asked me why I like Iain M. Banks' Culture novels, and for a recommendation on where to start reading. The Culture novels are my favorite Science Fiction. They combine wit, speculation on intelligence, society and government with enough space opera to keep it all interesting.
Where to start?
I’d recommend starting with “Consider Phlebas”, see “Welcome to the Culture”. Unabridged audio editions of ten of the Culture novels are currently available from Audible.com
But Banks' greatest creation is the Culture, its AIs (the Minds) and the Ships. See these quotes from “Welcome to the Culture”, quoting “Notes on the Culture” from Banks himself:
“Banks introduces the Culture in this essay. This is a long and rich world-building exercise, originally posted by Banks' friend Ken MacLeod on a newsgroup. I suggest you read the whole thing, but here are few interesting tidbits.
On the galactic setting where the Culture exists:
The galaxy (our galaxy) in the Culture stories is a place long lived-in, and scattered with a variety of life-forms. In its vast and complicated history it has seen waves of empires, federations, colonisations, die-backs, wars, species-specific dark ages, renaissances, periods of mega-structure building and destruction, and whole ages of benign indifference and malign neglect. At the time of the Culture stories, there are perhaps a few dozen major space-faring civilisations, hundreds of minor ones, tens of thousands of species who might develop space-travel, and an uncountable number who have been there, done that, and have either gone into locatable but insular retreats to contemplate who-knows-what, or disappeared from the normal universe altogether to cultivate lives even less comprehensible.
On the ships and their Minds:
Culture starships - that is all classes of ship above inter-planetary - are sentient; their Minds (sophisticated AIs working largely in hyperspace to take advantage of the higher lightspeed there) bear the same relation to the fabric of the ship as a human brain does to the human body … The Culture's largest vessels - apart from certain art-works and a few Eccentrics - are the General Systems Vehicles of the Contact section. (Contact is the part of the Culture concerned with discovering, cataloguing, investigating, evaluating and - if thought prudent - interacting with other civilisations; its rationale and activities are covered elsewhere, in the stories.) The GSVs are fast and very large craft, measured in kilometres and inhabited by millions of people and machines. The idea behind them is that they represent the Culture, fully. All that the Culture knows, each GSV knows; anything that can be done anywhere in the Culture can be done within or by any GSV. In terms of both information and technology, they represent a last resort, and act like holographic fragments of the Culture itself, the whole contained within each part.
The Culture doesn't actually have laws; there are, of course, agreed-on forms of behaviour; manners, as mentioned above, but nothing that we would recognise as a legal framework. Not being spoken to, not being invited to parties, finding sarcastic anonymous articles and stories about yourself in the information network; these are the normal forms of manner-enforcement in the Culture.
Politics in the Culture consists of referenda on issues whenever they are raised; generally, anyone may propose a ballot on any issue at any time; all citizens have one vote. Where issues concern some sub-division or part of a total habitat, all those - human and machine - who may reasonably claim to be affected by the outcome of a poll may cast a vote. Opinions are expressed and positions on issues outlined mostly via the information network (freely available, naturally), and it is here that an individual may exercise the most personal influence, given that the decisions reached as a result of those votes are usually implemented and monitored through a Hub or other supervisory machine, with humans acting (usually on a rota basis) more as liaison officers than in any sort of decision-making executive capacity; one of the few rules the Culture adheres to with any exactitude at all is that a person's access to power should be in inverse proportion to their desire for it.
On why most people in the Culture live in Orbitals:
The attraction of Orbitals is their matter efficiency. For one planet the size of Earth (population 6 billion at the moment; mass 6x1024 kg), it would be possible, using the same amount of matter, to build 1,500 full orbitals, each one boasting a surface area twenty times that of Earth and eventually holding a maximum population of perhaps 50 billion people (the Culture would regard Earth at present as over-crowded by a factor of about two, though it would consider the land-to-water ratio about right). Not, of course, that the Culture would do anything as delinquent as actually deconstructing a planet to make Orbitals; simply removing the sort of wandering debris (for example comets and asteroids) which the average solar system comes equipped with and which would threaten such an artificial world's integrity through collision almost always in itself provides sufficient material for the construction of at least one full Orbital (a trade-off whose conservatory elegance is almost blissfully appealing to the average Mind), while interstellar matter in the form of dust clouds, brown dwarfs and the like provides more distant mining sites from which the amount of mass required for several complete Orbitals may be removed with negligible effect.
Also, Banks has given himself a Culture-style name. It's Sun-Earther Iain El-Bonko Banks of North Queensferry.”
From “Welcome to the Culture”
Banks also said:
“The Culture, in its history and its on-going form, is an expression of the idea that the nature of space itself determines the type of civilisations which will thrive there.
