An Archaeologists’ Guide to Iain M. Banks

Post Script: On Sunday, June 9th, Iain M. Banks passed away.  In memorandum I posted a list of the order in which I might suggest someone could read his writing, focussing almost entirely on his Science Fiction.  This is a link to The Archaeologists’ Guide to Reading the Culture: A Farewell to Iain M. Banks

Yesterday, I heard that Iain Banks (a.k.a. Iain M. Banks) has late stage cancer and is unlikely to survive more than a year.

IBanks_GQ_09Nov12_RayCharlesRedman_b_642x390Those of you who have been following my blog for a while will know that Banks is one of my favorite authors, and The Use of Weapons being one of my favorite books. Indeed, I have read all of his Science Fiction novels (which he publishes as Iain M. Banks), reviewed all but his short story collection and was in fact planning to begin reviewing his literary works (written as Iain Banks), most of which can be classified as mysteries of one sort or another.  I still plan to do this, possibly starting with either Complicity or his upcoming and likely final novel, The Quarry, but now I will do so with a heavy heart.

Iain-M-Banks-near-his-hom-007Now, I had planned a little blurb about Strings on a Shadow Puppet for today’s release, but instead, I am going do a brief bit about Banks’ work.  After all, he has been quite an influence on me, demonstrating that one can write Sci-Fi in a literary style and still have commercial success.  So to that end, today I am going to write a list of

Iain Banks’ works in the order they were written, with appropriate blurbs and links to each of my (spoiler free) reviews.

iain-banksLater in the year I will post The Archaeologists’ Guide to Iain M. Banks’ The Culture, which will include brief descriptions of some of his more amazing ideas as well as my list of Culture books in the order I think they should be read (which yes, is different from the order they were published).

So, now, onward to The Archaeologists’ Guide to Iain M. Banks, but in order to discuss his books, perhaps I should begin by discussing his most famous setting, the one in which most (though by no means all) of his Science Fiction books take place…

The Culture:

The Culture is an ultra advanced, galaxy spanning post-need utopian civilization whose citizens lead an arguably hedonistic life free of concerns.  Governed by a series of hyper-intelligent artificial Minds (they are to Artificial Intelligences as humans are to single cell organisms), the citizens of the Culture live as long as they wish, have backups of their memories in case they die, can change shape (and sex) at will, can gland whatever drug or feeling they desire and can, in essence, do whatever they please.

cupcakesCultureThe Culture is not, however, alone in the galaxy. In order to ensure the safety of their society, and influence others to follow a similar path, they have an organization known as Contact, and its somewhat shady covert operations division: Special Circumstances.  With human and hyper intelligent robots called Drones as their operatives, Special Circumstances directly and indirectly influence the politics and other social development of societies around them.

Iain M. Banks with the Orbit team at the 25th Anniversary of the Culture series

Iain M. Banks with the Orbit team at the 25th Anniversary of the Culture series

What is most interesting about the Culture, however, is not the ultracool concepts of Minds and Drones, nor even the clever dialogue and concepts they put forward, but rather the subtleties of the way he presents his people.  Though one could read it as utopian, it also serves as a completely dystopian society – like a world populated by hipsters desperately seeking something to make their lives meaningful.

Obviously his most fleshed out world, it is a fascinating example of how one can both stretch one’s imagination while also addressing social and philosophical concepts.  It does this, however, without hitting one over the head.  Indeed, one can ignore the more heady concepts all together and just read his books as ripping yarns.  That, is why I love his writing, and that is why I am so sad that he is ill.

The Books:

considerPhlebasConsider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 1987)

One of the best Science Fiction books I have read.  It launched Iain M. Banks’ Culture world/series and demonstrates that good Science Fiction can stand up to any other form of literature. Indeed on a literary scale, I would say that it remains one of his best books, but people who dislike science fiction may not appreciate, and Banks’ writing style may prove difficult for some readers (though personally, I loved it).
A dark tale told from the point of view of an opponent of the Culture, it was inspired by the Iran-Iraq War and examines a material humanist society at war with a theocratic one.  It is tale of Horza, a mercenary assassin sent on a mission to kill or capture a Culture Mind that is stranded on a planet under the protection of a civilization as technologically far above the Culture as the Culture is above us. Filled with fantastic imagery, ideas and adventure, it is an exciting tale with a dark and contemplative nature.

The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 1988) 

Player of GamesThe Player of Games is Iain M Banks second science fiction novel, and the second installment in his Culture series. It beautifully builds upon the Universe he constructed in Consider Phlebas, but unlike most series, you don’t have to have read the previous novel to understand and thoroughly enjoy this book.  Indeed, I normally recommend this as the best place to start for readers new to Banks’ Culture. For one thing it is one of his shortest, and for me, his most accessible.

The story is somewhat straight forward, for Banks anyhow. Jernau Morat Gurgeh is the greatest game player the Culture has to offer. Yet when the nefarious Special Circumstances branch of Culture’s Contact wing ask him to play a game unlike any other, he will need all of his skills and more. The stakes are high, for if he wins he will rule the Empire of Azad, but if he loses he could well die.

