To celebrate the release of Iain M Banks’ epic new thinking man’s action/adventure The Hydrogen Sonata – pre-order it now from Amazon.co.uk for £10 – here’re the five books you absolutely must read if you fancy dipping your toes into this amazing far-off future…
1. Consider Phlebas (1988)
There’s really no better way to start with The Culture than where Banks himself began. His first published sci-fi novel, Consider Phlebas establishes almost every one of the common elements that could be found in future Culture books, from Special Circumstances to Minds. The plot follows Horza, a shapeshifter who is tasked with tracking down a Mind on
a planet off-limits to most. Along the way he encounters cannibals, crashed shuttles and misguided allies, all while evading Special Circumstances.
2. The State Of The Art (1993)
Banks’ novels can often be daunting for a new reader; not only due to their length, but as his writing can be impenetrable to those not familiar. For those lacking the time to tackle Consider Phlebas, this short story compendium marks a neat alternative entry point by including examples of Banks’ mainstream fiction (sans middle initial) as well as sci-fi both within and outside The Culture universe. The titular novella also features Arbitrary, who may be the funniest Mind to appear in Banks’ work
3. The Algebraist (2005)
One of Banks’ few sci-fi works not involving The Culture, The Algebraist proves his creativity by creating an entirely new universe. Protagonist Fassin Taak is a Slow Seer, whose calling it is to glean information from the vast but incomprehensible libraries of knowledge built up by the Dwellers. In the process, Taak inadvertently uncovers a vital network of Dweller wormholes. From there, the race is on between Taak, space pirates The Beyonders and the savage Starveling Cult to find the key to using the wormholes.
4. Use Of Weapons (1992)
Banks’ masterpiece may be the most obtuse book he’s ever written. Use Of Weapons features two narratives; one moving forwards in time, and one backwards, yet each centred on the same character, Cheradenine Zakalwe. Sprinkled in among this are flashbacks, prologues and asides, all polluted by the ever present Special Circumstances operative Diziet Sma. It’s as complicated as it is convoluted, but it’s utterly enthralling, and above all, makes you think.
5. Matter (2009)
The first Culture novel in eight years was warmly received by critics, with Banks’ work at a height of coolness. Ironically, his fans took less kindly to it. To be fair, Matter has pacing issues, as virtually nothing happens in the central segment of the book, leaving the closing 100 pages for plot development. What’s more, the collision of the advanced Culture and the essentially medieval Sarl is a little bit too Flintstones/Jetsons for comfort. Any Culture novel is worth investigating, but Matter remains the weakest entry in Banks’ bibliography.