BooksOfTheMoon

Excession

By Iain M. Banks

Rating: 4 stars

Edit 2019: I think I’ve never really properly appreciated Banks’ writing ability until this time round. While I still love the story, this time round I read it a bit slower and just appreciated some of his turns of phrase and some of his philosophy that he espouses through his characters.

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Excession is probably one of my favourite Culture novels, and one that I’ve read several times. It concerns the appearance of an impossible object in an obscure area of space and the various mischief and knots that the Culture and other galactic inhabitants get caught up in regarding it.

The excession itself is almost a perfect big dumb object in that it doesn’t actually do anything, at least until quite late in the book, but its very appearance sets all sorts of things into motion. And what plans they are. These being Mind-plans, of course they have multiple layers, depths going back decades and multiple levels of indirection.

I must confess that I possibly didn’t really appreciate the Affront sub-plot until this time round, particularly just how deep that plot went. The Affront themselves are a marvellously horrible creation, almost baroque in some ways. I can just imagine Banks giggling (or possibly cackling) to himself as he put finger to keyboard to bring them into existence.

Of all the Culture novels, this is probably the most Mind-oriented, in that the Humans (and, indeed, drones) of the book run around doing things, but their actions, in the end, don’t really matter that much. It’s all about the Minds, their plotting and their interaction.

A highly entertaining, intricately plotted novel, both for existing Culture-philes and a great jumping on spot for newbies.

Book details

ISBN: 9780553374605
Publisher: Bantam Books
Year of publication: 1996

Use of Weapons

By Iain M. Banks

Rating: 4 stars

Cheradenine Zakalwe is an occasional agent for Special Circumstances, the closest thing that the Culture has to a secret intelligence agency. His handler is trying to find him for another job, while the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw thinks he’s burned out. This book tells his story, his history and his terrible secret.

I read this book nearly 20 years ago, it being the first Culture novel I ever read (at too young an age to grok it). I then mostly forgot about it and came back to it now because I’ve heard so many people talking about how good it was and after getting over remembered nastiness. And goodness, it was good, wasn’t it?

The structure, telling the story in the current, interleaved with chapters going backwards in time through Zakalwe’s life is still novel and works very well, setting up two big reveals in as many chapters at the climax of the book. I’d completely forgotten how funny the book is as well. It’s so Banks-ian and a pleasure to read. Coming back to this book after more than half a lifetime is probably the closest that I’ll get now to a ‘new’ Iain M. Banks book and I enjoyed it immensely.

Yes, the reveal is horrific, but nowhere near as bad as I remembered/imagined (or maybe I’ve just got more jaded in my old age). The humour throughout the book both lessens and heightens that horror but it’s never anything less than a joy to read.

Still not my favourite Culture novel (The Player of Games or Look to Windward probably still retain that title) but it’s definitely a damn fine one.

Book details

ISBN: 9781857231359
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 1990

The Hydrogen Sonata (Culture, #10)

By Iain M. Banks

Rating: 4 stars

It is the end of days for the Gzilt, an ancient species about to take the next step in its civilisation’s life and Sublime: move on from this reality to the great Beyond. However, not everything goes smoothly in the lead up to this process and the musician Vyr Cossont finds herself caught up in events that may threaten the whole Sublimation itself, aided only by a Culture ship and an android who thinks the whole thing is a simulation.

The book was a somewhat odd read. It felt slightly… inconsequential. Not the novel itself, which is huge, complex and thoroughly enjoyable, but the events it describes. During a civilisation-defining event, all this tinkering by the Culture, and the quest to find the oldest man in it, someone who was there at its founding, seems like a sideshow. It’s all very interesting, but as we’re told fairly early on what the big secret is that everyone is after, and most of the principal players know it as well, it’s all about confirmation, rather than discovery.

The Gzilt are an odd people as well. For a species that’s been civilised for ten thousand years, and was almost a founder member of the Culture, they seem oddly petty. They certainly don’t seem like a species that’s ready to take the leap into the next level of existence, but then our perspective is from a small number of ambitious and powerful people, who may not be representative of the species as a whole.

