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Iain M. Banks

(1954-2013)
Iain M. Banks came to widespread and controversial public notice with the publication of his first novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984. Consider Phlebas, his first science fiction novel, was published under the name Iain M. Banks in 1987. He is now acclaimed as one of the most powerful, innovative, and exciting writers of his generation. Iain Banks lived in Fife, Scotland. He died on June 9, 2013. Learn more at Iain Bank’s website.

Culture

Culture — (1987-2012) Publisher: The war raged across the galaxy. Billions had died, billions more were doomed. Moons, planets, the very stars themselves, faced destruction, cold-blooded, brutal, and worse, random. The Idirans fought for their Faith; the Culture for its moral right to exist. Principles were at stake. There could be no surrender. Within the cosmic conflict, an individual crusade. Deep within a fabled labyrinth on a barren world, a Planet of the Dead proscribed to mortals, lay a fugitive Mind. Both the Culture and the Idirans sought it. It was the fate of Horza, the Changer, and his motley crew of unpredictable mercenaries, human and machine, actually to find it, and with it their own destruction.

Iaian M. Banks Culture 1. Consider Phlebas 2. The Player of Games 3. Use of Weapons 4. The State of the Art 5. Excession 6. Inversions 7. Look to Windward 8. Matter 9. Surface Detail 10. The Hydrogen Sonata science fiction book reviewsIaian M. Banks Culture 1. Consider Phlebas 2. The Player of Games 3. Use of Weapons 4. The State of the Art 5. Excession 6. Inversions 7. Look to Windward 8. Matter 9. Surface Detail 10. The Hydrogen Sonata science fiction book reviewsIaian M. Banks Culture 1. Consider Phlebas 2. The Player of Games 3. Use of Weapons 4. The State of the Art 5. Excession 6. Inversions 7. Look to Windward 8. Matter 9. Surface Detail 10. The Hydrogen Sonata science fiction book reviewsIaian M. Banks Culture 1. Consider Phlebas 2. The Player of Games 3. Use of Weapons 4. The State of the Art 5. Excession 6. Inversions 7. Look to Windward 8. Matter 9. Surface Detail 10. The Hydrogen Sonata science fiction book reviewsIaian M. Banks Culture 1. Consider Phlebas 2. The Player of Games 3. Use of Weapons 4. The State of the Art 5. Excession 6. Inversions 7. Look to Windward 8. Matter 9. Surface Detail 10. The Hydrogen Sonata science fiction book reviewsIaian M. Banks Culture 1. Consider Phlebas 2. The Player of Games 3. Use of Weapons 4. The State of the Art 5. Excession 6. Inversions 7. Look to Windward 8. Matter 9. Surface Detail 10. The Hydrogen Sonata science fiction book reviewsIaian M. Banks Culture 1. Consider Phlebas 2. The Player of Games 3. Use of Weapons 4. The State of the Art 5. Excession 6. Inversions 7. Look to Windward 8. Matter 9. Surface Detail 10. The Hydrogen Sonata science fiction book reviewsIaian M. Banks Culture 1. Consider Phlebas 2. The Player of Games 3. Use of Weapons 4. The State of the Art 5. Excession 6. Inversions 7. Look to Windward 8. Matter 9. Surface Detail 10. The Hydrogen Sonata science fiction book reviews


Consider Phlebas: The First CULTURE Novel

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Consider Phlebas, the first of Iain M. Banks’s CULTURE novels, introduces readers to the Culture, a machine-led intergalactic civilization that offers its biological humanoids a carefree, utopian lifestyle. Though most centuries are free from worry, Consider Phlebas takes place in the middle of the Idiran-Culture War.

The Culture is an intergalactic utopia, but readers should not come to Consider Phlebas expecting dystopian narrative. The machines, led by their brilliant and sentient Minds, are benevolent and they seek to offer a paradise to the humanoids in their care. The novel is not even a dystopian narrative in the way Thomas More’s Utopia often seems disturbing in its stringent rules and guidelines. Readers are meant to envy life in the Culture.

The Culture is perfect, or almost, but the universe is not. The Cultur... Read More

Consider Phlebas: The first novel in the Culture universe, but not the best

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

This is Iain M. Banks’ first novel (1987) set in his now famous CULTURE universe, and although it’s a well-written book with lots of clever ideas, I wouldn’t say it’s the best book in the series. Then again, if like many readers you would have feelings of angst and guilt if you were to read the books of a series out of order, then it makes sense to start with this one.

