Culture Novels – Book List

The Culture is a post-scarcity society created through the symbiosis of humanoid species and machines. Any technology of a sufficiently advanced level must be granted sentience. Everything that can be automated in the Culture is; any administrative tasks are done by a small portion of the computational abilities of the Culture's "Minds", vast artificial intelligences. This leaves humans free to play and explore and do ... well, essentially whatever they want. Most of the books in this series focus on the Culture's interactions with various alien societies, whether it's the militant and religiously fanatical Idirans or the odd Empire of Azad.


1. Consider Phlebas

by Iain M. Banks

Consider Phlebas cover image
Paperback, 467 pages
Orbit, 1987

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I had a good time reading Consider Phlebas. Iain M. Banks manages to mix technobabble with description and dialogue to come out with fascinating societies and intense action sequences. The plot was simple, and pretty linear, but it got the characters where they needed to go and blow things up. Beneath it all, there were the questions Banks raises about what it means to be human, about how we plan to interact with machines when they are just as intelligent as—more intelligent than—we are. My elation and excitement began to dissipate after the climax, however, melting away into a small amount of confusion and the bittersweet realization that nothing that happens in this book really matters.

First, a minor spoiler that's more about Banks' universe than the plot of Consider Phlebas. When I started reading, I assumed that the Culture is the product of humans from Earth and that this book takes place in the far future. The appendix clarifies the timeline; the Idiran-Culture War during which this book takes place is actually concurrent with 14th century Earth. The Culture's origins lie in a group of humanoid species, and contacts Earth around 2100, nearly eight hundred years after the events in Consider Phlebas. Again, this has no bearing on the plot, but it's a good reminder of one way in which Banks manipulates our sense of scale.

The fact that the Idiran-Culture war is "the most significant conflict of the past fifty-thousand years" of galactic history is buried at the end of the appendix, but it's one of the most interesting and important observations in this book. Imagine considering fifty-thousand-year swathes of history. Fifty thousand years ago, humans were still stumbling out of Africa and spreading throughout the world. We really have only about, what, 6000 years of recorded civilization? By setting his work in a world where civilizations like the Culture consider a couple of millennia a mere blink of the eye, Banks immediately puts us on uncertain ground and forces us to re-evaluate our conceptions about history and how individuals and even civilizations influence the outcome of events.

Consider Phlebas is a classic "rescue mission" plot, somewhat inverted in that the protagonist is working for the stranded Mind's enemies, trying to steal it away before its comrades can retrieve it. Horza has plenty of opportunities to explain why he dislikes the Culture and has sided with the Idirans; frankly, I have to admit I'm on the Culture's side in this one. I'm ready to accept my synthetic overlords. And it's pretty clear that Banks thinks the Culture is a very stable, largely beneficial society. So throughout the book, I was hoping that somehow Horza would lose, that the Culture agent Perosteck Balveda would recover the Mind and return with it to the Culture.… In retrospect, I should have been more careful with my wishes.

OK, here's the spoiler. The back cover copy says "It was the fate of Horza … and his motley crew of unpredictable mercenaries … actually to find it, and with it their own destruction." I thought that was just some hyperbole on the part of the publisher to sucker ambivalent readers into the story.

I was wrong. Almost everyone dies toward the end, and one of the survivors later commits suicide. The events in this book aren't part of a great turning point in the Idiran-Culture war, and none of the characters have any significant impact on galactic events. Which brings me back to scale and how Banks distorts our conceptions of "a long time" to humble us.

On an individual, human level, Horza's actions are important. He's fighting the Culture out of personal convictions, and even when he has the opportunity to go off and forget his obligations to the Idirans, he gets his mission back on track and sets off to retrieve the Mind. In the process, he falls in love with Yalson and conceives a child with her . . . and when she dies, something in Horza breaks, and he pushes himself over the edge trying to take revenge. Although I didn't agree with Horza's ideology, I understood that he was struggling to find a place and keep some sense of purpose. This is no easy task, especially not in a society that exists on an interstellar level, as Banks reminds us.

Ultimately, the Idiran-Culture war concludes some time after the events of Consider Phlebas. The story's only bearing the war itself is that the rescued Mind gets installed in a Culture ship and names itself after Horza. As a result, Banks leaves us with the bitter taste of futility in our mouths at the book's end. There was no real reason for all those people to die; they did, however, and not in some blaze of glory like so many war movies. They were extinguished in Horza's failed attempt to steal something that ended up having no influence on the outcome of the war and robbed him of everything he cared about.

The only conclusion I can draw that makes any sense is that this is Banks' justification for the Culture's reliance on machines, a refutation of Horza's claim that the human-machine alliance is a hollow, stagnant one. Only Minds possess the combination of boundless intelligence and longevity. Humans in the Culture, and even the Idirans, are nearly immortal, but immortality itself does not beget wisdom. The Minds are nearly immortal as well as wise, and as such, they are the only beings in the Culture capable of understanding events on a galactic scale and reacting to them. Hence, the Culture needs its machines because humans—with a few exceptions—can't comprehend events on such a large, lengthy scale. I'd have to say that Banks is right on this one.

