We've put together this handy primer for you on the Culture, the pan-galactic civilization whose members and ex-members are the subjects of so many Banks novels. Not only do we have a rundown of every single Culture novel, but we've also got some important excerpts from an obscure essay Banks wrote in 1994 about the ideas behind the Culture universe. Get ready to enter a world where ships are sentient, humans live for half a millennium, and living on a planet is probably the most backward thing you can do.
The Culture Novels:
Consider Phlebas Set during the war between The Culture and the Idirans, this is one of Banks' most widely-praised science fiction novels. Its events also shape the Culture for hundreds of years afterward. The Idirans are a lizard-like, hierarchical people who want to colonize as many worlds as possible in order to convert as many creatures as possible to their religion. The Culture, on the other hand, wants to spread its more democratic-anarchic beliefs to as many worlds as possible. Essentially, the two empires are fighting to control the ideologies of colony worlds. Our protagonist, Horza, has grown disgusted with the Culture way of life and has become a spy for the Idirans. As the war reaches a howling crescendo, we follow Horza from a dying ring world full of cannibalistic cultists, to a ship full of criminals, and at last to final showdown deep within the catacombs of a dead world. This is action-packed world-building at its most alluring: full of cool fights and interesting philosophical debates. Plus, Banks pulls a typical counter-intuitive move by introducing us to The Culture through the eyes of an outsider who has grown disgusted with it.
The Player of Games Though the subject of this novel is gaming rather than war, we never stray far from one of Banks' central preoccupations: the psychology of combat. Gurgeh is a master gamer from the Culture, where the complete intermeshing of human and machine creatures has made computer games into some of the most complicated and beautiful of sports. Unsatisfied with what the Culture has to offer, Gurgeh ventures outside its volume of space to try his hand at a game beloved by the Azad. In the Empire of Azad, games are taken so seriously that if you win, you can become Emperor.
Use of Weapons This novel, a character study of a man coming to terms with a troubled past, is a version of the first novel Banks ever wrote (the early version remains unpublished, and Banks claims you could only understand it in "six dimensions"). It's the story of Zakalwe, recruited from his podunk non-Culture society to serve in the Culture's version of a secret intelligence agency, Special Circumstances (SC). Among other duties, SC Agents are often dispatched to infiltrate non-Culture or "primitive" societies and learn about them. We follow Zakalwe's mission into many such primitive cultures, while also following him back through his own memories of growing up on a planet whose culture echoes those he's spying on. SC Agents are souped up with a lot of cool powers, and this novel offers a generous helping of superpowered spy stuff, while also ravaging your soul with the story of a man trapped in his own memories.
Excession One of the most fascinating elements of the Culture is its ruling group (or the closest thing to that) — the Minds. The Minds are AIs who live for hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years, and plunk themselves into many different bodies: ships, halo worlds called Orbitals, and cyborgs called Avatars. (Well, the Avatars are really just extensions of a Mind, but if you want to get really detailed, just read this book.) Much of Excession is told from the point of view of a Mind in a former SC ship called the Sleeper Service, who journeys to an encounter with a giant, mysterious something that exists partly in subspace known only as the "excession." (I believe "excession" is supposed to be a cool noun form of "excessive.") The joy in reading this book comes from finally getting inside the computer brains of the ships, who communicate via data packets complete with internet-like headers. But there's plenty of excitement, too. Sleeper Service is also a weapon, and the Mind is racing to reach the excession before a warlike group called The Affront (who do some incredibly horrifying things to the creatures they conquer). There's even a weird romantic subplot involving the Sleeper Service's one human passenger, a depressed human female who once tried to kill her straying lover. Banks manages to juggle all these plots beautifully, and with his characteristic dark humor.
Inversions We've sung the praises of this book on io9 already. Read about it here.
Look to Windward This novel combines Banks' interest in Minds from Excession with his interest the trauma of memory from Use of Weapons. In large part, the novel is about a Mind called Lasting Damage who was inside a ship during the Culture-Idiran War. Hundreds of years later, Lasting Damage is still traumatized by memories of the war, and has placed itself in the control center of an Orbital full of civilians. So essentially, the Mind has gone from being a ship of war to an artificial world devoted to peace. But other war-damaged survivors have been unable to find peace. Such is the case with Quilan, whose wife was murdered when they were both soldiers in a civil war masterminded by the Culture. To get revenge, he's journeying to Lasting Damage on an assassin's mission that even he doesn't fully understand — it's a mission conceived by a dead Colonel's mind that's been uploaded into Quilan's, and that will culminate during the anniversary of the Culture-Idiran war. This is one of Banks' most mournful Culture novels, a strange meditation on post-tramatic stress as suffered by both machines and men.
