In June 2013, we lost a modern great of Science Fiction - Iain M Banks. A friend of mine asked me to help him understand the nature of I(M)B, so I wrote the following. While it was put together somewhat quickly, I think it's a reasonable summary of what to expect from I(M)B. This article contains spoilers.
My thoughts on I(M)B and his works...
I've read one (only) of his non-SF works - Espedair Street - which is a tale of the rise and fall of a band, told from the viewpoint of one of the survivors. It's a long time since I read it, and it's fairly dim, but in my memory it's noted as a credible novel, written by somebody who could conceivably have been in a band. It's prompted me to buy a few more, sitting on the shelf, waiting for a rainy day, or maybe go back and revisit it sometime later. So far, I've done neither. A quick flick back through the pages, and I see it ends on a redemptive note, with the protagonist having decided not to kill himself and having found a certain peace with himself, his memories and his co-survivors. In this, it is consistent with the SF, with which I'm more familiar.
So on the SF side, I've read most of his Culture novels - except the latest, which is waiting in audiobook form for a long journey. I have no doubt that I'll read it sooner rather than later. I've also read a couple of his non-Culture SF novels.
The Culture is huge in scope, powerful, anarchic and liberal. Its history spans millennia and IMB takes his readers on a wildly zig-zagging course through that history. An example is the Idiran War - a pivotal event in the evolution of the Culture - yet IMB skirts the war, and his principal tale of the era (Consider Phlebas) tells of an isolated and late incident in the war, from the PoV of a minor character enlisted in the struggle and of dubious loyalty to either side, and of his pursuer, of the Culture. IMB skilfully engages the reader with representatives from all sides - having read the novel "out of sequence" I knew I was supposed to sympathise with the Culture, but was fully-engaged also with the anti-Culture protagonist. In the end, there's a huge gunfight, and most of the cast, including the protag, die heroically/gloriously, with the Culture agent surviving. The quest, it turns out, has been fruitless (in that the secret of the super-weapon had already been lost).
The novel embodies many traits of the Culture series:
- the protag dies, or is changed in unexpected ways
- the outcome is rarely the obvious - but is usually satisfying, and balanced
- the vast majority of the Culture is ignorant or unengaged, but a small core of dedicated players from Contact or Special Circumstances brings sufficient power or ingenuity to bear at a non-obvious cusp point to resolve the issue
- a minor character turns out to be a more-powerful manipulator/protector. This character may well be an Artificial Intelligence
- there may be multiple levels of manipulators - keep scratching
- the AIs are often quirky, humorous, capricious. And have access to phenomenal destructive power out of proportion to their size.
As a result, when embarking on a journey with the Culture, you are never in doubt that the Culture will triumph - either hidden power or liberal ingenuity will win out. But the triumph won't be what you expect, though it will leave you satisfied, and possibly wistful, for you may well lose a protag with whom you've become very well aligned. The novels, therefore, are more about the journey, which you will spend in the company of interesting beings of all allegiances and none. In the later novels, you can expect four or five major story arcs, apparently utterly distinct, yet which will be ingeniously spiralling towards their eventual resolution point, besides which the strands of (say) the Lord of the Rings appear obvious and banal.
Put another way, IMB is the Frederick Forsyth of the Culture. The average Culture citizen would have no visibility of the events IMB describes, for the historymakers who are the protags of the novels are unsung and forgotten - and often buried. I venture that such a citizen wouldn't even recognise the events - galaxy-shaking as they might be - for the veil of Special Circumstances shields them from view, and leaves barely a ripple on the pond of official history. IMB is the all-seeing secret historian.
FWIW, then, that's my take on the novels and the appeal of IMB. Hope it helps."
Since writing that, I have completed The Hydrogen Sonata, which I enjoyed, not least because of the fine reading on the audiobook (Peter Kenny) but still haven't made any progress on the non-SF portion of his work.
But it's on my list to do. I owe him that and more.