These stories are space opera, with all that implies: vast scope, high stakes, clash of civilizations, and a sauce of technobabble deep enough to drown an Enterprise or two. In lesser hands that's a recipe for stories in which the gizmos overwhelm the characters and deus ex machina is available to extract the characters from any situation. Instead, Banks lifts the technology to the point that these stories are never about the gadgetry. It's science fiction where the science serves the characterization without overwhelming it.
The Culture is a spacefaring civilization of great expanse and fabulous technical skill. Having outraced the abilities of many of its contemporaries, the Culture takes on a not-so-reluctant role of galactic policeman, shoving other civilizations toward a political and moral model that mirrors its own. For an American reader, it's tempting to see echoes of past and current U. S. actions in the Culture's tampering. But wait ...
The Culture is a deeply liberal socialist paradise; one in which there is no ownership because advances have removed all limits caused by scarcity. The great majority of the Culture's human citizens are free to indulge any interest they have. There are no real jobs. There's no money. No companies. In some ways, the Culture resembles the meritocracy of Star Trek's Federation, perhaps seasoned by another millennia or two. But wait ...
The concept of the Federation itself, with its military pomp, ranks, uniforms, and formality is utterly at odds with the shape of the Culture. There are no ranks. No military. No recognizable hierarchy. There's not even any government. There are literally no laws. The entire civilization works off total individual freedom restrained only by an understanding of shared interests and a kind of tacit agreement to be generally decent to each other a fair portion of the time. But wait...
All of that, all of the human activity, the philosophy, and the morally-justified tinkering may be nothing but a nice coat of paint, a veneer of humanity slapped over something very different. Because at the heart if the Culture are drones and ships controlled by self-aware Minds with intelligence and capabilities that dwarf their human ... Partners? Friends? Beloved pets? The Culture is an amalgam, the ten-thousandth-generation removed descendant of a Internet culture we already don't understand in which people are absolutely dependent on the machines, and the machines are largely tolerant and generous. Most of the time.
All of which gives Banks something of a dilemma. It might be fun to think about a society where there are no wants, no limits, and no real goals, but it's a lot less fun to read a novel set there. How do you tell interesting stories about paradise?
The answer is that, for the most part you don't. Banks introduces two little organizations within the Culture that provide an outlet for misfits and a source of conflict, both of which make a great engine for stories. Contact is a group within the Culture that is charged with maintaining relationships with other civilizations, both those that are "equiv-tech" and those still struggling up the ladder. Within Contact is the wonderfully named Special Circumstances. SC is a concentrated group of meddlesome eccentrics grading toward violent psychopaths that handle, well, special circumstances. Throughout the novels, most of the people we meet are working either with Special Circumstances or Contact.
In many of the novels, the characters at the center of the plot aren't part of the Culture at all. They are members of civilizations that look on the Culture with envy or outright hatred. Focusing on these characters allows Banks to sketch the boundaries of the Culture and contrast its actions with groups that have made different moral / social choices. Even the very first Culture novel, Consider Phlebus is centered on an outsider who is siding against the Culture in a conflict (the title of the novel comes from a line of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and works into the book in a particularly melancholy way).
There's another set of characters that does as much to define these novels as do any of the people. These are the ships and drones whose vast Minds are just as vain, hopeful, caring, sarcastic, hateful, noble, and asinine as any of the biological characters. Often, we have more insight into the inner thoughts of these characters than we do of the people-people, and on occasion we get to look into communications that pass between these Minds to which the human characters are not privy. Not only do these passages give more insight into the relationship between man and machine, they also provide a great deal of the humor in these novels, particularly when you have chats among ships who have chosen names such as the Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints and the Just the Washing Instruction Chip in Life's Rich Tapestry.
Consider Phlebus is the first Culture novel, but not always the most accessible. Those wanting to dip into Bank's deep waters might want first to try The Player of Games. This second novel in the series is one of the few that focuses almost exclusively on one Culture citizen, Jernau Morat Gurgeh. Gurgeh is a master player of games with complex rules, but also something of an ass—sort of the Bobby Fischer of the Culture. He is recruited / encouraged / tricked into taking part in a tournament that can reshape billions of lives in another civilization. Throughout the novel, we and Gurgeh gain a better understanding of the ranks, and are forced to confront some unpretty truths. Filled with difficult moral decisions, not-quite-pure motivations, and a main character who can be both brilliant and a fool, this novel provides not just food for thought but a feast that last long after the final page is turned.
Much further down the line of the books comes Surface Detail. Of all the Culture novels, this one probably throws the most balls in the air—a murder, a military conflict, a secret plot, and virtual war among virtual heavens to decide the fate of virtual hells. The book challenges on the relationship between haves and have nots, knows and know nots, the role of both hope and torture in society, and the boundaries of personal freedom. It's also just a lot of damn fun. It's a roller-coaster ride with a moral conundrum at its heart (and a surprise cameo of a character from another novel).
The latest Culture novel The Hydrogen Sonata has an autumnal feel. It's a book about endings; about what happens when civilizations and individuals have played out all their options, achieved all their goals, have simply become tired of living in paradise. It's not about the end of the Culture, but a kind of transcendental retirement of a neighboring civilization. Still, this book more than any of the others is spent in conversation with the Minds behind the Culture, and in those conversations you can see the beginnings of, if not a death wish, a dissatisfaction with continuing with where things stand.
Unfortunately, The Hydrogen Sonata isn't just the latest Culture novel, it's the last. Iain Banks has revealed that he has an untreatable cancer and is not expected to live through the year. He has a final novel coming out this summer, The Quarry, but this does not appear to be a Culture novel.
So the last image we have from this series may be that of Vyr Cossont, playing an nearly impossible song on her improbable instrument for a world that's all but empty. Not a bad metaphor at all.
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