Few science-fictional settings are as intriguing as the one created across the nine novels (and one novella) that comprise Iain M. Banks’s Culture series. It’s a benign take on the concept of a galactic empire (at least on the surface), a post-scarcity future in which humanity’s every desire, from bizarre entertainments, to body modifications, to gender transitioning, can be easily fulfilled through the application of a little technology—with the caveat that we’ve also handed over control of our destinies to a host of largely benevolent, artificially intelligent “minds” that keep order in the galaxy, both within the Culture and outside of it. It’s a pretty sweet setup, provided you don’t take issue with the Culture’s mission statement. If you do, the minds have no qualms about calling in “Special Circumstances” to straighten out your thinking.
With plans in the works to adapt the books for television, there’s no better time to revisit Banks’s transhuman epic—and what better way to do so with a good, old-fashioned ranking? Don’t mistake this for a “where to start?” primer—the beauty of the series is that you can begin with any book, and read them in any order. Any Banks book is a guaranteed good read, and the Culture books in particular are all excellent, some volumes are naturally stronger than others. After much deliberation on their relative merits—accessibility, inventiveness, characters, pacing—we now present our ranking of the Culture novels, from least best to best. [Editor’s note: the story collection The State of the Art, commonly listed with other works in the series, is excluded from this ranking, as it contains only a single tale set in the Culture.]
Some spoilers follow, but we’ve provided warnings so you can stop reading in time.
A lot of thought went into whether or not to put this one at the end of the list, but it is the only one this reader flung across the room in anger while reading it—no mean feat, as it is also the second-longest in the series, and said reader is not particularly physically gifted. It’s the story of a royal family residing in a “shellworld,” a concentric series of hollow planets where “primitive” cultures are mentored and uplifted by more technologically advanced races who manipulate them for their own gains. There is intrigue, and mysterious ruins, and powerful beings with questionable motives, and some truly interesting worldbuilding—hints of a mysterious war that blew up half the shellworlds in the known universe. But then the ending happens. While Banks does drop hints throughout the book— archaeological finds, dangerous precursors, a search for powerful precursor tech—nothing quite prepares you for [major spoiler alert!] the moment a sapient killbot nukes most of the characters and the planet, then destroys almost all that’s left as the survivors try to stop it. What makes the ending of Matter so annoying isn’t that it doesn’t fit with the plot or tone of the rest of the book, but that it feels rushed, and even a tad arbitrary. From a writer as deliberate and intricate as Banks, it’s a bit disappointing, which puts this one at the bottom of the list. (Which, naturally, means it sits at the top of someone else’s.)
Banks stated intention with Inversions was to write a Culture novel that wasn’t, and as an experiment, it is at least kind of successful. It is a novel of intrigue following the inhabitants of two medieval-level kingdoms that were formerly part of a single unified empire, until an ecological disaster caused a schism that divided them. Where does the Culture come into all of this? You’ll have to look closely to see it. It’s an interesting idea, and an interesting book, to be certain, and the quality of the prose definitely matches Banks’ other writing. But the odd presentation and the subtleties of the storytelling—and the generally much more literary tone—make it more of an acquired taste than the other volumes in the series. Still, Inversions is an interesting take on covert contact stories, like a more atmospheric, slightly less cynical Hard To Be A God. It’s just a bit more subdued than the rest of the typically bombastic Culture novels, and the different feel has a slight marmite effect.
The Hydrogen Sonata
The last published book in the series, and the last science fiction novel completed before Banks’ untimely death from cancer in 2014, The Hydrogen Sonata takes aim at the tropes of transhumanist space opera, the very genre the Culture books had strong hand in shaping in the first place starting. It also features a situation where, as is hinted in other books, the Culture is not the most powerful thing in the known universe, but simply the most powerful to a certain pont, as Banks details the process of the “sublimation” of beings to a higher plane of existence—a hard concept to grasp intellectually, let alone depict in a novel. It also deals with one of the founders of the Culture, a race that decided it would be best not to join at the initial inception, and the dirty secrets at the foundation of the galactic utopia. It’s a fitting sendoff for the saga, but at the same time, one of the least forgiving to neophytes.
Look to Windward
A novel detailing the fallout of the Culture’s machinations in Consider Phlebas (more on that one later), Look to Windward is a beautiful, downbeat work that explores the indelible mark the Culture leaves on lesser civilizations, and revisits the toll a gigantic galactic war would take on individual species and small-c cultures caught in its wake. The plot concerns a former general from a brutal civil war (accidentally instigated by the Culture in an attempt to dissolve the civilization’s rigid caste systems) trying to wipe out five million people by destroying a decadent Culture orbital, on which a party is being held to commemorate an Idiran-Culture War atrocity. The reason it ranks in our bottom half isn’t because it’s a relatively weak entry, but because most of the elements found in it are visited upon in more satisfying a fashion in other entries in the series. It has a lot of really interesting ideas, but also the misfortune of being but one entry in a rather fantastically strong series. Apart from that, it’s an excellent novel, and serves as a good epitaph to the Idiran-Culture war.
