Like many other genres, science fiction and fantasy loves a good series. There are good and bad things about series, but it's generally agreed that the good outweigh the bad, otherwise we wouldn't see so many of them represented on bookstore shelves. Even though there are many sf/f series, only a select few have the staying power to run for multiple decades. One of them celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this month: The Culture series by Scottish author Iain M. Banks.
What is The Culture?
The Culture is the name given to a nine-thousand-year-old futuristic interstellar society formed by various humanoid races and managed by advanced, benevolent artificial intelligences called Minds. It's a post-scarcity society, which means that there are no shortages of anything. Thanks to advanced technology, production is largely automated and things are free, thus there is no need for its humanoid members to work. Since people can get what they want whenever they want, there is little crime and little need for law enforcement, which also classifies the Culture society as semi-anarchistic.
To keep this Utopian vision of a peaceful symbiotic human/machine society going, the Culture's founders wanted to avoid centralized government and power structures run by corporations. Since these things tend to emerge from planet-based societies, most members of the Culture live off planet, in massive spaceships called World Ships and other off-world locations like space habitats.
What the Stories Are About
Most of the Culture stories take place on the fringes of the Culture's boundaries, where things are less idealistic and thus the source for more drama and more captivating stories. They tend to focus on the agents of the Culture as they interact with other races – either engaging in war or attempting to move these outsider societies (sometimes by force) towards their "more enlightened" Utopian vision. If the novels of The Culture can be said to share a theme, it's one of an advanced, progressive society interacting with less sophisticated ones.
The ten books of The Culture themselves (culminating with the just-released novel The Hydrogen Sonata) play out as follows:
- Consider Phlebas - depicts the Culture's full-scale war with the Idirans as seen through the eyes of someone outside the Culture, but who slowly realizes they are not necessarily the bad guys.
- The Player of Games - features a Culture member, bored with his idyllic life, who is blackmailed into using his game-playing skills to subvert a world whose emperor is chosen by playing and winning a complex game.
- The State of the Art - actually a short story collection, the title story of which depicts a secret visit to contemporary 1977 Earth by a Mind wishing to compare the cultural effects of interference vs. non-interference.
- Use of Weapons - uses the relationship between a Culture member and her mercenary subordinate (psychologically scarred after being raised on a non-Culture planet) to subtly explore the guilt Culture members might feel for manipulating other races.
- Excession - shows two groups of Mind intelligences; one who uses an alien artifact to lure a race with supposedly questionable behavior into war, and another who opposes that intervention.
- Inversions - takes place on medieval-level planet where two Culture representatives (who never meet) attempt to complete their separate missions even though they each have opposing views on making contact with less advanced civilizations.
- Look to Windward - As the effects of the centuries-old Idiran war are felt, the victim of a civil war ignited by Culture interference seeks revenge on a Culture Mind.
- Matter - Follows a Culture agent on a feudal world physically made up of concentric shells, each of which is home to different races.
- Surface Detail - merges cyberspace with reality as a young woman seeks revenge of her murderer after being brought back to life with Culture technology.
- The Hydrogen Sonata - a quest tale set against the backdrop of a non-Culture civilization on the verge of Transcendence, as a woman, sought in connection with the death of the Regimental High Command, seeks out the oldest living man in the Culture to accomplish her final mission.
For those looking to dive into this series, the Culture novels do not necessarily have to be read in order; they rarely share characters and the stories span more than a thousand years of future history. My suggestion: pick something that looks enticing and dive in!
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a Hugo Award-winning group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He also likes bagels.