To be very brief, the Culture is a wide-flung galactic civilization in which artificial Minds co-habit with a hundred variants of humanity in a fairly symbiotic relationship, although there is always some sense that the Minds are basically running the show but allow the humans to feel more in control than they really are (like how cats seem to treat their ostensible ‘owners’). In any case, there isn’t much strugg... Read More

Other Opinions: Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. BanksThis is useful as an introduction to the CULTURE, but not necessary. The plot is often exciting and there are some awesome set pieces which would make a great movie,  but there are no characters to root for (they seem to be created as anti-heroes) and the plot, which feels incohesive, takes much too long to accomplish. There are also fewer of the “big ideas” I’ve come to expect from Banks. I would love to see this condensed and produced as a movie. ~Kat Hooper


The Player of Games: A space opera about board games

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

The Player of Games is the second of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a famous game player from the protective, machine-run Culture. Like everyone else that lives in the Culture, Gurgeh has never known fear, pain, or greed. He wants little beyond the thrill offered by the games and the respect he earns from winning them until he meets Mawhrin-Skel, a drone that blackmails Gurgeh into traveling to the distant Empire of Azad and representing the Culture in a tournament.

The Empire of Azad is founded upon the principles and consequences of its game, Azad. Title and status are dependent upon one’s performance in the game, as is political influence. Advanced players are required to register their political and ethical stances, which are reported to the rest of the civilization. Though Azad provides a stable structure that has guided the Empire through the ag... Read More

The Player of Games: A game so complex it mirrors the society around it

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

The Player of Games (1988) is the second published book in the well-known Culture series featuring the post-scarcity utopian machine-human galactic empire known as the Culture. Once again Iain M. Banks adroitly chooses to focus on the interactions of the Culture with a non-Culture society, this time the more primitive empire of Azad. The Azadian society is centered around an incredibly complex game called Azad, and every six years it holds a tournament that begins with 12,000 players, with the winner becoming the Emperor. The idea is that anyone brilliant enough to master the game and defeat all rivals is worthy to run the Empire as well.

Jernau Gurgeh is one of the Culture’s greatest games players, and this is saying something in a sprawling galactic empire whe... Read More

Other Opinions: The Player of Games

The Player of Games by Iain M. BanksThis is a unique story in Banks’ fascinating CULTURE,  a society where everyone is comfortable and lacks for nothing. The hero, Gurgeh, goes to play a game on a world where this game is thought to mirror life. Whoever wins the game, must be a “winner” and gets to be the emperor. This is much different from life in the CULTURE which, as Gurgeh says, is “not a heroic age.” Besides watching the personal obsession of a gamer, there are some interesting ideas here such as the importance of potential loss for the ultimate feeling of fulfillment, and the idea that an empire is similar to a living organism that wants to preserve itself. I also loved the volcano planet. That was awesome. ~Kat Hooper


Use of Weapons: The best CULTURE novel?

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

Iain M. Banks’s Use of Weapons is the third CULTURE novel. For those not in the know, the Culture is an intergalactic paradise run by its extremely sophisticated machines. Its people are augmented so that they are able to control and enhance every function their body serves. Life in the Culture is pretty great, and so stories are rarely set there.

Fortunately for Banks, things occasionally get a little hairy on the distant edges of the Culture when it is forced to interact with other societies. When those moments of contact go poorly, the Culture relies upon Special Circumstances to figure things out.

Enter the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw, the Special Circumstances agent Diziet Sma, and Cheradinine Zakalwe, our hero and their agent on the ground. Before Special Circumstances recruited him, Zakalwe was a soldier on a distant world. Usually when someone writes “enter the ... Read More

Use of Weapons: A dark and brooding tale of warfare, manipulation and guilt

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

Use of Weapons (1990) is the third published novel in Banks’ Culture series, although it is actually a rewrite of a draft written much earlier that the author claims "was impossible to comprehend without thinking in six dimensions." Well, for readers who generally dwell in just three or four dimensions, the narrative structure of Use of Weapons is fairly complex until you get used to it.