The Minds play a pretty big role in this book. Not quite the commanding presence they had in Excession (the Interesting Times Gang from that book gets namechecked, which is pleasing, for a long-term fan like myself), but they are certainly the movers and shakers. In saying that, the Gzilt politician scheming even in the end days comes pretty close.

Probably the most interesting character in the book is QiRia, the oldest man in the Culture, who was part of the negotiations that formed it. His philosophy and reasons for living are interesting, and one wonders if anything of Banks himself is in him. As far as I know, Banks didn’t know he was dying when he wrote The Hydrogen Sonata, so having a man who lives forever is probably just a morbid coincidence.

Although it wasn’t intended as such, it’s impossible not read this book as anything other than The Last Culture Novel, and try and read closure into it. Being about endings helps in that regard, and this does feel like a satisfying end to the stories of the Culture.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356501499
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2012

Look To Windward (Culture, #7)

By Iain M. Banks

Rating: 5 stars

Look to Windward is amongst my favourite novels of Iain M. Banks. A sort-of sequel to Consider Phlebas, it tells a story set to the background of one of the (what the book calls) less glorious incidents of that war: the destruction of two stars into supernovae. The light of these two novae, travelling in real time, is only now, eight hundred years later, reaching Masaq’ Orbital, whose Hub Mind was once that of a warship that played a vital role in that battle and the war. Alongside this, we have the story of a Chelgrian coming to Masaq’ on a mission that is more than it seems, more insights into the Culture’s meddling in the affairs of other races and a mind-bogglingly big airsphere, containing mind-bogglingly big sentient creatures.

I’ve been a fan of the Culture for some time (if I could move to any SFnal setting, it would be the Culture in a heartbeat), and this book started to give us more of an insight into how the Culture interacts with other civilisations, particularly lower-level “Involveds”.

As usual, Banks weaves multiple story threads together, interleaving them and bringing them together for a stunning finale. The only thread that I find not entirely satisfying was that of the scholar, Uagen Zlepe and the events on the airsphere. But that may just be me.

The usual complement of outrageous ship names, brilliant tech and self-satisfied drones are all present and correct in what is a truly satisfying story. And the Hub avatar’s speech to Ziller towards the end about what it is, what it’s seen and what it’s devoted its existence to makes me well up every time.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841490618
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2000

Surface Detail (Culture #9)

By Iain M. Banks

Rating: 4 stars

In this fine addition to the Culture canon, Banks posits the notion that once you have virtual reality and the ability to copy mind states (‘souls’), some cultures and religions will want to make their various hells real. Obviously this is something that the Culture abhors, but for various political reasons can’t get involved in the formal virtual war that is going to decide the issue. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the galaxy, a slave is murdered by her master and, to her surprise, finds herself reincarnated on a Culture GSV, before immediately trying to make her way back to her homeworld for revenge.

I enjoyed this story very much, even though (or perhaps because of) the labyrinthine political machinations involved. I feel that it would need a few rereads to get a proper handle on all the various plots that were going on, but unlike many other books, where you see that a reread would be required to properly get it but can’t be bothered with the effort, I can see myself rereading this again quite happily. As the books go on, we’re seeing more of the galaxy that the Culture inhabits and how there are Rules and just how they go about bending (and sometimes breaking) those.

I’m not sure if it counts as a spoiler, but I wonder if Banks is possibly going a little soft in his old age? The story here was pretty linear, everything was tidied up at the end and it had a happy ending, without very much of the moral ambiguity that has often characterised his novels in the past. Personally, I’m perfectly happy with this state of affairs, but I can appreciate why people might not appreciate it.

In all, this is a great book for a fan of Banks and the Culture, although perhaps not the best entry point for a newbie.

Book details

ISBN: 9780316123402
Publisher: Orbit/Hachette Book Group
Year of publication: 2010

Feersum Endjinn

By Iain M. Banks

Rating: 4 stars

It’s the time of the Encroachment when a dust cloud will blot out the sun. Count Sessine is about to die for the last time; chief scientist Gadfium receives a message from the Plain of Stones; and Bascule the Teller delves into the Crypt in search of an ant. This book weaves its different narratives together skilfully into a satisfying whole with a great conclusion. Highly recommended as an introduction to Banks, if you want to read something outside the Culture novels.

