The Archaeologists’ Guide to Reading the Culture: A Farewell to Iain M. BanksAn Archaeologists’ Guide to Iain M. Banks

Iain-M-Banks-near-his-hom-007Last Sunday (June 9th 2013) Iain M. Banks, one of my favorite authors of all time passed away. This was not a surprise.  He had announced he had late stage cancer earlier this year, but that does not make it any less sad.  Since his announcement in April, I had been readying articles to publish in this case, but really now that it’s happened they seem pretty lame. After all, all they did was either praise him (duh), or make a big deal about how he showed me that Science Fiction could be written in a ‘literary’ style, with attention paid to the flow of language as well as to the ideas held therein.

So, instead of saying this badly (like I just did), I decided to honor him in a different way…[1]

waspfacotryFirst, however, for those of you who don’t know, Iain M. Banks was a versatile and talented author who wrote both marvelous ‘literary’ works[2] and some of the most vivid and imaginative speculative fiction to date. For a review of his life, it would probably behoove you to read any one of the numerous obituaries and discussions of his literary influence that are now appearing in print and on the web. One such obituary can be found in the Guardian while a very good discussion of his literary legacy one can be found at io9. For a more first hand and personal view into the man and his writing, see this interview he performed for The Open University.

IainBanksComplicityEarlyFor my part, however, I have decided to honor him by providing a list of the order in which readers might best be introduced to his works.  It is, after all, the one question I get asked about in regards to the late great author than anything else.  Even so, it is just a suggestion and one of the best things about Banks, one of those elements that shows how talented he really was, is that you can pick up any of his stories, even his Culture series, and find a complete, whole story there in.

So, let’s start with his literary works which are, in one sense, the most easily addressed. 

20121016035629!IainBanksTheCrowRoadNot surprisingly, Banks’ literary library can be read in pretty much any order.  I will, actually, be reviewing some of these over the next year, as that while traditionally shelved in the Literary section, they could technically be shelved in the Mystery section just as easily. So, I won’t even really bother discussing these yet, other than to say that my favorites are probably The Crow Road, and Complicity. His first novel The Wasp Factory, won a bunch of awards and The Bridge is high on my to-read list.  I have yet to read any of them that I didn’t like on some level, however, so you can’t really lose there.

Banks’ Science Fiction:

As said earlier, his Science Fiction can also be read in any order, even The Culture series.  Every single one of his books is a stand-alone novel.  You do not need to know anything about any of the earlier books and, for the most part, even the later books do not contain any real spoilers of the earlier books.[3] Therefore, if you find yourself in an airport bookstore and see his any of his books, pick it up![4] After all, you have to start somewhere and while I have a list provided below, it really doesn’t matter. In general, however, if you have a choice when it comes to the Culture series, start with the earlier works. If they are not in stock, however, pick up which ever ones you can get your hands on. You can enjoy any of his works at any point in the sequence.

cupcakesCultureEven so, while I do think that while his Culture series can be read in any order, there are some books that are easier books to start with, and others that are best read towards the end of the list. Indeed, I would certainly say that his first eight Science Fiction books could be read in any order, and that the later Culture ones are best read afterwards to better enjoy them.

But, that brings up a point.  I keep talking about this Culture thing… [5]

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, mostly human (though not from Earth) live as long as they wish, have backups of their memories in case they die, can change shape (and sex) at will (even to things that have no resemblance to human, or even animal life), can gland whatever drug or feeling they desire and can, in essence, do whatever they please.

The 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, and Minds calling the shots, Special Circumstances directly and indirectly influences the politics and other social development of societies around them.

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 Banks presents his characters.  Though one could read some of his societies as utopian, even the Culture, also serves as a dystopia; it is a world populated by hipsters desperately seeking something to make their lives meaningful.

Obviously the Culture is 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 gone.

Yet having said all of that, I’m not so sure that reading one of his Culture novels is the best place to start.  They are, as a collection, his greatest set of Science Fiction works, yes, but would one suggest you begin reading Tolstoy with War and Peace? I for one would suggest starting with A Day in the Life of Ivan Ilych or How Much Land Does a Man Need?

To that end, I would probably suggest starting Banks with his collection of short fiction:

State of the Art, Iain M. Banks (Orbit)

iain-banks-state-of-artThis collection of short Science Fiction stories has the appeal of providing bite-sized insights to Banks’ style and imaginations.  In some ways it is skewed because his best work, even his literary stuff, is done on a large canvas.  Even so, the short form gives the reader a chance to dip their toes into the literary pool and test the waters.

Some of the tales are set in the Culture; most are not.  If you like short stories and are unsure about Science Fiction or the darkness that fills many of Banks’ tales, this is probably the best starting point.  Even though I generally prefer novels in which you can immerse yourself fully in the imagination of an author, this is a brilliant book.

