quick who are allowed to communicate with the Dwellers, a race that occupies most of the gas giants in the universe and which are the most powerful and enigmatic of the Slow.
An expansionist dictatorship has sent a war fleet to attack Ulubis, Taak’s home system, apparently because they have heard rumors that he stumbled upon part of a secret that could alter the balance of power throughout the galaxy. The Dwellers supposedly have constructed a secret network of wormholes known only to them. The slightly less repressive interstellar civilization to which Ulubris more or less belongs has also sent a fleet, but expects to arrive after the main attack. Taak is drafted into a desperate effort to acquire the rest of the information before it is too late. But Taak, we discover, is part of another, secretive organization.
The political and military maneuvering is for a very large part of the book more background than foreground. Much of the inventiveness involves Banks’ depiction of the Dweller society inside the gas giant, where war is a game, sort of, where children are hunted down and killed as a matter of course, and where all the rules of morality and some of the rules of science seem to be malleable. Although Taak believes that he's on a fool's mission, in due course he discovers that the Dwellers really do have hidden wormholes. Everything gets resolved in due course and a particularly nasty villain meets a suitable end. Banks writes space opera on a scale and with a skill that puts him on the same shelf with Dan Simmons, Vernor Vinge, and Alastair Reynolds. He frequently employs a low key sense of humor that lightens what might otherwise be particularly grim events. His ability to imagine a totally new environment has few equals. And the best part is that unlike many seasoned writers, his most recent books are the most innovative and the best written.
Banks’ most recent novel – also set in the Culture Universe - is Matter (2008). Most of the story takes place on, or rather in, an artificial planet where humanity appears to be caught between barbarism and technology, and where various alien influences meddle in local affairs. The king of one nation on that world dies, apparently in combat, but actually at the hands of Tyl Loesp, an ambitious nobleman who plans to rule in the name of the young heir to the throne, Oramen, and eliminate him before he reaches his majority. He also believes that the two older sons died in the battle, but is only half right. The ineffectual Ferbin not only survived but witnessed the murder of his father, and is currently in hiding. Once this point is established, we move back and forth from this limited world to a macrocosmic level where agents of the interstellar community are engaged in attempting to – if not prevent wars – at least make them less violent in backward civilizations. One of these agents – Djan Serij – is Ferbin’s sister, recruited out of her primitive society. She and her two surviving brothers become the viewpoint characters as Oramen begins to suspect that he has not been told the truth about his father’s death, Ferbin tries to flee off world to reach his sister and other potential help to unseat the usurper, and Djan decides to take leave and go home, unaware of the treachery committed against her family.
There are layers upon layers of conspiracy, with various alien races mentored by other races which in turn have their superiors and so on. The spiderlike Octs have sided with Ferlin’s people and betrayed another ally, for which perfidy they earn the enmity of another species, but the Oct themselves appear to be up to something on a larger scale that is initially concealed from the reader. Ferlin has the most interesting story in the first half of the book as he and one companion travel through the various levels of an artificial world inhabited by various alien species, eventually escaping to the surface in their quest to find off world support. Oramen’s suspicions grow stronger when he barely survives an assassination attempt. The army, led by the usurper Tyl Loesp, is moving forward but he has begun to make odd errors of judgment. And Djan, deprived of most of her physical augmentation prior to her trip home, is no longer certain what she believes or whom she should consider trustworthy.
There’s a not particularly veiled discussion of morality in which one of the characters declaims upon the possibility that life is an illusion, a shared simulation overseen by unknown forces. He rejects this because life is so full of cruelty that those in charge would have to be terrible monsters to subject people to such a fate. By extension, this suggests a rejection of a universe directed or overseen by a God or gods. Banks also examines what in Star Trek was known as the Prime Directive. When it is appropriate to meddle in the affairs of a less advanced civilization and when is it not? Although these more serious discussions are interlaced through the narrative, they do not in any way detract from the sheer joy of storytelling. This is space opera at its absolute best.
Transition (2009) is not a Culture Universe novel and in some ways very unusual for Banks. It involves a group of people from one of many parallel universes - not ours - who can travel from one to another using a rare drug. The Concern is a kind of interuniversal police force which assassinates bad guys and protects good guys, or at least that's the theory. There's a power play among the directors of the Concern and a particularly nasty woman has decided to eliminate the opposition. There are several independent stories that tend to merge toward the end - one of which I thought was completely superfluous and not particularly interesting. Banks also introduces various new powers and characters toward the end and it had the feel of a makeshift solution. Beautifully written but not up to his usual standards.
Surface Detail (2010) is a very long Culture novel. The main plot involves the battle in virtual reality between forces supporting or opposed to the existence of virtual hells by a variety of alien civilizations. The Culture is not directly involved although it is opposed to the program. The war is going against the anti-hell people who propose to spill the conflict over into the real universe. Subplots involve a mysterious Culture agent, a slave woman who is murdered and revived in a new body, who wants revenge on her tormentor. Most of the more interesting characters this time are sentient ships, whose motives are not always clear. The pace is somewhat slower than in most of the author's earlier novels but all of the divergent plots come together at the end.