Favourite Science Fiction: Iain M. Banks books.
Iain M. Banks books, Early is Better
Some of my favourite science fiction books were by Iain M. Banks (who also publishes mainstream fiction under Iain Banks). Although they are often referred to as space soap opera, they are genre defying- highly original, often with shocking imagery, they are much more than airport books. Having said that I am talking about his earlier books, somehow the magic is lacking from his latest novels, they seem to be much more, writing by numbers. In fact I have not bothered to read new ones. However, I have heard good things about "Look Windwards" so I might give it a go. Perhaps he was just going through a bad phase.
The Culture Universe
Many of Bank's science fiction books occur against the backdrop of the Culture civilisation, a highly advanced society, composed of people and sentient machines. The Culture has the technology to provide material needs and comfort for all its citizens, eliminating the need for money or work, there is no poverty or disease. It is an extremely egalitarian and hedonistic society, people can work but only voluntarily, because it brings them pleasure. The great stability of the anarchic Culture is due to a symbiosis of humans and intelligent sentient artificial intelligence machines, either Minds, which control spaceships, or the drones. The machines basically run the Culture, for the good of all the people. They are not just robots, or computers, they have personalities and some of the most amusing and quirky characters in the books are the drones. One of the little details that I like is that Culture ships have quirky amusing names (they are named by the Minds which control them) such as "Just Passing Through", "Zero Gravitas" and "Serious Callers Only"
A utopian society has one fault, it doesn't create much scope for interesting stories and in the novels the Culture is in the background. The stories usually involve 'Contact', the "department" involved in diplomacy and relations with other civilisations, and especially 'Special Circumstances', which is in charge of covert operations usually interfering with less advanced civilisations. This is the Culture's moral purpose to justify its existence, to try and influence violent or totalitarian society's to make them more like itself. At the same time 'Special Circumstances' is often regarded with a certain amount of distaste, occasionally the short-term effects of its interference can be rather unpleasant for those involved, this is justifed by the greater good that will eventually result.
Iain M. Banks first science fiction book, published in 1987 occurs during the Culture-Idiran war. War was a pretty shocking development for the Culture, given its philosophy, however stopping the Idirans, a theocratic civilisation engaged in ruthless expansion, was deemed to be morally imperative, and somewhat to their surprise, the hedonistic superhippies found themselves engaged in a bloody and brutal combat. The protagonist, "Bora Horza Gobuchul" is a mercenary fighting on the side of the Idirans. He considers the Culture to be anti-human because it is ruled by machines. His mission is to travel to Schar's World, one of the 'Planets of the Dead' to retrieve a Mind that crash landed there. He is followed by a Special Circumstances agent who wants to rescue the Mind.
The Player of Games
Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a famous player of board games who has become bored of his success. He is tricked by Special Circumstances to travel to the brutal and corrupt empire of Azad, where everybody's social standing is determined by their prowess in a game, so complex that a player's philosophical and moral outlook are tested. The game is used to determine all aspects of life, including the choosing of the emperor.
The Use of Weapons
This is probably my favourite Culture novel, although I agree that its non-linear structure makes it somewhat difficult to follow. The book mixes up two timelines, one describes episodic mission of Zakalwe, a mercenary working for the culture. The other describes Zakalwe's earlier life and, eventually, the events that led him to working for the culture. The ending where the events that made Zakalwe what he is, is fantastic!
Against a Dark Background
Against a Dark Background is a stand alone novel that is not set in the Culture Universe. Sharrow, is an aristocrat, a former pilot in the small commercial wars that break out in the solar system of Golter and a former antiquities thief. She is forced to abandon her quiet life, when the Huhsz, a fanatical religious cult, which believes their messiah will not come until all females in her bloodline are eliminated, manipulates the World Court into granting them a "hunting passport", which allows them to hunt her down and kill her legally within a year. Sharrow reassembles her team and sets out to find the last surviving Lazy Gun, an ancient and stunningly powerful weapon with a sense of humour, it kills its victims in unpredictable and quixotic ways.