The less lofty aspects of Consider Phlebas aren't any less impressive. Although we don't actually see many Culture-controlled areas, we learn a good deal about the Culture, and Banks does a lot of world-building. I particularly enjoyed how he describes the Damage tournament that takes place on Vavatch Orbital prior to its destruction. Damage is the sort of game that we like to imagine existing in the post-apocalyptic type of world we often envision alongside any sort of posthumanism—the ultimately sign, perhaps, that all conventional morality has gone out the window. And Banks stays true to this idea, for the most part.

Also, I couldn't help but imagining all of the drones in Consider Phlebas as having British accents. Maybe it's the bad influence of 343 Guilty Spark from the Halo series, but there's just something about the snarky superiority of the drones, particularly Unaha-Closp, that fits with the British stereotype of the elite, upper-class gentleman with perfect diction and manners used to disguise discourtesy. Anyway, the parts where we got a glimpse at the workings of the drones' minds were a definite treat.

Where Banks is less successful is the main plot of the book itself. Sometimes the action wandered, and there were parts that seem unnecessary (and unpleasant—I'm thinking of Horza's encounter with Fwi Song). Horza's approach fluctuates from calm and calculated to insanely risk-taking, and I never quite get a handle on what makes that switch inside him flip. I continued reading because I knew eventually they would wind up on Schar's World and try to find the Mind, but Banks seldom succeeds in interesting me in what happens in between the beginning of the story and its end. I was hooked on the societies, and maybe a couple of the characters, and I wanted to know how it all turned out!

Consider Phlebas has an edge to it. Without any prior experience in Banks' Culture universe (nor, indeed, with any of Banks' other work), I didn't realize this until the end of the book. Whispering rather than shouting, Consider Phlebas still manages to describe the scale on which its grand imagination must play out. Yet it doesn't always deliver a similarly-scaled narrative, not successfully anyway. I recommend it, but with the warning that this isn't "feel-good" fiction. And although the space pirates, antimatter bombs, and sex may make this sound like an action-oriented space opera, there's something deadly serious about Consider Phlebas.

2. The Player of Games

by Iain M. Banks

The Player of Games cover image
Paperback, 309 pages
Orbit, 1988

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

My experience with Iain M. Banks has been lukewarm. I liked but didn't love the first book in this series, Consider Phlebas, and I absolutely hated The Algebraist. I read The Player of Games because I am an artificial intelligence, post-scarcity junkie, and Banks is the kind of author who serves as my pusher.

The Player of Games more than makes up for any disappointment I felt over Consider Phlebas. In this return to the Culture universe, Banks manages to craft a character and a story that are compelling, both on an emotional and on a philosophical level. Most of the book takes place in a society outside the Culture, but make no mistake: this is an indictment, in some ways, of the sneakiness with which the Culture disarms possible threats. Banks employs a subtle, double-edged wit to portray simultaneously both the utopian aspects of this society and how it might look to the aliens it encounters.

But first, let's talk about the eponymous Jernah Morat Gurgeh. He plays games, almost any type of game, and he is probably the best player of games in the entire Culture. He's really rather an authority on it. Have achieved such a pinnacle, Gurgeh is bored out of his mind and spoiling for a challenge of some kind. After the additional push of some blackmail from a slightly crazy drone, Gurgeh allows himself to be enlisted by Contact, the division of the Culture that does exactly what the name implies, to play a game called Azad.

Azad is the cornerstone of the Empire of Azad, a civilization in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. Contact isn't quite sure what to do with the Empire—in fact, for an imperial power structure to survive the advent of space travel is very rare, or so we are told. This one seems to have survived because of the game after which it is named; almost every Azadian plays Azad, and one's performance determines one's status, vocation, etc. Oh, and the Azadians have three sexes: male, female, and what our limited vocabulary forces us to call "apex". The apices are dominant, having selectively bred the males and females for strength of arms and docility, respectively.

Gurgeh gets parachuted into this game, and we are told that both sides expect him to lose rather quickly. Certainly, the Azadians have no desire to see Gurgeh advance into the higher levels of play: how would you feel if an alien showed up one day and beat you at the game around which your entire society revolves? Notably, the ultimate winner of Azad becomes the Emperor. When initially being briefed on the mission, Gurgeh asks the Contact representative if they expect him to become Emperor, and the representative essentially laughs. In that one respect, Contact tells Gurgeh the truth: they don't really expect him to become Emperor. That would be too simple. No, Contact is manipulating Gurgeh—and Banks is manipulating the reader—in a far deeper game.

Central to The Player of Games is the conundrum that faces most visions of utopia: if there is no suffering, no challenge to one's livelihood, wouldn't life be stagnant and pointless? The vast AI resources of the Culture mean that no human has to do any work unless he or she wants to; everyone essentially has unlimited free time. Disease and death are uncommon. There is no money, and aside from the occasional crime of passion, there is little enough crime—mostly because there are no formal laws. The Culture is axiomatically uninhibited, and this problematic: when everything is permitted and nothing is forbidden, how can one grow by pushing the boundaries?