The story has two narrative tracks, one set in the present and moving forward in time (Chapter 1, 2, 3, etc), and a second track set in the past and moving backwards in time (VIII, VII, VI, etc). Both tracks focus on Cheradenine Zakalwe, a man skilled in warfare and military tactics who is recruited by a Culture agent from Special Circumstances, Diziet Sma, to be a military operative in various non-Culture societies and conflicts.

For readers of th... Read More

Other Opinions: Use of Weapons

I like this a little better than Ryan does, I guess because I connected more with Cheradenine Zakalwe. I thought the flashback structure served to make him more relatable, and the twist at the end (beginning) of his story was horrifying. Use of Weapons also made me think about the ugliness of war, moral relativism, the difference between knowledge and wisdom, and the power of guilt and redemption. It also has a nice discussion of an ethical situation that may be important to us someday: if computers are modeled after the human brain, why are they not considered sentient? ~Kat Hooper


Excession: Does anyone do far future better than Banks?

Excession by Iain M. Banks

Let’s skip the highty-flighty, atmospheric float of intros and get right to the point. Iain M. Banks’ 1996 Excession is gosh-wow, sense-wunda science fiction that pushes the limits of the genre as far into the imagination — and future — as any book has. The AI ship-minds, post-human world-is-your-oyster humanity, and incredible roster of engine speeds, galaxies, drones, weaponry, biological possibilities, planets, orbitals, etc., etc. of previous books have been topped. Banks took a look at the savory milieu of the Culture, cocked his head and asked: “How can I up the ante?” The titular ‘excession’ is the answer.

Arthur C. Clarke’s brilliant Rendezvous with Rama sees humanity attempting to quantify and understand a BDO (big dumb object) that comes sailing th... Read More

Inversions: A CULTURE novel that isn’t a CULTURE novel

Inversions by Iain M. Banks

Like ExcessionUse of Weapons, and The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks' 1998 Inversions continues to prove that the reader should expect the unexpected because, with Inversions, Banks explicitly aimed to write “a CULTURE novel that wasn’t a CULTURE novel.” It is likely to be categorized as fantasy by someone who knows nothing of the Culture — there is a medieval feel to the royalty, court intrigue, sword fights, beautiful damsels, boys growing up to become men, and a few “supernatural” events that bend the story beyond realism. However, astute readers will recognize something deeper happening beneath the deceptively simple façade and realize that Inversions is something more. That something more is not only the Cu... Read More

Look to Windward: Thought provoking SF

Look to Windward by Iain Banks

This is the first book I have read by Iain Banks — and it won’t be the last. His post-human vision of the very distant future, with its closer-to-perfect, but all-too-human AI, is not only plausible but a thought-provoker. And if you read science fiction, don’t you want something thought provoking? The alien cultures, the societal implications, and the use of technology were exactly that. Bucking the trend of throwing everything into a thousand-page tome, literary science fiction gets better in the hands of only a handful of other writers.

Not a mix of tech and storylines that overwhelms (looking at you, Peter F. Hamilton), Look to Windward is science fiction deeper than the storyline. In fact, the SF elements take a backseat to the human and human-esque plights (t... Read More

Matter: An excellent introduction to The Culture

Matter by Iain M. Banks

Matter is the seventh book in Iain M. Bank’s popular CULTURE series about a utopian society run by a beneficent artificial intelligence organization called The Culture. I haven’t read any of the previous CULTURE novels which, I think, gives me a unique take on Matter. Reading through some of the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, I see that many CULTURE fans felt like the 620-page Matter was a drastic change in pace and tone. I can’t say if that’s true, but I can say that I loved Matter and can’t wait to read the rest of the CULTURE series. In short, the setting was fascinating, the characters were interesting and fully developed, and the scope of the story was epic.

Most of the plot of Matter takes place on a backward Shellworld called Sursamen. Actually, it’s more correct to say that the story takes place i... Read More

Surface Detail: Another wild ride in Iain Banks’ far-future universe

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Surface Detail (2010), the penultimate CULTURE novel, is another wild ride in Iain Banks’ far-future universe. Interestingly (or at least I think so), this novel deals with the afterlife, as does the final CULTURE novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, which was published several months before Banks’ unexpected death of gallbladder cancer in 2013.

