Saturday, December 12, 2015 5:57 PM
Technically (at least with regard to Amazon.com) there are only ten ‘Culture Novels’ listed in their website’s ‘Kindle department’—but there are, to my knowledge, twelve Culture Books to date. Amazon’s Kindle-publishing didn’t offer “Against A Dark Background”  on Kindle until just recently—and it still doesn’t offer “Transition”  (or “Inversions” , though they list it as one of the ten—go figure). There are debates about whether something is distinctly a Culture novel or not—but as far as I’m concerned, they’re all written from a Culture frame of mind and are set in the same ‘universe’ (though vastly extended over both time and space) and are thus all Culture novels—but that’s just me.
In the course of my choice to re-read all the Culture Novels in chronological order, this and other details led me to create a table—and for anyone with a yen to do the same, I hereby save you the trouble:
I’m presently on ‘book 6’—which means that I’m reading “Against A Dark Background” on my Kindle—with plans to read “Inversions”, which I luckily have a printed copy of, the next time Kindle interrupts my reading for a charging of its battery—take that, Kindle! Truth is, I have them all in print somewhere—but there’s a lot of rooting-around implied in that phrase ‘somewhere’, so I’m just biting the bullet and paying for the Kindle versions (where available). I’ve become spoiled by reading a lit screen—and I really can’t read print by lamplight for very long nowadays, anyhow.
“Fans of the Culture novels by Iain M Banks” is a Public Group on Facebook that I just joined. Iain M. Banks is the ‘science-fiction-name-version’ of Iain Banks, a Scottish author whose initial renown springs from his gruesomely violent “The Wasp Factory” published in 1984. “The Quarry” and “The Bridge” are subsequent non-sci-fi novels—and the Iain Banks without the middle initial is thus a bestselling novelist. Still, ‘Wiki sez’ that he began as a sci-fi writer and couldn’t get published—and further, that there are aspects of “The Wasp Factory” that are sci-fi in disguise, so to speak.
I find this odd, but not that odd—science fiction should have its own publishers and editors—how can we expect a ‘regular person’ with no interest in science fiction to recognize what makes great sci-fi reading? Iain Banks, by manipulating his own talents in a more commercially-acceptable genre, gained acceptance as a writer first. Then he was able to slingshot around the imagination-opaque editors and get his sci-fi published. Being a logical kinda guy, he used his middle ‘M.’ to keep up the Chinese Wall between his two audiences.
I first read “Consider Phlebas” in the 1980s—I was its dead-center demographic—a sci-fi reader with a hard-on for anything T.S. Eliot—my favorite poet. Banks uses Eliot quotes for book-titles, sometimes—my kind of guy. I was pleasantly surprised by ‘Phlebas’—many writers throw in some T.S. Eliot for legitimacy—and who doesn’t want to quote the greatest poet of the last century—especially back in the last century? Most do it out of a well-founded sense of inadequacy—but Banks’ writing makes it clear that his affinity for Eliot comes from an affinity for the same kind of ‘big picture’ concepts dealt with in the great man’s poetry—and no small amount of literary talent. Banks’ fiction is exceptionally good reading—an even rarer prize in the sci-fi genre than in fiction generally.
Banks is also amongst those writers whose envelope-pushing in their own medium make them difficult fodder for the cinematic-conversion that so many writers envision as the end-game to success—he succeeds in his writing perhaps too well to succeed as the germinator of movie adaptations. His writings’ best features are also almost a list of things that are hard to adapt from the literary—though great screenwriters have adapted some wild stuff from past writers, so I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Culture novels will never be adapted for mass media in some way. Still, I can almost guarantee they will lose something in the process.
When I was ill for many years, I read very little—I had such poor memory that I could only read a Banks novel by keeping a few index cards between its pages—on which I would write the names of the many humanoids and ship-minds that filled the story. Ship-mind names proliferate—and any reader with a poor memory will have difficulty keeping them all straight—I noticed this particularly last week, while re-reading “Excession” . I do enjoy the serendipity of the naming of the mind-ships, though—and I enjoy the concept of super-AI minds being housed in starships whose size and power match their imagined mental capacity.
Fiction takes us to another world, another time or place, and allows the vicarious experience of other characters—when it’s done well, it’s transportive. In the case of science fiction, that escape is heightened by the absence of any boundaries of place or time—it can let us be not just different people in different places, but things that don’t exist in worlds that are different from Earth—even with physics that differ from our observed reality. What a trip. Iain M. Banks is one of those rare sci-fi writers that can comfortably, confidently take us on such limitless journeys and I recommend his books to anyone who has hitherto been missing out.
[Blogger’s Postscript: I wrote this post yesterday under the assumption that Iain Banks was still living and that he would bring us more books in future. I’m saddened to learn that Mr. Banks passed away in 2013 of cancer–and I hope no one feels I have disrespected him by writing about him as if he was still with us.]