What are The Culture novels?
Iain M Banks has created a highly advanced space faring society called The Culture. In it phenomenally intelligent machines called 'Minds' run a civilization that many would consider as utopia or as close as you can get to it. Banks realized that a science fiction book set in utopia would be very dull and so he created 'Contact' the branch of The Culture that handles the dealing with, and meeting of, other civilizations. The plots of his Culture books all revolve around Contact and its espionage division called 'Special Circumstances'.
In published order The Culture novels are:
Consider Phlebas (1987) The Player of Games (1988) Use of Weapons (1990) Excession (1996)
Firstly the 'M' stands for Menzies. Banks has said that he regrets adding the 'M' because 'literary types' have suggested that he wishes to make a distinction between his serious side of writing (non-SF) and his 'dumbing down' side of SF. Banks loathes this attitude and the way many in the literary establishment look down on SF as not being serious writing. Banks had been considering writing his SF under a pseudonym but the addition of the 'M' seemed like a good idea instead because his family had complained that it had been left out on _The Wasp Factory_ and because there was a historical precedent with Brian Aldiss who becomes Brian W Aldiss when writing non-SF.
There is a Culture novella of approximately 120 pages called _The State Of The Art_ published in a book of short stories by the same name. The State Of The Art (1991)
also written an essay called A Few Brief Notes Of The Culture which is
available on-line at these addresses:
There are also two short stories: A Gift From The Culture - Published in _The State Of The Art_. Descendant - Published in _The State Of The Art_ and in _Tales From The Forbidden Planet_ (1987). At one time _A Gift From The Culture_ was available on-line. This is no longer the case. NB: At least one edition of _The State Of The Art_ contains only that novella and not the short stories as well.
IMB writes one book a year at the moment and, for about the last ten years, he has alternated between writing a science fiction novel and a non-SF novel. His latest novel, _The Business_, was published in August 1999; it is non-SF. His next SF novel is due in the summer of 2000. When asked if this would be a Culture novel IMB said "I'm not sure if that will be another Culture book or not, It probably will be, but if I can think of a really good non-Culture idea I will go with that."
In short - no. In long - not really. Much discussion in the alt.books.iain-banks newsgroup on this subject has thrown up the following (somewhat conflicting) advice.
read them in order.
It is not really a big deal especially when you consider that none of the characters in any of the Culture novels appear in more than one book (with a small exception concerning Diziet Sma who is in a novel and in one of the short stories). It is also fair to say that you won't spoil any aspect of any of the books by reading another first.
IMB wrote an extremely long book, about 250,000 words (a typical novel is between 60,000 and 85,000 words) called _Use Of Weapons_ before any of his books were published. Having been published as both an SF and mainstream fiction author he re-wrote _Use Of Weapons_ after encouragement from his friend and fellow SF author Ken MacLeod. The book was cut down to a sensible length and the dual running time line was introduced at Ken's suggestion.
Against a Dark Background (1993) Feersum Endjinn (1994) Inversions (1998)
_Inversions_ does contain some references that people who have read The Culture novels will recognize. So _Inversions_ is set in The Culture galaxy. But it is not a proper Culture novel.
This is -obviously- totally subjective. But the general consensus in the alt.books.iain-banks newsgroup is that either _Use Of Weapons_ or _The Player Of Games_ is the best Culture novel.
The Culture is largely 'run' by its Minds and most of these are themselves 'ships' - space faring vehicles of many different types (see the next question for a list of Culture ship types and the one after that for ship names). Typically Culture ships will choose clever, interesting or witty names for themselves such as; the 'Ultimate Ship The Second' and the 'Unfortunate Conflict Of Evidence'.
GCU General Contact Unit (Mentioned class: Delinquent). GSV General System Vehicle. LSV Limited System Vehicle. MSV Medium Systems Vehicle (Desert Class: Original GSV concept, now reclassified MSV). GOU General Offensive Unit. LOU Limited Offensive Unit (Mentioned class: Hooligan) ROU Rapid Offensive Unit (Mentioned classes: Abominator, Torturer, Gangster, Inquisitor, Killer, Psychopath, Thug, Scree (LCU) demilitarized Rapid Offensive Unit and renamed "very fast picket" in _Use of Weapons_). All of these Culture ships are sentient by virtue of having a Mind. Some GSV's have three Minds.
A large collection of excellent 3D rendered scenes, inspired by the Culture books, and designed by Chris Lynas can be found @ Excession.
Some more high quality images by a gent known as 'Grey Area' can be found at the Culture fanzine website
It's from a poem called The Wasteland by T S Eliot. This is the relevent extract:
Part 4 - Death by Water
the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Here's what Banks writes on the subject in _A Few Brief Notes Of The Culture_:
"Perhaps the easiest way to envisage an Orbital is to compare it to the idea that inspired it (this sounds better than saying; Here's where I stole it from). If you know what a Ringworld is - invented by Larry Niven; a segment of a Dyson Sphere - then just discard the shadow-squares, shrink the whole thing till it's about three million kilometres across, and place in orbit around a suitable star, tilted just off the ecliptic; spin it to produce one gravity and that gives you an automatic 24-hour day-night cycle (roughly; the Culture's day is actually a bit longer). An elliptical orbit provides seasons."
Here is Banks' Top Ten SF books that he specified in an interview in Arena magazine.
1. The Moon
is a Harsh Mistress - Robert Heinlen
The second section of the FAQ definitely CONTAINS SPOILERS, especially for Use Of Weapons. Read at your own risk ;-)