Matter: Our review of Matter is here.
Surface Detail: Our review of Surface Detail is here.
The Hydrogen Sonata: Our review of Hydrogen Sonata is here.
Banks introduces the Culture in this essay. This is a long and rich world-building exercise, originally posted by Banks' friend Ken MacLeod on a newsgroup. I suggest you read the whole thing, but here are few interesting tidbits.
On the galactic setting where the Culture exists:
The galaxy (our galaxy) in the Culture stories is a place long lived-in, and scattered with a variety of life-forms. In its vast and complicated history it has seen waves of empires, federations, colonisations, die-backs, wars, species-specific dark ages, renaissances, periods of mega-structure building and destruction, and whole ages of benign indifference and malign neglect. At the time of the Culture stories, there are perhaps a few dozen major space-faring civilisations, hundreds of minor ones, tens of thousands of species who might develop space-travel, and an uncountable number who have been there, done that, and have either gone into locatable but insular retreats to contemplate who-knows-what, or disappeared from the normal universe altogether to cultivate lives even less comprehensible.
On the ships and their Minds:
Culture starships - that is all classes of ship above inter-planetary - are sentient; their Minds (sophisticated AIs working largely in hyperspace to take advantage of the higher lightspeed there) bear the same relation to the fabric of the ship as a human brain does to the human body . . . The Culture's largest vessels - apart from certain art-works and a few Eccentrics - are the General Systems Vehicles of the Contact section. (Contact is the part of the Culture concerned with discovering, cataloguing, investigating, evaluating and - if thought prudent - interacting with other civilisations; its rationale and activities are covered elsewhere, in the stories.) The GSVs are fast and very large craft, measured in kilometres and inhabited by millions of people and machines. The idea behind them is that they represent the Culture, fully. All that the Culture knows, each GSV knows; anything that can be done anywhere in the Culture can be done within or by any GSV. In terms of both information and technology, they represent a last resort, and act like holographic fragments of the Culture itself, the whole contained within each part.
The Culture doesn't actually have laws; there are, of course, agreed-on forms of behaviour; manners, as mentioned above, but nothing that we would recognise as a legal framework. Not being spoken to, not being invited to parties, finding sarcastic anonymous articles and stories about yourself in the information network; these are the normal forms of manner-enforcement in the Culture.
Politics in the Culture consists of referenda on issues whenever they are raised; generally, anyone may propose a ballot on any issue at any time; all citizens have one vote. Where issues concern some sub-division or part of a total habitat, all those - human and machine - who may reasonably claim to be affected by the outcome of a poll may cast a vote. Opinions are expressed and positions on issues outlined mostly via the information network (freely available, naturally), and it is here that an individual may exercise the most personal influence, given that the decisions reached as a result of those votes are usually implemented and monitored through a Hub or other supervisory machine, with humans acting (usually on a rota basis) more as liaison officers than in any sort of decision-making executive capacity; one of the few rules the Culture adheres to with any exactitude at all is that a person's access to power should be in inverse proportion to their desire for it.
On why most people in the Culture live in Orbitals:
The attraction of Orbitals is their matter efficiency. For one planet the size of Earth (population 6 billion at the moment; mass 6x1024 kg), it would be possible, using the same amount of matter, to build 1,500 full orbitals, each one boasting a surface area twenty times that of Earth and eventually holding a maximum population of perhaps 50 billion people (the Culture would regard Earth at present as over-crowded by a factor of about two, though it would consider the land-to-water ratio about right). Not, of course, that the Culture would do anything as delinquent as actually deconstructing a planet to make Orbitals; simply removing the sort of wandering debris (for example comets and asteroids) which the average solar system comes equipped with and which would threaten such an artificial world's integrity through collision almost always in itself provides sufficient material for the construction of at least one full Orbital (a trade-off whose conservatory elegance is almost blissfully appealing to the average Mind), while interstellar matter in the form of dust clouds, brown dwarfs and the like provides more distant mining sites from which the amount of mass required for several complete Orbitals may be removed with negligible effect.
Also, Banks has given himself a Culture-style name. It's Sun-Earther Iain El-Bonko Banks of North Queensferry.
Image from the cover of Excession by Mark Salwowski.