Culture Series of Iain M Banks: A Critical Introduction by Simone Caroti

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I approached this book with some trepidation; I am always a little wary of academic book critics, tending to find them a little pretentious. A gross generalisation, of course, but one that usually holds true for me and, for me at least, this was filled with all those esoteric and obscure words that only critics/academics seem to use and for which I always feel there are plenty perfectly acceptable and more widely understood alternatives available. But, that aside, I was very impressed, both enjoying the ideas being presented and appreciating the deeper insights into Banks’ ideas and writing it has given me.

I picked this up around halfway through a reread of Banks’ Culture novels (just before rereading Look to Windward) and I now rather wish I had picked it up before I started. I suspect it would not be very useful to someone who has not yet read at least some of the Culture novels but It would make an excellent foundation for a reread. I certainly found myself reading Look to Windward much more critically and enjoying it all the more for that.

The primary focus of the book is, unsurprisingly, looking at the Culture as a utopia; exploring the idea that such a utopia can only exist in a science fictional post-scarcity society and also looking at the idea of the Culture being a Critical Utopia (Google is your friend), though I have found myself mentally shifting to thinking of it as a “self-critical utopia.” Throughout Banks’ books there is always a feeling of the Culture as a society questioning itself: what level of intervention is acceptable? Is any level of intervention acceptable? Is the culture stagnating or has it already stagnated? And almost all the books are addressing these issues in one way or another. In Consider Phlebas its the war with the Idirans and mainly presented from the perspective of someone who hates the sterility of the Culture. In Player of Games it is justifying intervention by showing just how barbaric so called civilised societies can be (and we Terrans are certainly not excluded from this view). In Use of Weapons we see the problem that a utopia is simply is not suited to producing the Rambo-like people needed to do the job of intervening, so necessitating the recruitment of agents from outside. In The State of the Art we get to look at Earth from the perspective of the Culture and are asked the question whether it is best to save us through intervention or to sacrifice us to understand better what will happen. An experiment, yes, but for the greater good of the rest of the galaxy’s sentients, of course. In Excession elements of the Culture feel that their society is getting too soft and a good short vicious war is called for. In Inversions we get to see two different approaches to intervention. And so on.

Another focus of the book is the view that Banks was reinventing space opera. Previously space opera had tended to be one of the less serious, more immature sub-genres of science fiction (another gross generalisation, of course, that ignores authors like Clarke, Bester, Aldiss), filled with all sorts of improbable heroics and adventure. Banks’ Culture books provide an alternative, more mature and thoughtful sort of space opera, not to mention more left rather than right leaning politically. He wasn’t alone in this, with other contemporary authors like Vinge, McAuley, Stross and others, but he was certainly quite prominent and I think many of the serious space opera writers who came along ten years or so after Banks got started, like Hamilton, Asher and Reynolds, owe much to him.

I am not sure whether this is a four- or five-star book. On the one hand I do not agree with everything the books asserts and it would be remarkable if I did but, on the other hand, it has made me think much more critically about Banks’ books and that, surely, is more important than agreeing with all of Carotis ideas. So, I am giving it five as I think it has done an excellent job of achieving what I consider to be its most important role.

Incidentally, one of the more interesting facts to emerge from this book, and also one of the more prosaic, is that the first book written by Banks was not The Wasp Factory, that was just his first published book, the first book he wrote (that was eventually published) was Use of Weapons; not even the first published Culture book. Apparently, Banks’ whole genesis of the Culture grew out of the idea of a utopian society that, by its very nature, would not produce the kind of ruthless people it occasionally needed. It was heavily rewritten before finally being published but the first draft preceded all his other published books.

I would definitely recommend this book to lovers of Banks’ Culture books. You are unlikely to agree with everything Caroti has to say but it is likely to make you think more about what you are reading or have read.

5/5 stars
 
I have this on my tbr pile and will probably read it before I read my next Banks novel, Matter.

I’m massively overdue a reread of the Culture.
 
I have this on my tbr pile and will probably read it before I read my next Banks novel, Matter.

I’m massively overdue a reread of the Culture.
I do think it's worth it and I'm glad I read it. I don't expect anyone to agree with all of his points, but I know it motivated me to read Look to Windward that much more critically and enjoyed it all the more for it.
 

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