Simone Caroti’s The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction

cover artI don’t know about you, but I love reading things written by other people about things I like.

Well, actually, I do know about you. You wouldn’t be reading The Green Man Review if you also didn’t like to read what other people have to say about books, music, etc. Sometimes we read reviewers and critics to find out if we should go see that new movie or read that new book or download that new music. And sometimes we read a review or criticism about something we’ve already read or seen or listened to, to see if we agree with the writer. Or to get somebody else’s perspective on the matter. Or all of the above.

I thought about this a lot as I read Caroti’s critique of Iain M. Banks’s Culture series. They’re some of my favorite books that I’ve read in the past 20 years. Since Banks died in 2013 I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that there will be no more Culture novels – a grief that I share with his fans across the English-reading world. And there were many times as I read Caroti’s descriptions of the books’ plots that I got a visceral thrill almost as good as when I read the books themselves.

Caroti’s book is a lit-crit examination of Banks’s Culture novels, and a defense of them as space opera. To his credit, the book for the most part is readable by those not steeped in lit-crit-speak, with one major exception and a few minor ones. The major one is the chapter in which he gives an overview of the critical reception of Banks’s novels and offers his own perspective and in some cases rebuttals. The minor exceptions are the liberal sprinkling of a few terms including mimetic, fantastika, and critical utopia. But a little bit of that is inevitable in a book like this, in which the author is attempting to set a ground-floor definition of an author’s works as serious literature – which in the case of an SF author like Banks has been a constant battle from the beginning.

In case you haven’t read any of the Culture novels, there are nine of them, published between 1987 and 2012. They’re set in a post-scarcity utopia peopled by humanoids and run by immensely power Minds, many of which inhabit and run massive ships as well as various kinds of obrbital habitats. At the time of the earliest books on the Culture timeline, this civilization has existed for about 10,000 years. It is pointedly not an empire. It did not originate and on Earth and does not include any individuals from Earth. Among its guiding principles are non-aggression and non-intervention.

However.

There are always special circumstances. There’s a special arm of The Culture that keeps an eye on emerging civilizations and others in the neighborhood. It’s called Contact. If a civilization needs a little nudge in the right direction, there are those who are called on to infiltrate and secretly help out. If a civilization is acting very barbarously, or if a “local” conflict threatens to spill out into The Culture’s sphere of influence, then a secret arm of Contact called Special Circumstances can be sent in. Most of the individuals in Special Circumstances are those who are not entirely content with living in a conflict-free utopia – there aren’t very many of them – or individuals from recently Contacted civilizations who have the kind of skills that are needed in those special circumstances. For the most part, those circumstances and individuals are the main focus of Banks’s Culture series.

Caroti tells you all about this, much better and in more details than I have, in his introduction. He then discusses each of the Culture books in chronological order. That is, the order in which they were published, because they didn’t necessarily appear in a sequence that was chronological in The Culture’s timeline. He also of necessity gives some information of Bank’s biography and discusses his other works that are not set in The Culture.

Banks actually had the plots and even drafts of two or three Culture books written several years before he was published. His first published books, and those that made his name (and much of his money initially) were not overtly SF and were classified by the publisher as non-genre. These were published under the name of Iain Banks, no M. It is Caroti’s contention, and one that I agree with, that this separation of Banks’s works is ill-informed and artificial; that, in fact, all of his books could in fact be classified as SF – some are set elsewhere in the galaxy with spaceships and such, and some are set in an earth that’s somewhat like ours and a time somewhat like ours. And also that Banks’s works, all of them, are of a level of sophistication and craft that they’re simply literature, not one genre or another.

Caroti also discusses The Culture series in terms of where it fits in the world of SF, and how it both honors and subverts the sub-genre known as space opera. After the in-depth discussions the books themselves and what Banks was trying to say in them, I most enjoyed this part of Caroti’s thesis. I least enjoyed the chapter in which he discusses various critics’ reactions to the books and either knocks them down or high-fives them; but I understand why that was necessary in a book like this.

In short, Caroti’s The Culture Series is valuable reading for anyone who wants to move into a deeper understanding of what that series is really about, where it stands in the history of SF and literature, and why it’s important. I couldn’t put it down, even though I had a couple of books that I really wanted to read waiting for me. If we can’t have any new Culture novels, the next best thing is intelligent writing about them. Best thing: it’s given me a new perspective on the books and a good reason to go back to the beginning and start all over with The Culture.

(McFarland, 2015)

For what it’s worth, I’ve reviewed Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons, Surface Detail, and The Hydrogen Sonata, here at GMR.

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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