I highly recommend this book, not just for the action or the cool sci-fi stuff, but for the flow of language, the incredible ideas and the interesting commentary on socio-cultural imperialism.  Having said that, there’s some pretty cool sci-fi stuff and action as well.

Use of Weapons, Iain M. Banks (Orbit)

use-of-weapons-coverThe third of Banks‘ Culture’ novels, The Use of Weapons is without a doubt my favorite.  Indeed, it ranks up in my favorite books of all time.  It is a tremendously dark tale told in an alternating, dual time frame manner, with one set of stories moving forward and the other moving backward in time.  As one reads it, one uncovers the dark secrets and horrible past of the books’ main characters, and exactly what a weapon can be…

Like all of Banks’ novels, this is a stand alone book and in no way requires the reader to be familiar with any of his previous works. Furthermore, it not only has a compelling storyline set in a beautifully described and imaginative world, but is told in a manner that highlights this award winning author’s literary talents.

iain-banks-state-of-artState of the Art, Iain M. Banks (Orbit) -NOT REVIEWED.

A collection of short stories, some of which are in the Culture, most of which are not.  This book serves as a brilliant show piece of the variety of tales and styles that Banks can write.  Though I generally prefer novels, this is a great short story collection, filled with brilliant writing and great imagery.

Against a Dark Background, Iain M. Banks (Orbit)

AgainstDarkBack2Against a Dark Background was Iain M. Banks‘ fourth Science Fiction Novel, and his first not explicitly set in the Culture universe. It is a marvelously interesting read, with strangely dark humor and filled with wonders from Banks’ vivid imagination.  While not as dark as The Use of Weapons or Complicity, it certainly has its fair share of grim humor and deep overtones.

The plot revolves around Lady Sharrow and her hunt for the last remaining Lazy Gun, the only weapon ever invented that demonstrates a sense of humor.  Created by a lost civilization, no one understands how these guns work, only that when fired they frequently destroy their target in a random way whose ridiculousness is inversely related to the size of said target.  Thus, target a city and it will probably just blow up, but shoot a person and it will probably kill them in a manner more commonly seen in Bugs Bunny.  Prepare for anvils from the sky, giant electrodes popping out and electrifying them, or the like.

Funny, dark and thoughtful, this is an excellent book for anyone who likes science fiction.

Feersum Endjinn, Iain M. Banks (Orbit) 

IainMBanksFeersumEndjinn“Count Sessine is about to die for the very last time….” With a tag line like that, how wrong can you go?

Though this is one of my favorite of Banks’ books, I would not recommend it for everyone.  Indeed, I would suggest reading after you have already come to appreciate/trust him as a writer.

Feersum Endjinn is not a Culture book, but is a wonderfully imagined and brilliantly written book.  Even so, it is not an easy book to read. This is not only due to the complex multi-perspective post-post-modern form that the book takes, but also because part of the book is written in a quasi-phonetic form that approximates a regional  working class British accents (e.g. the title of the book might have been spelled Fearsome Engine). As one reads on, however, what began as a headache becomes one of the best elements of the book, and makes one think about language and what it implies to us about the speaker. I should note, however, that once one is used to the phonetic and text-speech spelling in parts of the tale, it reads like a Ripping Yarn.

I highly recommend Feersum Endjinn to anyone who is looking for an intellectual teaser wrapped inside a good solid adventure.

Excession, Iain M. Banks (Orbit)

excessionExcession is Iain M. Banks‘ seventh science fiction novel, and his fourth that is definitively set in the Culture universe. It is an innovative tale told primarily from the point-of-view of the culture Minds, and stands out to me as one of his best books.  Though it is a stand-alone novel, it is probably not the best book to start with if you haven’t read a Culture novel before. After all, starting the point from hyper intelligent AI’s with layers of agendas may prove to be a bit of a block to slipping easily into the world he has created.

If you are familiar with his Culture books, however, Excession is a wonderful insight to the inner workings of the most fascinating of Banks’ creations.

Inversions, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 1998)

IainMBanksInversionsThough I do not feel that Inversions Iain M. Banks‘ best work, it is a very good book that can be read as a variety of different subgenres. If you’d like, it could read as an excellent High Fantasy Novel with low, or maybe even no magic, set in a medievalesque world.  Alternately, it could be read as a Science Fiction, possibly even a Culture, novel.  He never says for sure, but either way, the actual word-smithing of this novel is amongst the best he has composed, and the ideas he grapples are great, but perhaps the concepts he is trying to portray are just too large for a single volume. Regardless, if you like Speculative Fiction, I think you will enjoy this book.

Look To Windward, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 2000)

looktowindward1Look to Windward is an interesting addition to Iain M. Banks‘ Culture series, but is not his best work.  While it is a stand-alone novel, I really don’t think there is any chance of it being truly enjoyable unless you have already read a number of his other Culture novels; at the very least you should have read Consider Phlebas. If you are a fan of Banks’ or the Culture, then this is a must read in the series, but if you’ve never read any of his Science Fiction books, do NOT start with this one. Indeed, I might even suggest that you end with this one, since it brings to conclusion some elements that he began in Consider Phlebas.