Alternately, you might want to start with:

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

TheAlgebraistThe Algebraist is not a Culture book, but is one of my favorite books by Banks. 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.

After these, you could read any of his non-culture books in any order,[6] but perhaps now would be the best time to dip one’s toes into The Culture.  To that end, many suggest that you begin with Consider Phlebas.  It was, after all, Banks’ first Culture indeed, first Science Fiction novel, but while it is brilliantly written, it is not necessarily easily accessible for every reader.  It is crammed with ideas and showcases much of Banks’ more rambling literary style, which I love,[7] but may not appeal to all.  It is also quite long.

To that end, I would suggest starting with:

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, though obviously it need not be read as a sequel.  The reason I suggest this as the best starting place for the Culture series, is that Player of Games one of his shortest, and for me, his most accessible books.[8] The story is also somewhat straight forward, for Banks anyhow, which helps. It is the story of Jernau Morat Gurgeh, the greatest game player the Culture has to offer. When, much to his surprise, Gurgeh is recruited by the nefarious Special Circumstances branch of Culture’s Contact wing to play a game unlike any other, he discovers that he needs all of his skills and more if he is to win. Winning this game, however, is more important than any he has played before: if he wins he will rule the Empire of Azad, but if he loses he could well die.

This book not only contains some pretty cool action and sci-fi stuff, but also introduces the reader to the workings of The Culture, not to mention Banks’ flow of language, incredible ideas and interesting commentaries on socio-cultural imperialism.  Having said that, there’s some pretty cool sci-fi stuff and action as well.

After this, you might want to step over to another non-Culture book,[9] like:

Against a Dark Background, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 1993) 

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 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.

Then… well then it is probably time you start in full force into The Culture. You could very readily read any of his first eight Science Fiction books in any order.

I, however, would probably go to the book that started it all:[10]

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

considerPhlebasOne 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.
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.

After that, I would move on to my favorite of all of his books:

Use of Weapons, Iain M. Banks (Orbit) 

use-of-weapons-coverThe third of Banks‘ Culture’ novels, Use of Weapons 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.

After the total darkness that is Use of Weapons, one might want to turn to another Non-Culture book, like the very one I have previously-warned-you- off-of:

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? Well, though I love it (and it was the second Banks’ book I ever read, this book is not one for those who don’t like to work at their reading.  Indeed, it is not for everyone.  You HAVE to already have come to appreciate and trust him as a writer.

Feersum Endjuff has a complex multi-perspective post-post-modern form of narrative that includes one character’s point-of-view, written in a first person quasi-phonetic form that approximates a regional  working class British accents (e.g. the title of the book might have been spelled Fearsome Engine). It ain’t easy to start with, but as one reads on 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 that once one is used to the phonetic and text-speech spelling in parts of the tale, it reads like a Ripping Yarn.  As such, its very language makes one think about social identity and class assumptions.

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

After that, I would go back to the Culture with one of my favorites, and, in fact, the first Banks’ book I ever read (talk about starting in the deep end):

Excession, Iain M. Banks (Orion, 1996) 

excessionExcession is Iain M. Banks‘ seventh science fiction novel, his fourth that is definitively set in the Culture universe, and possibly my second favorite of his books.[11] It is an innovative tale told primarily from the point-of-view of the culture Minds.  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, and serves as a companion piece that plays very well against Excession.

Inversions shows no Minds, no Drones, no knife-missiles.  Indeed, if you like, you could read as an excellent High Fantasy Novel.  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.

And here at last, we come to the CHANGE in his writing.  Oh no, not his style or concepts or anything like that. Rather, it is at this point that I think an actual ORDER to reading his books should be adhered to.  Well, maybe no an order, per se, but rather I would say that the second half of the list is really best read after the first half.  Indeed, one could argue that Look To Windward could be the best book to end on.

To that end, the next I would read is likely:

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

200px-Iain_banks_matter_coverIf I were to skip any one of Banks’ Culture books, I would skip this one.  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. It does, however, have one of the most obscenely Banksian set of sentence structures I have ever encountered. Really, sometimes no matter how good or successful and author is, they really need an editor who will slap them down.  In this case, despite the fact that Banks’ flow of language is one of the strongest elements of his writing, 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 Gamma (A Good Book to Read), which means even at his worst, Banks was better than most.

After this, I would highly recommend picking up:

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

Surface_Detail_Hb_500x775Though again, Surface Details is not the best of his novels, it’s better than Matter and quite a bit of 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 from outside the Culture who is tattooed on a genetic level to display her status as an indentured servant.  She, quite rightly, is seeking revenge against her previous owner and murderer.[12]  It has good action, good characters (mostly) and though it never raises to the quality of his best works, Surface Details remains an enjoyable read throughout. It does, however, gain considerable value when read in conjunction with:

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

HydrogenSonata_UK9For me, The Hydrogen Sonata was the companion piece to Surface Details, and I have no doubt there is little coincidence that these two books were written at the end of his life.

