We've put together this handy primer for you on the Culture, the pan-galactic civilization whose members and ex-members are the subjects of so many Banks novels. Not only do we have a rundown of every single Culture novel, but we've also got some important excerpts from an obscure essay Banks wrote in 1994 about the ideas behind the Culture universe. Get ready to enter a world where ships are sentient, humans live for half a millennium, and living on a planet is probably the most backward thing you can do.
The Culture Novels:
Consider Phlebas Set during the war between The Culture and the Idirans, this is one of Banks' most widely-praised science fiction novels. Its events also shape the Culture for hundreds of years afterward. The Idirans are a lizard-like, hierarchical people who want to colonize as many worlds as possible in order to convert as many creatures as possible to their religion. The Culture, on the other hand, wants to spread its more democratic-anarchic beliefs to as many worlds as possible. Essentially, the two empires are fighting to control the ideologies of colony worlds. Our protagonist, Horza, has grown disgusted with the Culture way of life and has become a spy for the Idirans. As the war reaches a howling crescendo, we follow Horza from a dying ring world full of cannibalistic cultists, to a ship full of criminals, and at last to final showdown deep within the catacombs of a dead world. This is action-packed world-building at its most alluring: full of cool fights and interesting philosophical debates. Plus, Banks pulls a typical counter-intuitive move by introducing us to The Culture through the eyes of an outsider who has grown disgusted with it.
The Player of Games Though the subject of this novel is gaming rather than war, we never stray far from one of Banks' central preoccupations: the psychology of combat. Gurgeh is a master gamer from the Culture, where the complete intermeshing of human and machine creatures has made computer games into some of the most complicated and beautiful of sports. Unsatisfied with what the Culture has to offer, Gurgeh ventures outside its volume of space to try his hand at a game beloved by the Azad. In the Empire of Azad, games are taken so seriously that if you win, you can become Emperor.
Use of Weapons This novel, a character study of a man coming to terms with a troubled past, is a version of the first novel Banks ever wrote (the early version remains unpublished, and Banks claims you could only understand it in "six dimensions"). It's the story of Zakalwe, recruited from his podunk non-Culture society to serve in the Culture's version of a secret intelligence agency, Special Circumstances (SC). Among other duties, SC Agents are often dispatched to infiltrate non-Culture or "primitive" societies and learn about them. We follow Zakalwe's mission into many such primitive cultures, while also following him back through his own memories of growing up on a planet whose culture echoes those he's spying on. SC Agents are souped up with a lot of cool powers, and this novel offers a generous helping of superpowered spy stuff, while also ravaging your soul with the story of a man trapped in his own memories.
Excession One of the most fascinating elements of the Culture is its ruling group (or the closest thing to that) — the Minds. The Minds are AIs who live for hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years, and plunk themselves into many different bodies: ships, halo worlds called Orbitals, and cyborgs called Avatars. (Well, the Avatars are really just extensions of a Mind, but if you want to get really detailed, just read this book.) Much of Excession is told from the point of view of a Mind in a former SC ship called the Sleeper Service, who journeys to an encounter with a giant, mysterious something that exists partly in subspace known only as the "excession." (I believe "excession" is supposed to be a cool noun form of "excessive.") The joy in reading this book comes from finally getting inside the computer brains of the ships, who communicate via data packets complete with internet-like headers. But there's plenty of excitement, too. Sleeper Service is also a weapon, and the Mind is racing to reach the excession before a warlike group called The Affront (who do some incredibly horrifying things to the creatures they conquer). There's even a weird romantic subplot involving the Sleeper Service's one human passenger, a depressed human female who once tried to kill her straying lover. Banks manages to juggle all these plots beautifully, and with his characteristic dark humor.
Inversions We've sung the praises of this book on io9 already. Read about it here.
Look to Windward This novel combines Banks' interest in Minds from Excession with his interest the trauma of memory from Use of Weapons. In large part, the novel is about a Mind called Lasting Damage who was inside a ship during the Culture-Idiran War. Hundreds of years later, Lasting Damage is still traumatized by memories of the war, and has placed itself in the control center of an Orbital full of civilians. So essentially, the Mind has gone from being a ship of war to an artificial world devoted to peace. But other war-damaged survivors have been unable to find peace. Such is the case with Quilan, whose wife was murdered when they were both soldiers in a civil war masterminded by the Culture. To get revenge, he's journeying to Lasting Damage on an assassin's mission that even he doesn't fully understand — it's a mission conceived by a dead Colonel's mind that's been uploaded into Quilan's, and that will culminate during the anniversary of the Culture-Idiran war. This is one of Banks' most mournful Culture novels, a strange meditation on post-tramatic stress as suffered by both machines and men.
Matter: Our review of Matter is here.
Surface Detail: Our review of Surface Detail is here.