Book 5) Excession – When I was doing some initial research on The Culture to get some grounding before diving into this huge piece, I came across a surprising number of people who claimed that this was the weakest Culture novel. Those people can eat butt; I think Excession is great (and also Consider Phlebas exists, guys).
Excession is a novel with a lot of ideas to cover, but they all primarily revolve around a concept called “The Outside Context Problem (OCP).” The idea of an OCP is what happens when a society encounters an issue that they fundamentally lack the context to consider or solve. The issue is so outside the normal frame of reference that no existing problem-solving techniques can be applied to the situation. In the instance of Excession, the OCP takes the form of the appearance of a perfect black-body sphere that appears to be older than the universe itself. The greatest minds of the Culture can’t find any way to interact with it, and it seems to be doing… something. What do you do?
Excession is a much-needed release valve to the previously shown omnipotence of the Minds. Previously, the god-like AIs of the Culture (called Minds) have been shown to be so many steps ahead, and so technologically superior to everything else we read about, that they seem like unstoppable deities. Watching these omnipotent beings get kicked down a notch when they encounter something even more advanced is a really fun experience, but it has more depth than just being cathartic. It helps embody the idea that there is always something bigger and grander than you out there, and no matter how much you know and learn, existence will always have more mysteries for you to solve. Excession shows that for some people, that is terrifying, and for others, it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
Cosmic relevance is not a new subject matter for science fiction. In fact, it is likely one of the oldest. Authors have been positing about the stars for as long as there have been written words. What Excession adds to the conversation is juxtaposition. There is this wonderful balance of strange humor, big questions, and quiet moments of reflection in Excession that elevates it – each of the three areas strengthening the other two. The previous Culture books have built up the Minds to be these ever-knowing, almost omniscient gods of information and planning that see so far into the future that they can predict anything. This story both humbles and humanizes them in a way that makes you reassess your assumptions about the work of Minds in other novels. Were they always proceeding with good intentions? Are they actually in control, or did they just get lucky sometimes? It also is the first time that factions are clearly displayed within the Minds. Much like biological beings, the AIs are not a hegemony and have a lot of different branches with different agendas. While the Minds never lose their sense of distance from humanity, they start to feel a lot more relatable to the biological beings that they functionally rule over.
Excession’s ability to both expand our understanding of the world at large, and zoom in on the Minds that inhabit it, make it one of my favorite stories in the Culture series. It is a book stuffed to the brim with contradictions that find a way to beautifully coexist and make something bigger. While I wouldn’t recommend Excession as the first Culture novel you pick up, as it gets better with context, it is certainly one to look forward to.
Book 6) Inversions – Inversions sets itself from the pack by being the “non-culture” Culture novel. Instead of whipping around the heavens, the book is completely set on the ground in a feudal society reminiscent of our own dark ages. There are kings and knights, swords and armor are the weapons of the day, and not a single spaceship is in sight. It is also different in that the story itself is told from the outside. There is no named character from Special Circumstances, and the points of view are neutral, relaying information instead of diving deep into more personal ties to the story.
The best things about Inversions are its clear core idea and interesting narrative style. Inversions is about dialectics, which is the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives and to arrive at the most economical and reasonable reconciliation of seemingly contradictory information and postures. To put it simply, it’s when two people with diametrically opposed ideas influence each other to create a new third idea that is a weird combination of the two. It’s this really cool concept that shows how brand new branches of thought can come from the conflict and strife of ideas, and the book explores this through an unconventional narrative style.
Inversions is split into two POVs that go back and forth like a conversation. Each is from a different Culture operative trying to subtly influence a burgeoning world towards societal advancement. However, each of these operatives has a very different idea of how to nudge advancement towards a more enlightened society. First, we have the doctor, a woman who believes that compassion is the route to enlightenment. Her entire story is told from the POV of her apprentice named Oleph. Then we have the bodyguard, a man who believes that a firm hand and a leader with clear ideals is necessary to advance civilization. His POV is told by a historian recording events for posterity. For both of them, their stories are told through a second-hand lens and it adds a fascinating layer of interpretation to the mix.
The narrative moves back and forth like a chess game as the doctor and the bodyguard make advances and undermine their opponents in their pursuit of a better world. Through this strife, new ideas are born through dialectical thought that pushes the society forward.