Some people may be put off by the phonetic spelling of Bascule’s first person narrative, but I had no problems with it. It’s really not much worse than trying to read Scots ;-). In saying that, I have read the book several times before.

Book details

ISBN: 9781857232738
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 1994

Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1)

By Iain M. Banks

Rating: 3 stars

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this book. It’s one that I have read before but it was so long ago that I couldn’t remember anything about it. On one hand, a Culture novel is always a Good Thing, but this had the problem for me that its protagonist was outside of and opposed to the Culture.

This was the first Culture novel: the Culture and the Idirans are at war, a Mind has crashed on a Planet of the Dead, doing something that was thought impossible to get there and both the Culture and the Idirans want to get hold of it. The ‘Changer’ Horza, already working for the Idirans, is sent to get it for that side.

Horza is the protagonist and we see the world mostly through his eyes. But he has an irrational hatred for the Culture, and, from reading other Culture novels, I sympathise with them and find it difficult to empathise with him. For all this, though, it’s a very strong novel, and the tragedy that builds up towards the end is an almost physical thing. Not my favourite Culture novel, but certainly a good one.

Book details

Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 1987

The Player of Games

By Iain M. Banks

Rating: 5 stars

Jernau Gurgeh is one of the best game players in the Culture, but he’s getting bored – until he finds out about the great game of Azad, a game so complex that the empire that created it (also called Azad) has based its entire culture around it. Gurgeh goes to join the game but finds himself a political pawn in a power struggle that will define the fate of worlds.

I love this book; the game of Azad is never explained (probably for the best) but Banks’ love of games shines through. The Culture is already mostly fully formed at this point, despite this only being the second novel set in that universe and that society still thrills me, with its almost limitless power, incredible tech and amazing inhabitants. Even if you’re not a fan of large-scale space opera, there’s a lot here to enjoy, especially in the Azadian empire itself, which is a fascinating place.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841490953
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 1988

Matter (Culture, #8)

By Iain M. Banks

Rating: 4 stars

This latest Culture novel took a while to draw me in, but it did so eventually, and pretty completely. I always enjoy Culture novels and while this one didn’t have as much of the actual Culture as I would have liked, there was enough to keep me satisfied (certainly more than Inversions).

On a world that is strange even by the standards of the Culture and its contemporaries, a prince sees something he shouldn’t, and has to flee for his live out into the galaxy to find the one or two people who can help him, one of whom is his sister, who has since become much more than she was when she left their homeworld.

Everyone knows that utopias aren’t interesting in themselves, it’s on the fringes that the stories are to be told, and Banks does it masterfully, both telling the story and showing off the cool technology that is the hallmark of good space opera. Banks’ characters are pretty well-drawn and mostly sympathetic, although it takes a while to warm to them.

A slow burner with a rather abrupt but pretty satisfying ending (although one of the strands did seem to peter out a bit as if it had served its purpose and could just be discarded). Oh and this is the first book that I’ve seen to come with DVD-style “extras”, including an interview with the author and an excerpt from Consider Phlebas.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841494180
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2008

Against a Dark Background

By Iain M. Banks

Rating: 2 stars

Sharrow is being hunted by a religious order who are convinced that she must be killed in order to bring about the coming of their messiah. Her only hope is to find the last of the apocalyptically powerful Lazy Guns.

Although packed full of Banks’ trademark huge ideas, this non-Culture novel fell entirely flat for me. I think it was that the pacing of the book was entirely wrong and it just felt plodding. Despite the fact that Sharrow was constantly on the run and being hunted, there was no sense of urgency about the chase at all; the sub-quests that she and her team embarked on seemed somewhat artificial; a set of twins who constantly shadow and manipulate her are annoying rather than mysterious; and you can figure out who the Big Bad is without much trouble.

I think this is the weakest Banks book I’ve read to date. His Culture novels, and indeed, his other SF books, take the same dizzying scales and ideas but the writing is so much better. There’s a great book in here trying to get out, it’s a shame his editor didn’t push for another draft.

Book details

ISBN: 9781857230314
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 1993

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