Jeffrey P. Bezos, the CEO of Amazon (and owner of The Washington Post), has announced that Amazon Studios is adapting Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels as a TV series. Bezos is a self-announced fan of these books, but they are relatively unknown in the United States, and did not sell as well as they deserved, even in Britain, where Banks was a famous author. Reversing the stereotype, Banks subsidized his science fiction by writing ‘literary’ novels that sold much better. However, even if the Culture novels were never bestsellers, they have been extraordinarily influential on other writers, thinkers and, for that matter, political scientists. Here’s what you need to know.
What are the Culture novels?
The Culture novels are a series of science fiction novels written by Iain Banks (under the notably transparent pseudonym ‘Iain M. Banks’) and published between 1987 and 2012. They are entries in a particular subgenre of science fiction called “space opera,” which typically involves lots of space travel, extravagant plots, exotic planets, baroque aliens and mind-bogglingly enormous constructs. Banks’s books had all of these elements and more, combined with a keenly ironic sensibility.
None of his science fiction books were nearly as gruesome as his debut literary novel, “The Wasp Factory,” of which an anonymous Irish Times reviewer said, “It’s a sick, sick world when the confidence and investment of an astute firm of publishers is justified by a work of unparalleled depravity.” Even so, the unusual execution scene at the opening of his first Culture novel, “Consider Phlebas,” and the actions of the Chairmaker in the second novel published in the series, “Use of Weapons,” spoke to his unusually grotesque sense of humor.
The Culture novels are all set in the same universe but do not need to be read in any particular order. Many Banks fans think that “Use of Weapons” (which has a highly unusual structure, suggested to him by his fellow Scots sci-fi writer Ken MacLeod) is the best novel in the series and the best to start with. Other highlights include “Consider Phlebas,” “The Player of Games,” “Excession” and “Look to Windward.”