Though speculation about what happens beyond death is a heavy subject, Banks deals with it flippantly in Surface Detail (and also to a lesser extent in The Hydrogen Sonata). The premise here is that Hell is simply a virtual reality computer simulation. That’s an interesting idea that becomes pretty funny when you consider that if hell is an MMORPG, then someone must be “hosting Hell” and others are trying to hack it. The ... Read More

The Hydrogen Sonata: The final CULTURE novel

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

The Gzilt civilization is as old as the Culture, and their technology is roughly equivalent, too. Although the Gzilt were invited to join the Culture when it was created, they declined, in part because of the Book of Truth. The Gzilt are proud of their Book of Truth because, unlike so many other culturally significant texts, theirs actually predicted many technological achievements. So, the Gzilt figured they were special, declined to join the Culture, and now they’re preparing to Sublime.

Sublimation allows a civilization to exist in a higher, largely incomprehensible dimension. No one understands exactly what it is, but a civilization’s people and AIs do leave our space for a better one. Some old Culture ships have returned from the Sublime and mathematicians can prove that it exists. Still, it’s a big step.

And if that’s not clear enough: sublimation is a big-... Read More

Other Opinions: The Hydrogen Sonata

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks science fiction book reviewsI agree with Ryan on all points. This is a big-idea novel — something that Banks does so well. The book is a little too long and I can’t say I fell in love with the characters, but I enjoyed the thoughts provoked by The Hydrogen Sonata, especially the thoughts about what it might mean for a culture if their book of faith was just a hoax. This story is smart and, sometimes, hilarious. ~Kat Hooper


The State of the Art: Stories by Iain M. Banks

The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks

The State of the Art is a collection of short fiction written by Iain Banks between 1984 and 1987. Surprisingly, it is the only such collection the author has published. Given Banks’ fifteen mainstream novels and twelve science fiction novels, one would expect a much larger output of short stories and novellas. The following is a brief summary of the eight stories (most of which are science fiction stories, three which are CULTURE related).

“Road of Skulls” — Not a story in any conventional sense, the collection opens with the bickering of Mc9 and a companion whose name “he’d never bothered to find out” while they sit on the back of a cart being pulled over a road paved with enemy skulls. A short, macabre tribute to storytelling.

“A Gift from the Culture” — Wrobik Sennkil, recently detached from the Culture and at... Read More

The Algebraist: Unabashed space opera

The Algebraist by Iain Banks

Over the top villain. Check. Strange and funny alien races. Check. Quest for singular object that leads through space. Check. Multitudes of battlecruisers, space wings, and dreadnaughts converging at a single point. Check. Boxes ticked, Iain M. Banks makes no bones about it: The Algebraist is unabashed space opera, for better and worse.

The Algebraist, the 20th novel and 8th sci-fi offering in Bank’s oeuvre, tells the story of Fassin Taak, a scholar who spends his time in the atmosphere of a gas giant interacting with the native species called Dwellers. A smaller version of the blimp-like floaters Banks created in Look to Windward, the Dwellers live for millions and billions of years, accumulating knowledge, enjoying life, and remaining aloof of the cyclical rise and fall of power humanity and other species experience. W... Read More

More science fiction by Iain M. Banks

Against a Dark Background — (1993) Publisher: Sharrow was once the leader of a personality-attuned combat team in one of the sporadic little commercial wars in the civilization based around the planet Golter. Now she is hunted by the Huhsz, a religious cult which believes that she is the last obstacle before the faith’s apotheosis, and her only hope of escape is to find the last of the apocalyptically powerful Lazy Guns before the Huhsz find her. Her journey through the exotic Golterian system is a destructive and savage odyssey into her past, and that of her family and of the system itself.


 

Feersum Endjinn — (1993) Publisher: Count Sessine is about to die for the very last time… Chief Scientist Gadfium is about to receive the mysterious message she has been waiting for from the Plain of Sliding Stones… And Bascule the Teller, in search of an ant, is about to enter the chaos of the crypt… And everything is about to change… For this is the time of the encroachment and, although the dimming sun still shines on the vast, towering walls of Serehfa Fastness, the end is close at hand. The King knows it, his closest advisers know it, yet sill they prosecute the war against the clan Engineers with increasing savagery. The crypt knows it too; so an emissary has been sent, an emissary who holds the key to all their futures.