When I saw this prompt in the schedule I had one instant thought: Mr Iain M Banks.
Fantasy was my first love of spec-fic, but science fiction came hot on its heels. One of the keys to that was the work of this quirky, off-beat Scottish writer, who tantalised my teenage imagination with out there tales such as The Wasp Factory (1984), The Bridge (1986), and The Crow Road (1992) – the latter possessing possibly the best opening line in print: “It was the day my grandmother exploded”.
Even though this wasn’t ‘science fiction’, there were hints in amongst the more down to earth weird and wonderful. Walking On Glass (1985) had two story lines, one of which was far more sci-fi. And then in 1987 Iain Banks added the ‘M’ and started on SF proper, so to speak.
Many of the thirteen ‘M’ novels are about the Culture: a wonderful, post-scarcity civilisation that hooked me totally. Free of mundane needs and restrictions, the people are playful and explorative, and can switch form or gender on a whim – just one signal of the freedom of their society, and perhaps well ahead of its time. The difficult and important tasks are often left to sentient machines. Hyper-intelligent AI Minds run the starships, for example (oh, which all have the most fabulous names!), but generally seem to find it pleasing to indulge the hedonistic lifeforms (ie ‘us’) that live aboard.
The only problem with setting up a utopian civilisation is that without conflict, there’s very little in the way of story. Thus we mainly focus on the fringes, such as the spy-corps of the Culture, Special Circumstances (SC), and their sometimes morally ambiguous decisions and meddling.
We get our first introduction to the Culture in Consider Phlebas (the title taken from T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, The Waste Land). It’s proper ‘space opera’, and widely lauded, but to be honest I never recommend starting here. While it is a great book, I initially found it a little too… well, ‘cold and intellectual’ is far too harsh a criticism, but heading in that direction, for me. That said, I am well overdue a reread, and there’s a good chance I’ll have a better view now that I have the rest of the ‘series’ (while often set in the same background, there’s not really a continuity to the books at all, and indeed they span hundreds of years if not more).
My favourites and more recommended starting points include the next two titles, The Player of Games, and Use of Weapons, as well as the non-Culture standalone, Against a Dark Background. I think these three share more of a focus on the characters, or tell slightly more contained stories. Either way, they remain firm favourites.
Player of Games in particular stands out to me as one of the best sci-fi books I’ve ever read. A citizen of the Culture is tasked by SC to take part in the incredibly complex game of Azad, and many less-than-proper strings are pulled to let a ‘foreigner’ take part. Performance in this game determines political and social standing in the Empire, which is also called Azad, so important is this game to them. I was utterly enthralled by the whole game, so brilliantly envisioned but without ever having – or requiring – a full explanation. It’s amazing how that balance is maintained: made so engrossing, with the detail and clever lack of detail both, plus all the danger and intrigue in the background is just fantastic.
All of his work tends towards rich and complex, with so many layers. Time lines and structure are frequently played with, teasing the reader and leading to more than a few “oooh!” moments. Sometimes it works better than others, true, but as a body of work I think it’s pretty dang amazing.
Space opera as a genre wasn’t as popular or widely successful as it is today (thinking of The Expanse, in particular), and the Culture novels were probably a part of bringing it back. The post-scarcity society feels very Star Trek, but overall it’s darker, more complex, and with a droll humour even while casting stones at reality in many sly ways. Banks was politically outspoken, known to be ‘left of centre’, and not shy of throwing his fame behind a just cause. His work reflected what was best and worst about humanity, I think.
As I said, I am well overdue a reread of ALL of these wonderful books, and in particular paying more attention to the wider scope of all the Culture stories put together.
In 2013, Iain Banks announced a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and he died that same year. I know I am far from alone in thinking we lost one of the great voices – and Minds – of sci-fi and spec-fic, of Scottish literature, and just one of those people who left a huge mark on the world.
(all SciFiMonth banner artwork by the fabulous Simon Fetscher)