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Iain M. Banks Culture Novels

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Mar 18, 2009, 9:59am Top

I'm not familiar with this series at all, but was wondering if it is something that should be read in some sort of order? How well do the books stand on their own?

Mar 18, 2009, 10:18am Top

The books can be read in any order, and stand on their own perfectly well. Order of publication is perhaps the most useful, since you'll see how Banks has expanded his universe with each new book. Except some of them are really early novels he's rewritten. But order doesn't really matter at all.

Mar 18, 2009, 10:23am Top

Good to know, thanks! (I recently picked up Matter at a book sale without realizing it was part of a set.)

Mar 18, 2009, 12:22pm Top

Do they get any better? I read the first three I think, consider Phlebas through to player of games and just didn't like any of them. It's a fascinating universe concept but I don't like any of the characters or the unmitigating completely gratuitious explicit violence in all of them.

Mar 18, 2009, 12:25pm Top

If you don't like those three, then you won't like the others. That's Banks' style. There's nothing to "get better".

Mar 18, 2009, 12:35pm Top

I just read Excession and I think it's better if you know something about the Culture beforehand. The same goes for Inversions, which most people wouldn't realise is also a Culture novel. I started with The Player of Games, which I thought was great, both as a novel and as an introduction to the Culture. I've read Matter, but I can't say for sure if familiarity with the Culture would be best. It probably is. As iansales said they can all stand alone, but sometimes the familiarity helps you appreciate or understand the books.

reading_fox: I don't know about better... I haven't finished Phlebus (got bored), I loved Player of Games, but have since decided that Excession is a bit better. They all involve the Culture clashing with a less advanced or sophisticated society but in different ways. I have enjoyed them so far. If you don't enjoy Banks' storytelling you might not like the others. What was is it you disliked?

Mar 18, 2009, 12:54pm Top

it looks like I just don't like his style. I felt quite disappointed as I really enjoyed the universe as a concept, but instead of exploring this he seems to focus on disagreeable characters without offering any opportunities even here for development or exploration of why they act that way. In summary he failed to make me care for anybody he wrote about.

Mar 18, 2009, 2:02pm Top

I've only read Player of Games. It was alright. Nothing to jump up and down about.

Mar 18, 2009, 3:05pm Top

Hmm, I can understand why you might not feel for the characters reading_fox. The thing with the Culture is that there are limitless resources, no one needs money, you can alter your looks, sex, etc. So the main characters tend to be slightly bored hedonists who get into dangerous situations with primitive societies to give their lives meaning and to find a new kick.
Also Banks seems like the kind of writer who has the most amazing ideas for his universe but prefers to use them as backdrops for his stories rather than focus on the universe itself.

Perhaps you might like Inversions? It takes place on one planet, and the Culture is only mentioned fairly briefly (and the name isn't mentioned either, I don't think). It's the most intimate of the Culture stories, but with the same political theme of how to deal with morally and technologically primitive societies.

Mar 18, 2009, 4:46pm Top

Banks is a literary SF writer, for want of a better term. His novels are driven by character rather than plot. I'm not sure what is disagreeable about his characters, they are three dimensional and full of moral ambiguities just like real people. If one reads SF for the comfort (and illusion) of moral certainties then Banks would not be for you.

Edited: Mar 18, 2009, 7:27pm Top

Not to argue with post 10, but to add something to it: My wife says that imperfect, shades-of-grey characters get routine, and therefore boring, after a while, just as perfect, pure good characters do. Actually, I can't remember the last time I encountered a perfect character.

Mar 18, 2009, 7:07pm Top

#10 "full of moral ambiguities just like real people"

That's just the point. I don't get that at all from what I've remember of them they -

#11 "no one needs money, you can alter your looks, sex, etc. So the main characters tend to be slightly bored hedonists who get into dangerous situations with primitive societies to give their lives meaning and to find a new kick""

Without any/much moral questioning, they just seem to drift around looking at the universe rather than interacting and understanding with it - but maybe that's just me.

Alistair Reynolds for example has similar hedonistic characters in an equally or more so dark and dangerous universe, but he managed to get some empathy with them and their situations, and only explores a much smaller portion of the universe you do get a better feeling of how it works.

Mar 19, 2009, 12:35am Top

i much prefer Ian Banks over Ian M Banks.

Mar 19, 2009, 1:55am Top

Most of Bank's characters die before the end of the novels so I think they interact rather hard with the universe. They do tend to be plotted as Greek tragedies with an inevitability to the action. And that, quite often, brutal action tends to be described very starkly which, I think, gives a misleading impression of distance and non-involvement.

