Sci Friday: Remembering Iain M. Banks

iain banks

~post by Marie

Earlier in the month of April, unexpected news struck the science fiction community.  Well-known, loved, and respected author Iain M. Banks announced he has late stage gallbladder cancer and may not live out another year.  His last book, The Quarry, is now on a rush schedule to hit shelves as soon as possible.  So far, counting The Quarry, Mr. Banks has contributed 27 novels to the genre of science fiction, although one could argue it’s really more like 50, because so many of Banks’ books are what one might call “hefty tomes”.

wasp factoryAlthough Banks’ big debut was for a strange and twisted little book called The Wasp Factory, he is probably best known for his Culture series.  The Culture is a vast, mostly humanoid, intergalactic society that has developed to the point that they no longer have disease, politics, crime, or much of anything bad at all.  Instead, citizens of the Culture spend most of their time playing, traveling about the universe, experiencing new things, and altering their bodies through conscious manifestation, or biological, chemical, or surgical intervention.  Giant ships with artificial intelligence called Minds manage everything for the Culture citizens, taking care of resource concerns, menial daily tasks, and general building and maintenance so Culture citizens can pursue their own pleasures.  Every so often, a new planet or species joins the Culture, always by choice, and only sometimes secretly by force through secret agents in Special Circumstances and Contact units.  If it sounds awesome, that’s because it is.

Banks creates fabulous space opera, another sub-genre of the science fiction/fantasy genre.  Space opera is, as with other sub-genres, open to dispute.  It can generally be said, though, that space opera is a great drama that unfolds in space, often times involving advanced societies and technologies, with some romance, violence, and nifty gadgetry and cultures thrown in.  Although the Culture novels all take place in the same universe, they take place over different time periods, and don’t have many repeat characters.  Each novel, of which there are 9, with one novella collection as well, unveils another facet of this richly complex universe that Banks so carefully details for his readers.  This is really where Banks shines, and his talent as an author comes forward.  excession

All of these stories are so imaginative in their scope.  The kinds of inventions, toys, people, permutations, plants, machines, food, weapons, technologies, animals, humanoid sentient creatures, drugs, gadgets, and personalities he conjures up are staggering in volume, and awesome in their originality and completeness.  His body of work exemplifies one of the reasons I love this genre so much.  I am always delighted at the boundlessness of human creativity, and the incredible things that people come up with.

But it’s not just the imagination and inventiveness that I find so alluring about Banks’ books.  Through his creation of all these new concepts, people, ideologies, mythologies, religions, and the sly politicking, Banks is able to explore some fascinating ideas and philosophies.  What would it mean if humans had no real duties or obligations?  What would people do if they no longer needed to concern themselves with mere survival?  What if we were to hand everything off to beings far more powerful and aware and intelligent than we are?  Where do we draw the line for intervention, and allowing things to develop on their own?  What would the social implications be if people could consciously change their sex, merely by meditating on it?

consider phlebas 2This is science fiction space opera as it was meant to be: full, rich, opulent, and imaginative.  Although you aren’t handed everything right off the bat, Banks will always give you what you need in order to enter into this world he has created if you are but patient.  There are lots of new ideas and technology, as well as words, names, places, and worlds that are developed and explained through the narrative; reading these books is sometimes an exercise in context clues.  But always these books are entertaining if you are willing to place your trust in a capable author who will reveal everything in due time, and give you pause and cause to think.

They don’t need to be read in any particular order, so pick one and go for it!  I particularly enjoyed Use of Weapons and Excession but they are all great reads.


Order of publication:

Consider Phlebas  1987
The Player of Games 1988
The State of the Art 1989
Use of Weapons 1990
Excession 1996
Inversions 1998
Look to Windward 2000
Matter 2008
Surface Detail 2010
The Hydrogen Sonata 2012


Sci Friday is a weekly post focusing on all things Sci Fi. Booksellers Tommy and Marie are you intrepid leaders on this journey through awesome new books; the best and worst of what’s come before; Sci Fi film adaptations and more. Check back next Friday for more!

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