I don’t remember which of Iain M. Banks’ novels I read first, whether it was Consider Phlebas or Use of Weapons, but it no longer matters. I was hooked on his galactic space opera setting (the “Culture” novels) from the get-go, and I’ve read every Culture novel except his last. When I heard that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, I hoped to read that last novel before he died. For that matter, I hoped to write this post honoring the Banks and his amazing imagination before the cancer claimed him. Alas, he died in early June.
There are a lot of people who look down on space opera as a genre. I’m not one of them. The best space opera plays macrocosm off against microcosm, and the actions of a the few (or the one) have great consequence in the greater universe of the setting. Banks’ Culture novels do this in spades.
There are artificial planets that were left behind for unknown reasons by long extinct races. There are Ringworlds and Dyson spheres, as well as wars so great in magnitude that such massive structures and their trillions of inhabitants are killed. There are digital hells created for the dead, when technology has advanced sufficiently that death has largely become a choice. And there are artificial intelligences that range in size from missiles to “General Services Vehicles” which are usually home to billions of intelligent biological lifeforms.
It’s not that the Culture novels provide technology that is indistinguishable from magic, because they don’t. Banks certainly plays with the laws of physics, but mostly just to make things smaller, stronger, faster, and so on. Nuclear reactors that are so small they can be surgically implanted in a human(oid) body. The ability to alter DNA and transition from male to female to dolphin to plant and back to male humanoid again.
And then there’s agents of “Special Circumstances.” These people essentially do the Culture’s dirty work, do it of their own free will, and do with at least one carefully backed-up copy of their brain pattern stored for safe keeping and re-incarnation if the agent is killed in the line of duty. They are the highly deniable hands, feet, and nanotech that permits the bulk of the Culture to exist largely free of large scale conflict.
While I have enjoyed all of the Culture books I’ve read, one of my favorites is Excession. It takes a philosophical idea – the “Out of Context problem” – and applies it to the Culture itself. How does a post-resource limited, high technology, anarcho-libertarian society survive when faced with something that is clearly from another universe entirely? Will the Culture do any better than the Aztecs did when the Spanish showed up? And if so, how and why?
And if you don’t love the hilariously, if occasionally ominously, named AI spaceships, I recommend you have your sense of humor examined.
Good bye, Iain M. Banks. There appears to be no mindstate backup for you on file….