Edited: Mar 19, 2009, 7:33am Top


The novels are tragic, but the crucial problem tends to be a betrayal from someone close to the protagonist, rather than the classical-tragedy flaw in the protagonist. I like them a lot, although they are indeed quite grim.

I suggest Use of Weapons if you're only going to read one of these. It's fairly standalone - and has a plot that's very susceptible to being spoiled, so be careful in reading the reviews.

If you're reading all, publication order is fine, and seems to track internal chronology fairly closely. Haven't read Matter yet.

Mar 19, 2009, 7:40am Top

My sense of Banks in general is that his books have become much fatter in recent years, and The Algebraist at least could have used some cutting. I think he may have reached that point where an author can say no to editing and get published anyway. That usually results in a decline in quality - editors matter. OTOH, Dead Air was good, IMO, although long.

Mar 19, 2009, 8:07am Top

The Algebraist wasn't a Culture novel, and I thought it very disappointing. His best are, IMHO:

Against A Dark Background (not Culture)
Use of Weapons
The Player of Games

The Crow Road
The Bridge

Mar 19, 2009, 8:27am Top


Sorry, I should have noted that Algebraist wasn't Culture. I pretty much agree with your sf picks; among the Ian Banks-without-an-M books, I love Walking on Glass (which does have fantastic elements) and his first published novel, The Wasp Factory; haven't read Whit or The Bridge so can't comment.

I have heard people claim that {Against a Dark Background is a Culture novel, though I sure can't see how. Some little detail they pick up on; sorry, can't give a reference.

Mar 19, 2009, 10:06am Top

You might thinking of Inversions - which is a Culture novel, although it doesn't actually read like one. I've never heard the argument that Against A Dark Background is.

Mar 19, 2009, 6:03pm Top

One critic commented that 'Against a dark background' takes place in the Culture universe but isn't a Culture novel; there's an oblique reference to something somewhere which we know is the Culture but which the novel's protagonists are ignorant of. And the Culture plays no part in the events of the novel, so there's arguments for and against. Hardly the most burning issue though.

Banks hides the involvement of the Culture in 'Inversions' fairly well; I was only about half-way through when I said to myself "Hang on - isn't this enlightened doctor just a bit too well informed - and well protected? Is she perhaps from...?"

Mar 19, 2009, 6:22pm Top

Ah. Against A Dark Background takes place in a planetary system in intergalactic space, and there's a suggestion it's contemporary with the Culture, but it's too far from anything to have ever contacted anyone else or been contacted by them. I've read speculation to that effect, but I don't recall any clues in the book which point at the Culture existence.

Mar 20, 2009, 6:34am Top


Reckon you are right. Matter was unbelievably bloated.

I actually liked the Algebraist though.

Best two Culture books

Consider Phlebas
Player Of Games

Mar 20, 2009, 6:38am Top

Matter more bloated than The Algebraist? Hardly.

Mar 20, 2009, 6:59am Top

I didn't say that one wasn't, just that Matter was, being his latest book.

Both a similar length, I think, wordwise, at a guess.

Approaching the 200K word mark is certainly very bloody long.

Mar 20, 2009, 7:12am Top

I don't recall Matter feeling bloated - although I certainly had that sense when reading The Algebraist. How it compares to earlier Culture novels... Not sure. some of them I've not read for several years. I really should reread them one of these days.

Mar 20, 2009, 7:30am Top

>19 iansales:,20,21,

I heard the Against/Culture claim from someone at an SF convention, which would have been a Readercon or Boskone or Noreascon 4. The person was English by his accent. I got distracted by something and he was gone before I could ask what the Culture evidence might be.

>22 bluetyson:,232,4

I thought the Algebraist wasn't so much bloated as filled with too many disparate elements. It's as though Banks had accumulated several notebooks filled with ideas that he didn't quite want to turn into separate books, and decided to pour them all into this single novel.

Mar 20, 2009, 7:40am Top


Your comment raises an interesting question, for me at least. We find out the grand setting of Against a Dark Background very late in the novel. It's a revelation that doesn't bear on the whodunnit aspect of the plot, but does require a reimagining of all that has gone before: that background is extremely dark in multiple senses. I think of that sort of detail as a spoiler - something the reader ought not to know until reading to that point. Yet this particular detail is one I've noticed many people like to tell when describing the book. I think more sensitivity to what constitutes a spoiler would be a good idea.