Banks expands on this theme by examining how both sides interact with the natures of tyranny and rebellion. As usual, there does not seem to be a clear-cut good or evil path, relying on your own perceptions of the characters, their titles, and their goals. The king, long a reliable figure to represent tyranny, is not as oppressive as one would think, but he still commands his people. The rebellion, led by General UrLeyn, killed a former monarch and declared war on the other king.
Tyranny and rebellion are only the first of many opposing ideas that the book plays with. Others include using the carrot vs. the stick, changing something from within vs. from without, the power of love vs. hate, and the merits of selfishness vs. selflessness. Each of these opposing ideals slams into one another through the characters and start to break apart. We get to see the strengths and weaknesses of every side of the conversations. Sometimes one of the sides seizes a pyrrhic victory. Other times there is no clear victor and both sides are sent back to the drawing board. But sometimes, the opposing ideals birth something new that lends a new perspective on how to better society.
Book 7) Look to Windward – There are actually two of us who crafted this guide, but we elected to use the singular to remove confusion. However, we wanted to note that each of us has different favorite books in The Culture. We both like them all, but different themes and stories rise to the top for each of us, and this will likely be the case for you when you read it. Yet there was one story in particular that stood out to both of us as something profoundly different and mesmerizing – Look to Windward. This book is about as far from uplifting as humanly possible, yet it contains a dissection of how humans experience grief that might speak to anyone experiencing the horrible pain of loss. It is a book that stands up and says, “yes you are hurting. I will not lie to you, it might not get better. But I am here for you.”
Not much actually happens in this book. It is more of a discussion – both in a figurative and a literal sense – than anything else. The story follows a number of different individuals who have all come together for different reasons to reflect on lives lost and their responsibility for crimes committed. During the war that would solidify the titular Culture, a pitched fight called The Twin Novae battle would see two stars explode, snuffing out worlds and biospheres teeming with sentient life. They were attacks of incredible proportion – gigadeathcrimes. But the war ended and life went on. Now, 800 years later, light from the 1st explosion is about to reach the Masaq Orbital, home to the Culture’s most adventurous and decadent souls. There it will fall upon Masaq’s 50 billion inhabitants, gathered to commemorate the deaths of the innocent and to reflect, if only for a moment, on what some call the Culture’s own complicity in the terrible event.
The book has a weird pace that is atmospheric in its nature. Unlike other Culture novels, there is less emphasis on a large conflict and there is little sense of urgency in the text. It has a slow pace with seemingly little agenda, which is of course not the case. The ponderous nature of the book builds into the ideas and themes of the story which require a lot more circumnavigation than other ideas in other entries.
One of the core ideas that runs through the Culture is the idea of Sublimation, moving from the material realm into some unknown non-material, and assumedly immortal space. The Chelgrian, the people the Culture failed to bring under its wing, have experienced something strange, wherein a small caste of their priests have Sublimed and created a heaven for those who qualify. Every citizen is then outfitted with a crystal that records their personality and memories so that they may ascend upon their own death. The Culture itself seems adamantly opposed to the idea but does not stop other civilizations from engaging with the practice. That all serves as background to one of the questions Banks proposes in this novel, if you had the chance to live forever, would you? Of course, there is no right answer here, but as usual, he uses it as a launching point to explore the idea of suffering, and how life, regardless of your circumstance, is suffering. The only way to escape this immutable fact of life is through death. Subliming may escape it, but those who have sublimes are very quiet about life after the material realm.
Ultimately this leads to Banks asking, is there suffering worth the cost of death? In typical Banks fashion, he doesn’t answer but provides windows into where people might draw the line. This is especially well-conceived through the character Major Quillan, a Chelgrian, and the Mind in charge of the Masaq Orbital. There are a lot of interesting dynamics in the relationships that surround these two, but it’s deftly handled and beautifully wrought. Never have I felt such the profound level of empathy that is exhibited in the handling of these two characters. It’s tough and thought-provoking but Banks is gentle, leaning towards the humanity of all instead of making a blunt point about the nature of immortality.
Windward speaks to topics that include suicide, genocide, imperialism/cultural colonialism, the nature of war, and culpability. But at its core, it’s about how grief transcends all barriers. It’s about how two people who are hunting can understand each other through empathy and how it doesn’t matter how different our backgrounds are, everyone hurts and everyone needs help dealing with it. Windward is a bittersweet book in that its message is less that things get better and more that you aren’t alone in your suffering and although your existence is painful there are others out there who understand you and will be there for you. It is a complicated and beautiful sentiment that I am still thinking about and exploring in my own mind despite finishing the book years ago.