Whereas Surface Details focuses on the morality of Hell, The Hydrogen Sonata focuses on the other end of the afterlife.  The story centers on the Gzilt, a humanoid species of reptilian origin who were deeply involved in the set up of the Culture but never joined, who are only days away from Subliming.[13] Sadly, the Gzilt, however, are having some problems and… well… to understand that, read the book, or at least read my review.

As a whole, the book looks at morality, life after death, and the concept of rewards in the world beyond.  In this, it succeeds brilliantly as a book.  Where it failed just a tad is the same place I struggled with Surface Details; it somewhat turns Minds into superheroes… but I cover that ad nauseam in my actual review.

Having said that, I would rank both The Hydrogen Sonata and Surface Details as Betas if they are read as a paired set that somewhat sum up Banks’ view of religion and, maybe even life as a whole.  To that end, if you read these as the last of his works, you might be well off.

I, however, think that perhaps to give a full circle to his writings as a whole the best book to end on is:

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

looktowindward1Despite the fact it was not his last book, or even his last Culture book, Look to Windward really does close out the series quite nicely.  While it is not his best work, it brings to conclusion some elements that he began in Consider Phlebas and addresses the ends of things on all sorts of levels. I may go back and re-read it now.

So.  That’s it.  It doesn’t matter what order you read them in, but read them.  Banks’ helped raise Space Opera and Science Fiction as a whole in both its use of language and general style.  For those who criticize Sci-Fi as simplistic in themes (huh… what do they know?) or use of language (well, there they may have a point), I turn them to Banks.

Thank you and goodbye to Mr. Banks.  My deep condolences to those who truly knew you and whom you left behind.


[1] Regular readers will note that this article is similar to one I wrote in April when Banks’ first announced his illness.  In that one, I listed his Sci Fi works in the order he published them and produced links to my reviews.  Because, as I state here, I keep getting asked for a list of what order to read them in, I wrote this article, but it doesn’t say a huge amount that’s new.  Hell, I’m an academic by training and yes, we do roll out the same articles time and time again with just a few tweaks… so sue me.

[2] I keep using quotes around this because this term suggests that somehow, other genres are not literary – that they are somehow less valuable.  This is not the case.  Indeed, the very foundations of literature come from imaginative speculation… and while I would not qualify Gilgamesh, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, or any mythologies as Sci-Fi or Fantasy, they clearly demonstrate that someone had a pretty vivid imagination.  Regardless, there is no other term for the fiction that’s lumped together under the Literary genre so, I’ll keep using it, albeit grudgingly.

[3] Do you have any idea how hard it is to do this?  Unbelievable.

[4] Well, except maybe Feersum Endjinn.  Reading this will not spoil any other of his books, and it will make sense right off the bat, but it is also one of his most difficult books to read.  It is also one of his best, but really, it helps if you already have to have faith in him as a writer.

[5] This discussion is lifted, almost verbatim from my previous article listing all of Banks’ Sci Fi Works. If you read that, skip this.

[6] Except, once again, Feersum Endjinn, whose style is a bit thick.

[7] Well, mostly.  He does sometimes make my parenthetical comments look short and succinct.

[8] Though my wife didn’t think so.  She found his long, rambling sentence structure a bit dense.

[9] Well, OK, it might be Culture… but need not be.

[10] Though again I will note that his first eight books can be read in any order with no spoilers or lessening of enjoyment.

[11] Though I do love The Algebraist.

[12] Yes.  I said murderer.

[13] For a full description of this, see my full review, but in brief, it is the transference of a whole culture to higher dimensional state that is just a bit like nirvana in its nature.

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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, Authors, Chronicle, Classic Literature, Classic Sci Fi, Conspiracy Novel, Cultural Contact, Cycle, Dystopian, Espionage, Far Future, Generation Ship, Military Science Fiction, Mystery, New Space Opera, Part of A Series but can be Read without reading previous volumes, Planetary Romance, Post Colonial, 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.

2 Responses to The Archaeologists’ Guide to Reading the Culture: A Farewell to Iain M. BanksAn Archaeologists’ Guide to Iain M. Banks

  1. Maria says:

    You’ve just inspired me to download a couple to kindle for holidays…. Was just wondering what to read. Iain (M) Banks was awesome.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      He was. I feel a huge whole reading life. Thank god for Alistair Reynolds. His style is totally different but he does create thoughtful space operas with social and literary commentary. Even so I will miss Banks, even his rambling overlong sentences.

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