I've lately been reminded of this question by reading China Mieville's The City & The City, for which just describing the setting is a spoiler.

Mar 20, 2009, 7:42am Top

I don't see how the setting of Against A Dark Background constitutes a spoiler. It's mentioned quite early in the novel, for one thing.

Mar 20, 2009, 8:10am Top

One person's "bloated" is another person's... well, "enjoyably discursive." Or something. I really enjoyed The Algebraist, and was happy to stay on the journey wherever it wandered. With Matter, less so -- it seemed to take an awful long time to get to the escalation of events that you were waiting for. I think there just weren't as many wild ideas to occupy the time while the plot brewed.

Edited: Mar 20, 2009, 8:15am Top


Must have missed it. Can you cite the chapter? I have the US mass-market pb edition, if you have the same, you could cite the page.

Mar 20, 2009, 8:17am Top

You can read the Culture books in any order but it's pretty well-accepted that you shouldn't start with Excession. Aside from being terrible (IMO), it's the only one I've read that I felt really required a prior knowledge of what the Culture was all about.

I started with Consider Phlebas and enjoyed it, and it's probably a safe starting point given that it was his first sci-fi. But it's much more action-oriented than most of the other Culture books.

I have yet to read Look to Windward.

Mar 20, 2009, 8:25am Top

#30 My edition is the UK first edition hardback. And it's also at home (and I'm not). But... from what I remember... when Sharrow reminesces about her military career (which is relatively early in the novel), there's a mention that Golter is alone in space and there are almost no stars in the night sky.

Mar 20, 2009, 8:47am Top


Right, that's pretty much how I felt about that one, too.

I found some of the Algebraist funny, so that probably helped.


That's a spoiler? Not even remotely, to me. Then the title and cover probably is, too. :)


Look To Windward is pretty reasonable.

Edited: Mar 20, 2009, 4:20pm Top

I must admit to liking all Banks' books including The Algebraist and which I liked somewhat better than Feersum Endjinn. I thought Matter was very readable and didn't take that long to get through even though I'm no a fan of doorstoppers. It was certainly more readable than Asher's Brass Man which was interminable. I have yet to read his mainstream fiction I own The Bridge but haven't gotten to it yet and The Wasp Factory is on my list, I'm looking forward to them both.

Edited: Mar 20, 2009, 4:22pm Top

I must admit to liking all Banks' books including The Algebraist and which I liked somewhat better than Feersum Endjinn. I thought Matter was very readable and didn't take that long to get through even though I'm no a fan of doorstoppers. It was certainly more readable than Asher's Brass Man which was interminable. I have yet to read his mainstream fiction I own The Bridge but haven't gotten to it yet and The Wasp Factory is on my list, I'm looking forward to them both.

Mar 20, 2009, 4:25pm Top

The above was edited to try and fix the touchstones but every time I save them they revert to the wrong ones. This is the worst piece of programming I've come across since Windows.

Mar 20, 2009, 6:52pm Top

Not Culture tech, then....

Mar 20, 2009, 8:18pm Top

An interesting idea in Matter was that each AI individual wrote their OS, they were not then susceptible to viral attacks.

Mar 21, 2009, 5:26pm Top


Can't find my copy; will have to look at a library copy next week.

Mar 21, 2009, 7:48pm Top

>32 iansales: make that: neither one of us can find either one of our copies.

I have read a few Banks' books: Wasp Factory, Against a Dark Background and Player of Games. I enjoyed them all, though it seems that while reading Player it was handy to have a Banks fan around the house for some general Culture background. (Can I count having seen the British adaptation of Crow Road?:-)

Mar 22, 2009, 4:33am Top

The TV adaptation of The Crow Road is a great deal better than the film adaptation of Complicity.

Mar 22, 2009, 12:16pm Top

Unfortunately the TV adaptation didn't make it across the pond. I guess Complicity must have but it must have sunk like a stone, can't even get it on Netflix.

Mar 23, 2009, 2:52pm Top

Haha. Matter has apparently been shortlisted for the Prometheus Award, given by the Libertarian Futurist Society.

Mar 24, 2009, 5:30pm Top

Is that a good thing?

Mar 24, 2009, 7:00pm Top

No, just ironic. Banks' space operas are famously left-wing, so not libertarian at all.

Mar 24, 2009, 7:09pm Top


Think he'd go along to the awards presentation and tell them how foolish they were?

