Space opera has come of age in recent decades, its potential for complex characters,
mind-blowing scope, and a kind of joyous, just plain wonderful strangeness
expressed fully in the novels of writers like M. John Harrison, Alistair
Reynolds, and Justina Robson, to name just a few. But the Godfather of this
sea-change, and still one of the major players in space opera today, is Iain M.
For twenty-five years now Banks' restless imagination has conjured up dozens of unique characters, aliens, and approaches to storytelling for his Culture space opera series. The novels often wed page-turning adventure, mystery, and intrigue to incisive commentary on issues related to war, morality, philosophy, and religion. At least two
Culture novels, if not more, qualify as masterpieces: Consider Phlebas
and Use of Weapons. Many of the others come close, with every reader
having their own favorites"”expect arguments in the comments.
His latest, The Hydrogen Sonata, has just
been released by Orbit. In the novel, the ancient people who helped set up the
Culture ten thousand years before plan to go Sublime, elevating themselves to a
more complete existence. But this process is interrupted when a regimental
command is destroyed, with the hunt on for the fugitives and for the oldest man
in the universe. And all of this may have much, much wider implications"”for the
Culture and for everyone else. Suffused with wit and humor, yet also including
those amazing moments space opera fans live for, The Hydrogen Sonata continues to fruitfully explore the Culture
What is the
Culture? A far-future human-based galactic civilization that, in its attempts
at progressive, benevolent rule, sometimes gets it chillingly wrong. Perhaps
his most inspired creation has been the Culture's intelligent ships, with
avatars that can manifest as human. In Excession,
the first Culture novel I read, the ship battles and ship communications were a
major (and often tense!) highlight.
the occasion the quarter-century anniversary of Banks' signature creation,
Omnivoracious caught up with the author to talk Culture. We started with the
obvious question: Did Banks ever imagine he'd still be writing Culture novels
when the first one, Consider Phlebas,
was published back in 1987.
he says, "Though the Culture was already kind of a mature technology even then;
I started thinking and writing about it back 1974 with the original version of Use of Weapons; The Player of Games
first draft came next in '79 and Phlebas
was written in '82 or '83." He's now on his tenth Culture book with The Hydrogen Sonata, and "Honestly, they were each a joy to write, though Player of Games went the quickest;
buzzed through that first draft in three weeks!"
Later Culture novels, according to Banks, have
shifted in focus, and are "more about contextualizing the Culture within the
greater galactic meta-civilization and"”often"”going back to some passing detail
mentioned in an earlier book that I've become interested in and want to explore
more fully. I guess I'm still waiting for some aspect of the (mooted) future
that I feel I can't best explore through the Culture." The Culture in his
opinion represents a best-case scenario for humanity's future, "Though frankly
we should be so lucky"¦."
Some of the Culture novels, like Inversion, are set on planets that don't
have direct knowledge of the Culture, and so the intergalactic elements appear
in disguised form. How has fans reacted when they don't get their full Culture
fix? "Tolerantly, so far! Ideally, if maybe rather callously,
you can't really worry about that; you just get on with writing the book you
want to write."
times in the Culture novels, Banks has used non-SF influences or experimental
techniques to great effect. In Consider Phlebas, the reports and
entries at the end hide a fact that when revealed puts prior events in a more
poignant light. Banks says he was "kind of aping Tolstoy, frankly; I
wanted something of the feeling I remembered getting from reading the end
pieces of War and Peace. Aim high, is
the amazing novel Use of Weapons, Banks pulled out all of the stops, using a unique,
out-of-sequence structure that helped create a harrowing portrait of war and a
unique portrait of a haunted character. As might be expected, it took a lot of
work to reach the point that the experimentation worked. "The '74 draft was
awful," Banks says, and "had the surprise ending in the middle for pointless
and self-defeating reasons of formal symmetry. Ken MacLeod suggested the
solution of having two narratives heading in opposite temporal directions."
infamous shock toward the end of Use of
Weapons, the Culture novel Banks calls his favorite, "came quite late in the planning process. The initial
idea was something to do with power and powerlessness, I seem to recall and
contrasting the character's military prowess with his utter rubbishness when it
came to relationships. I invented the Culture solely to give him a benign moral
context but then it just sort of ... accrued." As for telling Use of Weapons in a more conventional
way, it just "never occurred to me. Bizarrely, it seemed like the obvious thing
to tell it the way I did, both initially and after Ken's brainwave."
Even with the intricacies of novel structure, it was
easier to keep track of Culture history, events, and characters when Banks had
written just a few installments. Banks admits it's "become [an issue] as the
stories have proliferated. [So] yes I do have a document on my writing computer
called Culture Facts that I refer to if I forget what color a drone's aura
field turns when it's being sarcastic."
Many series, no matter how vast in scope often fall
into a decaying orbit, but Banks' newer Culture novels are still fresh, new,
and exciting. "I suppose my dotage and decline will manifest in due
course and I'll have to withdraw myself from front-line duties, as it were," he
says. "However so far, according my extremely robust and entirely reliable"”if
admittedly also entirely internal"”monitoring regime that point is still,
happily, some way off."
Omnivoracious couldn't let Banks go without at least
one highly personal question: If the Culture future actually existed and you
were part of it, where would you live and what would you do? "On an Orbital, with a view over a fjord or large river
to mountains and islands. I suspect I'd be building something geeky, like the
miniature battleships water maze feature mentioned in Surface Detail. I might even be writing stories."
You can find all of Banks' Culture novels here on
Amazon.com. If you haven't read them before, you're in for a treat!