Banks explores this question by juxtaposing Gurgeh against the Culture's emissary to the Empire of Azad, Shohobohaum Za. Za has not quite gone native, but he speaks about the Empire with a certain amount of admiration for the "rough-and-tumble" nature of life there. At first Gurgeh has no idea what Za means; he doesn't even really grasp the concept of an empire or ruling through coercion. He only begins to understand how different Azadian society is after he learns about it through the game (because, after all, the game is the society and the society is the game). Sometimes, influenced by the reaction of Gurgeh's companion drone, Flere Imsaho, I began to worry that Gurgeh was being seduced by the game Azad, that he was beginning to lust after power and victory a little too much. This comes to a head when Gurgeh becomes the subject of a Physical Challenge. Basically, if he loses he will be castrated; if he wins, his opponent, an apex, will have its reversible vagina and ovaries removed. Gurgeh could suffer the indignity, get extracted by his ship, and have the Culture's advanced medical technology restore his genitals. Yet he wants to win, wants to advance, even if it means causing, through his victory, his opponent to lose the ability to reproduce and become an outcast. Flere Imsaho takes Gurgeh on a little tour of the slums of the capital city and shows Gurgeh some scrambled channels that cater to the depraved sexual and violent needs of the empire's elite. All of this seems designed to remind us that even if some people, like Gurgeh, aren't creative enough to make their own fun in a post-scarcity society, it's infinitely better than the injustices visited upon the members of a society like the Empire of Azad.

It turns out that the situation isn't so simple. I keep saying "we are told" in this review, because Contact tells Gurgeh one thing (or several things) and then actually intends another. He is certainly not naive of this fact; the duplicity of Contact is notorious among the Culture, and he knows he is being manipulated. He's just not sure exactly how or why. It only becomes obvious during the endgame, when Gurgeh faces off against incumbent Emperor Nicosar, what Contact intends. And just as Flere Imsaho's horror tour is supposed to wake us to the inequities of the Empire, Contact's real goals remind us that the Culture is not always sunshine and rainbows. Because when the Culture decides your society is not worthy, they do not destroy you. They do not attack you. They dismantle your society from within and let your own people do the rest. It's a little chilling, especially when, at the very end, Banks reveals exactly how intricately Contact manipulated Gurgeh into accepting the mission and achieving their goals.

In this respect, The Player of Games continues the theme from Consider Phlebas, and Gurgeh even explicitly remarks upon it: in the Culture, individuals do not make much of a difference. Minds undertake the larger, galactic-level decisions, such as running Contact, because they vastly exceed humans in both intellectual capacity and longevity. Individual humans become, in one sense, pawns that the Minds manipulate in order to serve the larger needs of the Culture as a whole. What's so troubling is that it apparently works, because the Culture has been around for eleven thousand years. That kind of makes sense, because this impersonal, non-individualistic approach to decision-taking removes the ego that might otherwise corrupt a politician and his or her government. However, it goes against a lot of the thinking that pervades our contemporary society, and that makes the theme a bitter pill to swallow.

Note that I'm not actually advocating for (or against) the Culture as an ideal vision of what we should strive for as our future. It's unrealistic, because it assumes human beings are nicer than they probably are. In real life, I doubt we can ever eliminate that criminal element (even if we do arrive at a point where we no longer need laws). Any new technology is immediately going to be seized upon for two purposes: to make money legitimately, and to commit crimes. Our future will almost certainly be a lot grittier than the society depicted in the Culture series. Nevertheless, I am enamoured of the Culture, what it represents, and the interesting philosophical implications of a human/machine symbiosis on a political level.

So I enjoyed The Player of Games thematically, and I also liked the character of Jernau Morat Gurgeh. As a protagonist he might not be ideal, especially at first, because he whines about his dissatisfaction with being awesome. Yet that proves a useful starting point for Gurgeh to change and grow, mostly for the better. I really like that Banks enforces a certain level of ignorance when it comes to Gurgeh's knowledge of science and technology. A lot of science fiction novels focus on the characters who know exactly how all of their society's advanced technology works; some take it one step further and seem to assume that, in the future, everyone will understand quantum mechanics. Banks averts this:

The Limiting Factor was tearing through something it called ultraspace with increasing acceleration.… He didn't even know what ultraspace was. Was it the same as hyperspace? At least he had heard of that….

Even better, Gurgeh remembers this very close to the end of the book and asks Flere Imsaho what ultraspace is, but he doesn't really understand the explanation. Gurgeh is by no means unintelligent—he writes papers on game theory and has mastered in years a game that takes Azadians their entire lifetime to play well. So I enjoyed that Banks made a layperson the protagonist of a science-fiction novel and still managed to make the entire book work. It attests to a skill that seemed largely fallow in The Algebraist and did not quite shine enough in Consider Phlebas.

With The Player of Games, I no longer feel lukewarm toward Banks or his Culture series. I am officially hooked.