Mar 24, 2009, 10:49pm Top

No libertarian indeed. Banks on matters economic:
Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive - and more morally desirable - than one left to market forces.

The market... grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others - a kind of synthetic evil...

while the market merely shines (and the feudal gutters), the planned lases, reaching out coherently and efficiently towards agreed-on goals.

Mar 25, 2009, 7:21am Top

The Prometheus Award people might've been thinking that the Culture has no government; Contact and other agencies are voluntary associations. But the Culture is really run by the Minds, apparently on a consensus basis.

Mar 26, 2009, 6:16pm Top

But I never felt there was anything at all voluntary about Special Circumstances...

Mar 27, 2009, 2:14am Top

I love Banks' ship names.

I have a question: for a long time I assumed that the Culture was a far-future HUMAN civilization--humans who originated on Earth. But it's not, is it?

Mar 27, 2009, 2:48am Top

I think it is, kellyanne, but the novels are set so far into the future, with such vast technological advances, it's practically irrelevant. At most the Earth is part of a bit of history that the machines are probably more aware of than the humans. The Culture is more of a machine and post-human civilisation, or a civilisation of minds (and Minds). It would not have been possible without the ship Minds.

They often come across primitive planets with humanoid inhabitants though, and I get the impression that these may have come from Earth. Perhaps the human race went stellar, and some conquered other planets or simply settled on empty ones, but somehow couldn't pass the tech along and had to start from scratch or close to it. Others were luckier or wiser and created the AI that eventually evolved into the ship Minds that took charge and built the Culture.

I love the ship names too and how they're so intelligent they're way beyond the AI's in movies and other books. They're so smart they're better than humans in a way, throwing all our current superiority complexes (all based on our sentience) into question.

Mar 27, 2009, 4:38am Top

The Culture is not set in the future - Consider Phlebas is set (iirc) some time around C14th. Earth is just another low-tech un-contacted world in the background.

Mar 27, 2009, 5:54am Top

The title story in The State of the Art is set on Earth, in 1977.

Mar 27, 2009, 6:33am Top

Oops, I'd forgotten about The State of the Art, and I haven't finished Consider Phlebus.

I still think the Culture could be a post-Earth society though. Jeanette Winterson wrote a novel called Stone Gods where humans wreck the planet and plan move to Earth. They cause an ice age though, and end up having to start from scratch. Thousands of years later no one knows about this, and it's suggested that this pattern keeps repeating itself.

It could be similar for the Culture - while some humans have become part of it, others are living more primitively on other planets in the universe. It'd explain why there are so many humanoid races too.

Mar 27, 2009, 6:49am Top

It would have to be a post-earlier-Earth society, not a post-present-Earth, since The State of the Art is pretty clear that in 1977 the Culture had existed for many years. There's a timeline here but it doesn't provide sources.

You can, if you wish, come up with ways that the Culture could have originated on Earth, but I don't think you'll find any evidence of it in the published works, and I don't think it's Banks's intention.

Mar 27, 2009, 11:57am Top

Hmm, I think Earth is pretty much irrelevant, except as a juxtaposition with the Culture that every reader would naturally bring to the novel. And of course you compare Earth with the primitive races the Culture comes across.

Edited: Mar 29, 2009, 6:49am Top

Banks' story is that he originally conceived of the Culture as occurring in our future, but changed it after the early writings. This freed him up to miss out all the "but how did we get from here to there?" questions that he didn't want to be bothered with.

Mar 27, 2009, 9:04pm Top

Mar 28, 2009, 10:25am Top


Good point. Many of the events in the Culture novels depend on a difference between its public principles and its actual practices. When a supremely intelligent Mind wants you to do something, it'll probably find a way.

Mar 28, 2009, 3:01pm Top

>57 RoboSchro:

That's pretty much what he says in the interview in the back of Matter:

"That's one reason for me not making the Culture part of our own future (in its very, very early versions it was - I'm talking about early to mid-seventies here, well before anything got published - but that changed quite quickly)."

Nov 16, 2011, 4:58pm Top

Have just finished Consider Phlebas (again) and before that, Surface Detail, and can't help thinking that 1) the latter is probably the most obviously cohesive of the 'series' so far (anyone else think so?) and 2) the Culture is looking more and more like a California-writ-large, which I quite like, in a rueful kind of way.

Edited: Nov 16, 2011, 11:21pm Top

# 61 the Culture is looking more and more like a California-writ-large

That's if you regard CA as some kind of advanced or futuristic society (more sophisticated than the rest of us), which I think is a pretty tarnished myth these days.