Use of Weapons
A caveat with this one—Use of Weapons is one of the more experimental and less accessible speace opera novels ever written. It tells two interwoven stories, one moving forward in time and telling the story of deranged mercenary Cheradenine Zakalwe as he takes on a mission for the Culture that relates to a dark secret in his past; the other moving backward as it reveals that past in reverse chronological order. As the two stories fill each other in, bookended by a prologue and epilogue and interwoven with miscellaneous flashbacks, they paint a singular portrait of a complex mercenary, and contains some of the darkest moments in the series to boot (though not the darkest, but again, we’ll get to Consider Phlebas in a bit). It’s a dark, complex, unnerving, and deconstructive portrait of a character who, in any other writer’s hands, might have been sketched out as a straight-forward “galactic hero” archetype, winning the day with wits and a gun. While it’s often considered to be the high point of the series (and works hard to earn that title), the finicky nature of the narrative structure and some of the extreme sociopathy shown by heroes and villains alike make it much more than escapist reading. An amazing book, but an uncomfortable one.
And now we get into the weird stuff. Excession offers a tremendous amount of worldbuilding, incredibly cool alien designs, and an absurd take on cosmic horror and space opera, pitting the Mind inhabiting the eccentric Culture vessel Sleeper Service and its equally motley allies and inhabitants against both a hostile empire planning to start a war and a massive “outside context problem,” a black sphere known as the Excession that suddenly appears in the galaxy with no warnings or explanation, and quickly sets about wreaking havoc. The Culture AIs must deal with the definitionally unclassifiable problem, all the while tending to their particular human passengers; in particular, those onboard the Sleeper Service have been arranged into living historical dioramas it checks up on from time to time. The ships, whose communications to one another are presented in the form of text messages, complete with headers and metadata, are bored and foulmouthed, allowing Banks’ sense of humor to really shines through, and truly capitalizing on his running gag of ridiculous ship names. There are numerous references to Douglas Adams and things like Civilization‘s asymmetrical technological advancement, making it one of the more enjoyable entries, provided you’re the right sort of geek. (We are.)
With a relatively high level of readability, Surface Detail makes it into the top tier out of sheer weirdness tempered with a certain accessibility, even as it tends to sprawl a little more than other volumes. An early scene involves a human being executed via siege weaponry, the main character’s DNA is marked with iridescent spiral tattoos so dense they turn her skin black and her eyes a weird color, and the plot ties up loose ends from another book as it tracks the fallout from the Culture’s decision to invade Hell. Well, okay, a virtual reality Hell, but admit it, if you’ve read and enjoyed any of the other Culture books, or are otherwise interested in the series, the idea of a transhumanist space collective gearing up to invade the afterlife gets you going just a little bit. Fitting the theme of the Culture in opposition to a virtual afterlife, it’s also one of the more existentialist books, exploring themes of free will, bondage, and technology.
The first Culture novel published, Consider Phlebas is at once the most and least accessible of the series. Most, in that it’s an easy read without the weird narrative experimentation and surrealistic elements of later books, and the fact that it is told by a Culture outsider makes it easier to get a handle on the worldbuilding. Least, in that the episodic nature allows Banks to introduce a mind-boggling number of setting elements and scenes—and that Phlebas is space opera’s version of grimdark, as Banks gleefully eviscerates both characters and genre conventions alike as he pushes a bleak anti-war message. The book follows the story of Bora Horza Gobchul, a shapeshifting mercenary on the Idirian side of the calamitous Idiran-Culture War, assigned to capture a crash-landed Culture AI from a dead planet, and along the way encounters space pirates, cannibal cults, and several ill-fated criminal schemes. While it might not be as flat-out fun as the number one entry on our list, it’s still an epic read, full of action, adventure, and exceptionally twisted setpieces.
The Player of Games
While Consider Phlebas came first, and its backdrop of the Idiran-Culture War allowed the Culture to flex its muscles a bit, The Player of Games is a tighter story and a more natural starting point for the series. With its snarky narrator, its consideration of the structures of the Culture from a civilian’s perspective, a more focused story, and a much less bleak outlook than its predecessor, the story of Jernau morat Gurgeh and his attempt to literally beat the Azad empire at their own game manages to deliver Banks’s dark flourishes in an irresistible way. It’s a perfect introduction to the Culture’s warped sense of humor, grotesque alien traditions, and Banks’s occasional literary experimentation—here, the unidentified (until the end, anyway) narrator constantly comments on the plot.
What’s your personal Culture ranking?