The Culture Series

Up until this point, I’ve made mention of about thirty different authors whose works comprise a portion of the literature you may have read in school. Those who spend enough time with me will know that my reading habits slant towards the Russian, British, and American classics. I will also take up with a Steven King novel, especially after having finished something particularly long.

(I gave it a look: Of the last 100 titles I’ve read, 8 were by King; 7 by J.K. Rowling; 3 each by Leo Tolstoy, Phillip Pullman, Suzanne Collins, and Iain M. Banks; and 2 each by Dostoevsky, Alice Hoffman, Alan Moore, Ray Bradbury, Ernest Cline, and Don DeLillo. A little over 60% of my reading list was comprised of single works by non-repeat authors.)

One may conclude that I like Steven King. I think it is equally as telling when I read more than one book by the same person. If you were to remove the series (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and His Dark Materials) from that list, that leaves Leo Tolstoy and Iain M. Banks as my second-most read authors. I’ll venture you’ve heard of the first, but have you heard of the latter?

Iain M. Banks (1954-2013)

Iain M. Banks was a science fiction writer born in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland in 1954. From 1987 to 2013, he published a collection of ten books known as the Culture Series. However, it is not a series in the traditional sense. Even though the characters all exist in the same world, the stories are not successive. A reader can pick up any given Culture Series book and be at the beginning. I happened to read book one, first. This was before Google was a company let alone a verb, so I wasn’t aware at the time that Banks had ever written anything else. Apparently, he’d written an entire space opera.

The Culture Series is a collection of stand-alone novels set in the same world.

Here’s the premise: In space there are many different planets, ships, orbitals, types of aliens and peoples both humanoid and not. A number of these aliens and peoples belong to an organization called the Culture. The Culture is largely supported by artificial intelligence, which also come in various shapes, sizes, and capabilities. Drones, ships and minds (high IQ AI) are all seen as individuals with personal rights within the Culture, where there are shared society resources geared toward personal freedoms and individual choice. It can be characterized as a hedonist society, utopia, and sanctum for intrigue.

This series is wildly creative. Each society has it’s own religions, politics, and characteristics. The stories are character driven, with detailed personal histories and quirks that make it a pleasure to read how they interact, whether those characters are alien or AI. In fact, some of my favorite characters are ships. I love their names. For a quick amusement, take a look at the cheeky-good-fun list of Culture ship names for yourself.

Just Read the Instructions is a general contact unit (GCU) whose purpose is to learn from and interact with non-Culture societies, as is Funny… It Worked Last Time and Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill. Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints and A Fine Disregard for Awkward Facts amuses me every time. Each ship decides what to call itself, while each name is indicative of what sort of personality the AI has. Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, for instance, is a demilitarized warship that only lies about being decommissioned.

It upset me that my favorite character from Consider Phlebas died, but that did not keep me from re-reading it three more times. It is a goal of mine to finish reading the series. I just started Use of Weapons, and have read Player of Games, Surface Detail, and Hydrogen Sonata as well. Each of these are available on Audible with narrator Peter Kenny, whom is excellent. Matter is also available on Audible, though I have not listened to Toby Longworth yet. Books 4-7 seem only available in paperback.

There has been some talk about Amazon picking up the series for television, though I wouldn’t wait if this sounds like something that may interest you. These books offer drama, adventure, and a level of realism that might surprise some readers given the Culture technologies available and capabilities of some aliens. The Culture series is sometimes gritty, often funny, and always remarkably imaginative.

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