Best of the Culture

I’m not usually troubled by celebrity deaths. Much as I love Alan Rickman, his passing last year–among the first of what seemed 50,000 celebrity deaths in 2016–did not trouble me overmuch. Only one death in recent memory can be said to have very much affected me: that of the Scottish novelist and visionary Iain M. Banks. I remember going to check up on his website, as was my wont every few months, to see if he had announced a new book in his space opera series, the Culture. This must have been early in 2013, because The Hydrogen Sonata had been released fairly recently and the man worked fairly quickly (particularly when stacked against certain other writers to whom I am subscribed). I was devastated to read his post about his cancer, and more devastated when I learned that he had lost his battle with it.

It seems silly to admit, but I was devastated not only because there would be no more gifts from the Culture, his strange and compelling anarchic utopia (a utopia that is really a very well-mannered machine autocracy, but that’s an issue for another time). I was devastated because I would never get the chance to meet him. Even then, a sophomore in college, I was certain that I would make it to where I am now: that I would sell my book. I had foggy hopes of meeting Mr. Banks at some Worldcon years hence, of sharing a whiskey with the man and of thanking him for Cheradenine Zakalwe, for Lededje, for Jernau Morat Gurgeh, for Bora Horza and all the rest. And I can’t do that. What I have been able to do is place an homage to his work in my own, and to call that enough. It isn’t enough, but it will have to do.

The Culture series is unique: 9 novels, 1 novella, and a couple of short stories, almost none of them sharing characters or plot elements, all set in a strange and jangling space opera universe characterized by technology so preposterously advanced as to make most magic seem trite by comparison, an idealized version of cultural anarchism achieved through that same high technology (that there’s no way the Culture could have arisen as a consequence of this philosophy is a detail I was gladly willing to ignore for the sake of the fun. I have written my rejoinder to this opinion elsewhere), and an enormous, enormous amount of sarcasm. Each book is unique, each fantastic. I’ve read them all at least several times, and though I do not claim expert status on the series the way I might for The Lord of the Rings or the Dune Chronicles (mostly because I can’t spell anything from Banks’ work properly), I’m certainly no slouch.

And because I’m no slouch, I wanted to write this and take a moment to abjectly disagree with this piece from the Guardian’s Damien Walter. By my reckoning, speaking only for myself and for whatever my opinion as an M-List novelist is worth, here are the Top 5 Iain M. Banks novels.

5. Inversions

Didn’t see that coming, did you? Yes? No? Of course not. No one expects Inversions, because it’s the least apparently Culture of the Culture novels. On the surface of it (taken at surface detail, if you will) the book appears to be Banks’ attempt at a low fantasy novel, set on a planet of approximately early Renaissance level technology, it tells of two warring kingdoms through the lens of two detached narrators: one the assistant to a foreign doctor administering the King of Haspidus, one the unnamed impartial observer of events at the court of the military dictator of Tassasen. Throughout the narrative, it becomes clear to us–familar as we are with Banks’ world–that both the foreign doctor and the dictator’s bodyguards are offworlders of Culture origin: humans from an advanced civilization playing God amongst primitives. The real genius here is that Banks comes at this from the perspective of natives, and so renders things that might be prosaic to those of us familiar with his work strange again. It does everything low fantasy does at its best, but hints at high technology and the glory of outer space the way most fantasies hint at gods and magic.

4. Consider Phlebas

Banks’ first book published in the series is also one of the hardest to come to grips with for me. As a 12-year-old, I couldn’t finish it. It’s Banks at his most Guardians of the Galaxy: a rip-roaring heist novel filled with shape-shifters and cannibals and put-upon robots. It begins with a man being shat on in a cell, and it doesn’t dial down the bleakness at any point: it only dials up the humor. But it introduces us to this utterly strange and wonderful universe, as a team of ragtag mercenaries attempt to recover one of the Culture’s hyper-intelligent AI Minds from the ruins of a bombed-out, extinct civilization guarded by a race of incorporeal ghosts. It’s a work of utter genius, culminating in a pulse pounding action sequence at the end that’s the literary equivalent of the final act of Rogue One. 

3. The Player of Games

This one used to be my favorite, because it was the first one I ever finished. After I stalled out trying to get a handle on Consider Phlebas, I gave The Player of Games a shot (my mother had imported those two, along with Use of Weapons, from Europe for me for Christmas. I can’t remember how it was my 12-year-old self became convinced I needed them, and at the time I couldn’t seem to find them online or in stores…even the magical bookseller who haunted the local Borders and only appeared when I needed her couldn’t help me). It’s a much easier read than Phlebas, and so I still recommend it to folks looking to get in on the series. It’s the story of Jurneu Morat Gurgeh, a man from the Culture who plays games: board games, video games, card games, games of chance…even sports. He was also imminently more likeable a person than Consider Phlebas’ assassin-hero, Bora Horza, so it made my younger self more amenable to the story. Gurgeh is recruited by the Culture to participate in (read: interfere with) the election cycle of a foreign galactic empire, Azad, by playing a complex board game which they use as an examination system for determining who is worthy or fit for what government post (such that the winner overall becomes Emperor). It explores how such a system might work, all while pointing out the problems with privilege and imbalance in the system, as well as dealing with all the intrigue one might expect to come from a foreign national like Gurgeh being really, really good at this sort of game (which could spell disaster for the Empire). I also have a personal attachment to it, as one of my very dearest friends is a huge gamer, and I tend to think of him as Gurgeh.

2. Surface Detail

Damien Walter’s article on the Guardian had this listed in 10th place, and I can’t disagree strongly enough. Rather than lacking Banks’ genius at its best, Surface Detail exemplifies Banks’ vision in its grandest scale by reusing some of his most familiar tropes: a woman horribly wronged seeking revenge, a genius-soldier as willing participant and antagonist in a war that is both figuratively and literally a war of ideas, an utterly epic scope, and the most dryly sarcastic and terrifying warship AI of all time. Throw in the biggest honking plot twist in Banks’ entire canon right at the end for seasoning, and you’re on your way to greatness. It’s the story of a huge, virtual reality war being fought between several civilizations over whether or not those civilizations have a right to make copies of people’s minds and trap them in VR hells as a form of punishment. We visit those hells, and they’re even more gross and disturbing than Dante’s own vision, reminding me more of something out of a Japanese RPG’s most revolting bonus dungeon than anything else. And it takes that VR premise to its extreme, waging battles in medieval castles, in space, in the depths of the oceans, and all the while a single slave girl struggles to take revenge against a sadist billionaire–her former master–who just might have a role to play in the war for the hells. It’s brilliant, but definitely not the first Culture book you should read.

1. Use of Weapons

Anyone who knows me knows I was going to say this. Mr. Walter even acknowledges this book not being in his top 5 might shock some people. I, for one, am shocked that it’s not everyone’s top pick. There’s nothing like it (or if there is, it’s copying this). It starts and the middle of the story, and alternates towards both the end of the story and the beginning. It follows Diziet Sma, a Culture agent tasked with locating the immortal supersoldier and tactical mastermind Cheradenine Zakalwe, her former partner, a man whom the Culture uses to fight proxy wars. She needs him to stop another war, and along the way we dive into his own mysterious past, structured in such a way that functions both as origin story and redemption arc simultaneously in a way that sums up the whole of the man’s life in one go, creating a complete portrait of this man as both this brilliant soldier-hero, but it does so by cutting him off at the knees in this way that’s utterly, completely heartbreaking and terrifying and beautiful. It is an absolutely unparalleled achievement, and it is a crime for any other title to take the top spot.

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