The thought processes of a tribe, a clan, a country or a nation-state are essentially two-dimensional, and the nature of their power depends on the same flatness. Territory is all-important; resources, living-space, lines of communication; all are determined by the nature of the plane (that the plane is in fact a sphere is irrelevant here); that surface, and the fact the species concerned are bound to it during their evolution, determines the mind-set of a ground-living species. The mind-set of an aquatic or avian species is, of course, rather different.
Essentially, the contention is that our currently dominant power systems cannot long survive in space; beyond a certain technological level a degree of anarchy is arguably inevitable and anyway preferable.
To survive in space, ships/habitats must be self-sufficient, or very nearly so; the hold of the state (or the corporation) over them therefore becomes tenuous if the desires of the inhabitants conflict significantly with the requirements of the controlling body. On a planet, enclaves can be surrounded, besieged, attacked; the superior forces of a state or corporation - hereafter referred to as hegemonies - will tend to prevail. In space, a break-away movement will be far more difficult to control, especially if significant parts of it are based on ships or mobile habitats. The hostile nature of the vacuum and the technological complexity of life support mechanisms will make such systems vulnerable to outright attack, but that, of course, would risk the total destruction of the ship/habitat, so denying its future economic contribution to whatever entity was attempting to control it.
The theory here is that the property and social relations of long-term space-dwelling (especially over generations) would be of a fundamentally different type compared to the norm on a planet; the mutuality of dependence involved in an environment which is inherently hostile would necessitate an internal social coherence which would contrast with the external casualness typifying the relations between such ships/habitats. Succinctly; socialism within, anarchy without. This broad result is - in the long run - independent of the initial social and economic conditions which give rise to it."
Names of Culture ships
Elon Musk named the landing barges for the Space-X program after two of the Culture’s General Contact Unit (GCU) Ships:
GCU Just Read The Instructions
GCU Of Course I Still Love You
My favorite Ship names - See “List of Ship Names” Wikipedia link
GCU Just Read The Instructions^
GCU Of Course I Still Love You^
GCU Funny, It Worked Last Time...
GCU You Would If You Really Loved Me
GCU Fate Amenable To Change
GCU Unacceptable Behaviour
ROC Frank Exchange Of Views - Psychopath
GSV What Is The Answer and Why?
MSV Not Invented Here
GCU Poke It With A Stick
OU I Said, I've Got A Big Stick†
n/a Hand Me The Gun And Ask Me Again†
n/a We Haven't Met But You're A Great Fan Of Mine†
n/a Zero Credibility†
n/a Charming But Irrational†
n/a Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory†
n/a Conventional Wisdom†
GTC Now We Try It My Way
GCV Subtle Shift In Emphasis
GSV Total Internal Reflection
GOU Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints
Abominator Self-categorized as a "Picket Ship"
FP No One Knows What The Dead Think
Formerly known as the GOU Obliterating Angel
GOU Questionable Ethics
ROU Refreshingly Unconcerned With the Vulgar Exigencies of Veracity
ex-Thug Fast Picket
LOU Caconym - Troublemaker ††
GSV Kakistocrat - home GSV of Mistake Not…
"Kakistocrat" is Ancient Greek, meaning "very bad ruler".
A few Ship names from me:
GCU Shake Well Before Using
GCU Sweet Is War To Those Who Know It Not (Pindar)
GCU Shut Up, He Explained (Ring Lardner}
GCU Just With Potatoes (Doug Adams)
"It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes." — Douglas Adams
GSV You Should Occasionally Look At The Results
"However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." — Winston Churchill
GCU Simple, Neat, And Wrong (H.L. Mencken)
"For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong." — H. L. Mencken
GCU No, no, you're not thinking (Niels Bohr)
GCU You're just being logical (Niels Bohr)
"No, no, you're not thinking; you're just being logical." — Niels Bohr
GCU Not even wrong (Wolfgang Pauli)
"That is not only not right, it is not even wrong." — Wolfgang Pauli
In a comment to “Welcome to the Culture”, Annalee Newitz writes:
“I actually think the silly ship names become less silly as you come to understand the dark, almost sadistic, humor that so many of Banks' ancient/wise beings seem to share. In his novel The Algebraist, which isn't a Culture novel but feels a bit like a proto-Culture civilization, there are superancient gas giant creatures called the Dwellers who also have a bizarre sense of humor that I think is probably the natural result of having seen so many civilizations rise and fall seemingly without reason.”
Welcome to the Culture, the Galactic Civilization that Iain M. Banks Built, Annalee Newitz, iO9.com, 11 Feb 2008
A Few Notes On The Culture, by Iain M. Banks - Brilliant
This article was posted to newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written on 10 Aug 1994 on behalf of Iain M Banks by Ken MacLeod firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Culture, Wikipedia - Very good overview and links
List of spacecraft in the Culture Series, Wikipedia - Great fun
Culture Series, unabridged, Audible.com