For what it's worth, I agree with the many who suggested that the earlier-published books like Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, or Player of Games might be best to start with. Not that the Culture novels have a set order to be read in, but the later ones do get more sprawly, both in length & ideas. I read either Player or Phlebas first -- can't remember, it was so long ago -- and was hooked from the start.

Nov 17, 2011, 8:02am Top

I started with Consider Phlebas. Fav is Look to Windward. Hope he writes another soon.

Nov 17, 2011, 8:43am Top


Randal, I'm glad you liked Look to Windward. I really enjoyed it too.

I think awareness of The Culture helped my reading of Look to Windward.

Iain's next book is Stonemouth which will be "mainstream", if any of his books are "mainstream". It's due out in April 2012.

He tries to alternate mainstream and SF, so hopefully there will be a new Iain M. Banks novel in 2013.


Nov 17, 2011, 9:18am Top

Look to Windward was the first Culture novel that I read, and I think my first impression was something along the lines of: 'That was bloody weird, but kind of neat, too'. I've read all of them since then, even Feersum Endjinn, which was a bit of a hard slog due to the language.

I don't quite understand all of the Excession hate, though, as I'm quite a fan of the Minds, and especially the warship variety.

Nov 17, 2011, 9:22am Top

I really enjoyed Feersum Endjinn and I was caught out by the twist at the end. It was one of those things that had been well signposted but that I never twigged what was going on until the author revealed it explicitly.

Nov 19, 2011, 12:26pm Top

I think of the Culture as modernity writ large, not only California.

Nov 19, 2011, 2:31pm Top

I think if Iain Banks thought his Culture world was being compared to California he would not be very happy.

Nov 19, 2011, 5:19pm Top

I suspect Banks knows very little of California Culture - other than what's displayed in film and on television.

Nov 19, 2011, 7:27pm Top

I was fond of Excession and Surface Detail both of which have their detractors. Culture ships have legal status and interesting and entertaining characters in their own right. The only one I didn't like a lot was Inversions.

I can't seem to get my grubby paws on Feersum Endjinn anyway. So I don't know if I could parse the dialect or not.

Nov 19, 2011, 8:49pm Top

abebooks.com has some for just a few dollars, in both the US and UK.

Nov 19, 2011, 11:07pm Top

I keep seeing it at Half Price Books, if you have one nearby (they often have similar stock due to large buys). I want to read some Banks but it seems a bad one to start with.

Nov 20, 2011, 12:27am Top

#70 Culture ships have legal status and interesting and entertaining characters in their own right.

Very true, and for some reason this reminds me of an old favorite of mine (which has never caught on for some reason), The Helix and the Sword by John C. McLoughlin. I just realized that it's quite a bit like Banks, except on a solar system level rather than galactic. Earth has been interdicted but the system is inhabited by various civilizations, some biotech oriented and some cybernetic/mechanist. The biotechs inhabit living space habitats, and one of the main characters is the flagship (whose name I think was Catuvel). Don't want to say more for fear of spoilers. A very nice book, lots of ideas but also a lyrical feeling.

Of course a whole thread could be done on the topic of intelligent spaceships who are characters in their own right....

Nov 20, 2011, 6:52am Top

#72 brightcopy

I agree, Feersum Endjinn could be a bit of a shock to the system if it were to be your first Banks read.

All I can go by is my own experience. The first Banks book I read was Consider Phlebas. I was on holiday and spotted it in the local bookshop. I read it and thought it was just a great read. Lots of fun and I flew through it.

I was hooked. At that time Banks only published books were Consider Phlebas and The Wasp Factory. I hunted down The Wasp Factory and have read all his books as they became available.

Bottom line, Consider Phlebas is as good a place to start as anywhere.

I've enjoyed all his sf novels. There are a few weak books in his "mainstream" output.

Nov 20, 2011, 9:30am Top

I read Consider Phlebas first also, and The Player of Games next and basically forgot about Banks until several years later. Most recently I read Excession and The Algebraist - that latter was quite good though outside of The Culture I believe. I'm quite hooked!

Nov 20, 2011, 10:04am Top

#75 Several people have criticised The Algebraist, but I really enjoyed it; especially the gas planet species that hunts their young. Those of us with children can often see the sense in that. :-)

Nov 20, 2011, 10:17am Top

Yeah, I'd decided the same thing and have been looking for a local used copy for months.

Finally remembered to check my library. Sure enough, they have it!

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