Why You Should Read The Culture – Part One: The Hub

After the stunning popularity of our “Why You Should Read Malazan” post, I sat down and thought about what other massive series could use a deep dive guide for new readers. While there are a ton of series that we love, there are only a few that are complex enough in their wonder that they might need a guide. And yet, one such series did immediately jump to mind: The Culture series, by Iain Banks.

Science fiction is such a massive genre to think about at a high level. When it comes to fantasy, I feel confident that I have read enough of the genre to have an informed opinion of what is new, fresh, or different. But science fiction? That is a beast that I have less of a hold on. However, every once in a while I stumble across a work that is so outstanding, so incredible, that even though I may not be the most informed science fiction reviewer in the world – I know I have read something truly special. The Culture series by Iain Banks is one such set of books.

The Culture is a lot to tackle in one thought-piece, but absolutely worth the effort, so I am going to break out the discussion as follows. This piece will talk about the high-level strengths and characteristics of the series as a whole. However, because The Culture is made up of a number of standalone novels set in the same collective universe, each individual book has a number of things to say that are worth investigating. So that the elements of the individual books are not lost, I will provide a map to nine of the core Culture books below that oversimplifies the themes that each book specializes in. Please note that these themes are the very tip of the iceberg, but I hope they provide some direction into the meat of each book. You can more or less start anywhere you want in the series, but we do recommend reading it in chronological order. There are ten books in the series, but we are only going to deep dive on nine because State of the Art is a short story collection that is a bit different from the other nine. If you want to learn more about a specific book, you can click on its title in the key to learn more about it specifically.

The Culture Key – The Individual Books And Their Themes

Book Title

Core Theme

Consider Phlebas

An Exploration of Individuality

The Player Of Games

The Psychology of Competition

Use Of Weapons

The Purpose of Monsters

Excession

Out of Context Problems

Inversions

Growth Through Strife

Look To Windward

The Weight of Suffering

Matter

Makings Choices in Ambiguous Situations

Surface Detail

The Nature of Punishment

The Hydrogen Sonata

The Meaning of Death

Why You Should Read The Culture – Part One: The Hub
Why You Should Read The Culture – Part Two: Books 1-3
Why You Should Read The Culture – Part Three: Books 5-7
Why You Should Read The Culture – Part Four: Books 8-10
Why You Should Read The Culture – Part Five: A Parting Word

The Culture – An Introduction

So what is The Culture? The Culture is a series of standalone books set within a large shared universe written by the late Scottish author Iain Banks. The books focus on the titular Culture, a utopian, post-scarcity space society that is humanoid in nature but did not originate on Earth. The stories revolve around how the Culture wields their enormous political and technological power to shape the evolution of societies across the universe. The Culture society is made up of humanoids, aliens, and very advanced artificial intelligence living in ‘man-made’ habitats spread across the galaxy. The main theme of the novels is the dilemmas that an idealistic hyperpower faces in dealing with civilizations that do not share its ideals, and whose behavior the Culture feels it is in the greater interest of the universe to change. The largest questions that the series as a whole continually wrestles with are ‘Is The Culture justified in their meddling in other societies? Are they morally correct in deciding the fate of so many people, and what does morally right even mean?’

For most of the books, the story follows the POV of a Culture agent tasked with influencing a different species, empire, or culture. The agents are diverse in their circumstances. Some are zealots committed to the cause, some are apathetic mercenaries, some are unwitting tools, and some are reluctant realists to name a few. Their myriad of personalities and motivations serve to examine The Culture as a whole in every light imaginable and only magnify the internal turmoil the reader will have while they decide whose argument they support. 

While Banks excels at introducing the readers to stunning characters, awe-inducing conflicts, and a myriad of ideas, his real charm and genius shines in how he integrates each of these elements into a thesis statement for each separate book. Banks utilizes the standalone nature of his books to explore different ideas. Sure there is some overlap, but he avoids retreading ground on the core of each book. The overlap mostly just broadens the conversation, instead of revisiting the same theme and recycling it, he integrates the other parts of other novels (not directly of course), but in a way that involves the reader in the conversation. It’s truly stunning how many layers can consistently be peeled back with further and further investigation.  

The Culture – Something Exotic

One of the things about the Culture that makes it different is its ability to present the reader with something truly alien. The societies in these books do not function the way you are used to. They don’t even function in ways within your realm of context. These books aren’t about altering our existing system to build something new or futuristic – they are building an entirely new system of thought from scratch. The Culture helped me explore more new modes of thought than most of the sci-fi genre combined.

The two pieces of worldbuilding that really drive home how different The Culture is from your typical fare are how Banks approaches humanity and AI. When I first started the series I was so surprised to find that the humans aren’t Terran (from Earth). That is to say, this isn’t a story about our humanity or even our Earth, and there is absolutely none of the baggage that would come with a narrative built in our history. At first, it feels weird. I thought Banks was just trying to make his world ‘special’ or ‘original’ by calling the Terrans something else. But I quickly realized that really isn’t what’s happening. Banks removed the “humanity” element because he wanted to build something new. A tabula rasa. A fresh canvas on which to showcase ideas. It means that the reader has a lot more leg work than your average science fiction story, but that you will get to see the birth of something completely new.

The other stand-out feature of the Culture is the fact that they are completely led by powerful AI called ‘Minds.’ In each book, there are also several AI characters, usually in the form of Minds that control various ships – but occasionally the Mind of a titanic habitat. The. Minds. Are. Fascinating. They are nothing like any AI I have read about before, acting more like philosophers hooked up to infinite calculation machines than your traditional robots. They provide a backbone of consistency that threads its way through each of the books and provide you with an anchor to steady yourself. They are also charming and infused with a level of humanity that is most often written out of A.I., and truly cherish their symbiotic relationship between man and machine within The Culture. They exhibit so many hyper-realized emotions that are typically associated with people, they are hard to hate and you’ll find at least ten minds throughout the whole series you’ll wish you were friends with. 

The Culture – The Themes

So it’s all well and good that I stand in my paper palace and rant to you that The Culture has weird themes and ideas. So instead, let’s do more showing and less telling. The following three pieces will each talk about the ideas and themes of three different Culture stories to give you a glimpse into what awaits you. My hope is that when you finish you will want to dive right in. 

Why You Should Read The Culture – Part Two: Books 1-3

9 thoughts on “Why You Should Read The Culture – Part One: The Hub

  1. I’d argue that the Bank’s Culture series is …the… most important SF series to read out of the entire genre.

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