The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 2005)

TheAlgebraistThe Algebraist is not a Culture book, but is one of my favorite books by Banks. At times I even think its better than Use of Weapons.  It is filled with wonderful descriptions, fantastic aliens, great characterizations, and brilliant prose.  I truly enjoyed the book both as an adventure tale and as a thoughtful examination of identity and our view of the other.  Even so, it’s an extremely imaginative world likely to be unappealing to those who dislike Science Fiction.  It also has a wry humor that may not appeal to some readers.  If you do like Science Fiction, however, buy this book, if not… well you still might find it interesting.

Matter, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 2008 {UK}/2009 {US})

200px-Iain_banks_matter_coverSet in his Culture Universe, Matter is just not one of Banks’ best offerings.  It has strong characters living in a well developed universe and a rich and complex plot that avoids being convoluted.  If only his sentence structure had managed to similarly avoid such convolution, this book could have been one of his best yet. That is saying something, since normally his flow of language is one of the strongest elements of his writing. Here, however, I felt he let his writing get away from him just a tad.

Regardless, though I feel this is his least successful work of science Fiction, I still gave it a Delta, which puts it into the A Good Book to Read category.  So, it’s still worth reading by Science Fiction fans, particularly those who love the Culture Universe.

Surface Details, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 2010) 

Surface_Detail_Hb_500x775Though on its own Surface Details is not the best of his novels, it’s a very good read and a ripping yarn told in a post modern manner.  In brief, it is a multi-perspective piece examining events surrounding a virtual war taking place in a virtual Hell.  Central to this is the saga of Lededje Y’breq, a woman tattooed on a genetic level to display her status as an indentured servant, who seeks revenge against her previous owner and murderer.  It has good action, good characters and though it never raises to the quality of his best works, Surface Details remains an enjoyable read throughout.

The Hydrogen Sonata, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 2012) 

HydrogenSonata_UK9For me, and again on its own, this again was not Banks’ best book, but is a good read none-the-less, particularly for any fan of his Culture series.  I suspect, however, that it won’t appeal to people who are not at least somewhat familiar with the Culture and will likely have no appeal to individuals who don’t like Science Fiction.  Even so, it deals with ideas and concepts that are quite interesting, and a bit insightful in their own way.

The plot focuses on the Gzilt, a humanoid species of reptilian origin who were deeply involved in the set up of the Culture, but never joined. Still, the Gzilt remained friendly allies and the book opens twenty-four days before they are to pass-into the Sublime (see the full review for definition). The Gzilt, however, are having some problems….

As a whole, the book looks at the concept of morality, life after death, and the concept of rewards in the world beyond.  In this, it succeeds brilliantly as a book, but for me fails in the way it portrays Minds as superheroes… but I cover that ad nauseam in my actual review.

The Hydrogen Sonata and Surface Details as paired volumes…

In contrast to what I just said, when one reads read Surface Details in combination with The Hydrogen Sonata both books raise considerably in quality.  Each, in its own way, is about the afterlife, Surface Details addresses Hell (and the morality of Hell), while The Hydrogen Sonata looks a more benign afterlife; not necessarily Heaven, but perhaps more a nirvana. To that end, each places deep questions into the framework of adventure stories, and are well worth reading.

Indeed, if I were to rate them as Parts 1 and 2 of a paired set series, I would give them a Gamma or Beta rating.  As such, I would highly recommend reading them in this manner, back to back.  Regardless, I would suggest reading them either just before Look To Windward, or just afterwards. As a series, Look to Windward wraps up the Culture narrative quite nicely, but as a comment on life, death and society, one could view Hydrogen Sonata and Surface Details as his finishing touches.  Either way, they all deal with the end of things, and that seems appropriate way to finish such a fine body of works.


transitionReaders in the US may note that I did not include Banks’ 2009 book, Transitions in this collection.  Well, interestingly, in the UK this was produced as an Iain Banks book, not an Iain M. Banks book, and I agree with that decision. Saying more would be a spoiler, but in the end, I suspect it really comes down to the reader as to which name the author should have used.  Happy to talk about this on Goodreads, but it would be spoilerific here.

In closing, I cannot help but look at this list of books, all of which I categorized as well worth reading, and be awed.  When you consider that he has at least as many books that are not speculative fiction, including many award winning literary novels – well.  Amazing.

Iain M. Banks, in all his incarnations, has truly added to literature, speculative and otherwise.  Thank you for your work and for adding to my life.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
This entry was posted in Alien Object, Anthology/Collection, Chronicle, Classic Sci Fi, Conspiracy, Conspiracy Novel, Cultural Contact, Cycle, Espionage, Far Future, Identity, Military Science Fiction, Mystery, New Space Opera, Part of A Series but can be Read without reading previous volumes, Planetary Romance, Political Drama, Post Modern, Ripping Yarn, Saga, Science Fiction, Series, Space Exploration, Space Opera, Spy Thriller, Stand Alone Novel, Strong Characters, Thoughtful, Thoughtful Espionage Tale, Thriller, Ultratech, Uncategorized, Unique or Imaginative World, World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s