Iain M Banks’ Culture Series, Part 2

A piece initially written for my NCTJ portfolio, but it fits in nicely here (seeing as I promised it in the last post…!)

Captain Kirk seems pretty content.

Brawling with Klingons, fighting evil computers, and romancing alien women seems fun, but curious viewers will notice that he never seems to ask why? In a unbounded universe with limitless technology; with poverty and want eliminated, why would there be anything to fight over? Why would anyone get out of bed?

Scottish author Iain M Banks’ answer is the Culture, a series of ten novels portraying an utopian spacefaring civilization – the titular Culture – where hedonism is the driving force. Banks is an anomaly, equally acclaimed for his literary fiction (The Wasp Factory, Whit) as he is in SF. This year’s The Hydrogen Sonata marks 25 years of the Culture: here’s a guide to a few of his novels.

Consider Phlebas (1987)

A book named after a line from a T.S. Eliot poem isn’t going to be the usual science fiction. Consider Phlebas is dark and dirty, a gloomy exploration of a galaxy at war and what difference, if any, a single well-intentioned person can make.

The main character is Horza, a member of the Changer species: human-like but with the genetic ability to slowly alter their appearance at will. Horza is a spy for the Idiran Empire, warrior fanatics fighting a religious war against the galaxy-spanning Culture civilization, and he’s a cynic through and through. “Don’t you have a religion?” one character asks him. “My survival,” he replies.

Horza hates everything about the Culture’s philosophy: he feels that the hedonistic attitude, laissez-faire approach to morality and reliance on technology is a heretical anathema to a simple life, lived modestly, warts-and-all. Ordinary people living in the Culture, he thinks, are “soft and pampered and indulged”.

Despite not focusing on the utopian Culture, Consider Phlebas introduces many of the tropes that would define them over the next nine novels. Readers new to the series might be waiting for the moment when earthlings make an appearance, but this book is profoundly alien. In fact it comes as a surprise when the appendix reveals that the entire story takes place in our 14th century.

Leaving human protagonists out of your story is a risky strategy that can alienate readers, but somehow Banks makes it work. Essentially it comes down to the fact that though his characters may have an extra finger, or genetically modified bodies, or be covered in a fine fur, they have human emotions and human responses that stop the story from being a groundless foray into utterly alien, and consequently unidentifiable, characters.

Banks himself has said that the book’s main question is how far one person can really change the world. If Consider Phlebas has a statement to make, it is this: if our entire planet can be overlooked in a story spanning a galaxy, what does that say about an individual’s choices, hopes and dreams?

The Player of Games (1988)

This next book is the first to feature a protagonist from the Culture, and poses the question: in a utopian society with no need or want, what do people actually do?

Playing board games is one answer, apparently, and the main character, Gurgeh, is one of the best: in fact his chosen name means ‘the player of games’. (Later, another character remarks that given his attitude to life, ‘gambler’ would have been a better choice.)

Gurgeh is so successful, in fact, that he craves a real challenge for once. The Culture’s Minds, the sentient supercomputers that govern society, choose Gurgeh for a mission he is uniquely qualified for: a game where the stakes are life and death. The Culture has recently met the Empire of Azad and in stark contrast to the pacifist, egalitarian Culture, the Empire is violent, hierarchical, and based entirely around a stupendously complex board game: Azad. Rank in Azad determines rank in the empire – the best player is crowned Emperor. Gurgeh is chosen as a Culture ambassador and entered in the grand tournament held every six years.

Gurgeh, like many protagonists of Culture novels, is a misfit in his home society, and initially the empire’s dog-eat-dog culture intrigues and impresses him. But Flere-Imsaho, his robotic companion, takes him to see the worst depravations of the empire, in a subversive attempt to turn him against the civilization’s leaders. It works, and Gurgeh commits himself to humiliating the Azad Empire by rising higher and higher in the tournament.

The final act transforms the novel into an exploration of what happens when a militarily powerful, democratic society like the Culture encounters a dictatorial, oppressive adversary. Military intervention is entirely counter to the Culture’s ethics, but Gurgeh can’t believe that the Culture would stand by and let the empire torture and kill its own citizens. Comparisons to present day conflicts are obvious.

Use of Weapons (1990)

Cheradenine Zakalwe is a master assassin. He’s also pathologically afraid of chairs.

Banks’ third Culture novel sees plot take a back seat to characterisation, and the result is one of his most acclaimed novels. Use of Weapons’ narrative streams run in two directions, told in alternating chapters. The first, with Culture agent Diziet Sma tracking down Zakalwe for one last mission, is a standard thriller plot with few surprises until the end.

But it really serves only as a framework for the second plot, running in reverse chronological order. Zakalwe comes from a non-Culture planet where he led an unsuccessful civil war against his adopted brother Elethiomel. Escaping his home planet, he becomes a mercenary hired by the Culture to do their dirty work, an agent planted in proxy wars to influence the outcome. But through many missions, he is haunted by memories of a stricken battleship, his brother’s semi-incestuous relationship with his sister Darckense, and above all, a certain chair. He’s also disillusioned when his Culture handlers tell him to lose a war he had nearly won, for the sake of politics. Fast approaching a mental breakdown, he resents being used as a weapon by the Culture.

Both the reverse and forward plots progress steadily towards the ultimate questions of who Zakalwe is, why he is so afraid of chairs, and what the title of the book really means. As a mercenary agent, Zakalwe is an expert in the use of weapons, able to kill with anything from a sharp rock to a laser rifle. But towards the end, it becomes apparent that emotional manipulation is a far more devastating weapon to maim and kill than any gun – and the true meaning of ‘use of weapons’ becomes known.

Iain M Banks’ Culture Series, Part 1

I grew up fascinated by science-fiction, sci-fi, SF (whatever you want to call it). I read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxyseries cover to cover, all five of them. I loved Star Wars and Star Trek almost equally. I loved Asimov, and when I got older, I loved Philip K Dick as well. For a time I actually shied away from any non-SF novel – what was the point in writing about real life, when you could write about anything you wanted, invent whatever you could come up with?

Thankfully, I eventually realised the flaw in that reasoning, and now I read a far wider range of stuff. In fact, I’d put off SF for several years until I started the Culture series, by Scottish author Iain (M) Banks (the M depends on whether he’s writing SF or non-SF). Once I’d finished Consider Phlebas, though, I moved on to the next, and then the next, until I realised I should probably give the Banks a break, just for a while…

My first introduction to the world of the Culture was a couple of years ago, when a friend was telling me about Banks’ novels. They sounded a fascinating SF concept. If you watch Star Trek for any length of time, then (together with developing pasty skin and alienating your friends) you start to wonder: sure, it’s great to be on a spaceship, romancin’ alien babes and brawling with Klingons, but what do the good people of the Federation actually do? In a post-singularity universe, where technology exists to fulfill your wildest dreams, any of them; where money is not only no object, it’s a laughably antique idea; and where no one has to work for a living; how would society function?

Continue reading

Starting at Harlow

I’ve been reading a lot of SF recently – specifically Iain M Banks’ Culture series – and my internal thought processes have begun to react…

“As the diesel-powered transport raced towards the central population hub, I took my portable telecommunications device and instructed it to connect to the network of positioning satellites in low Earth orbit. Using simple triangulation, the device pinpointed my location. I accessed a program that downloaded a constantly-updated timetable from the central transportation server, indicating that the travel craft would arrive at its destination somewhere around 15:10…”

And so on. In short, I’m now at Harlow College to begin my diploma in Magazine Journalism. This will take six months, and apparently if you work hard there’s every chance you’ll land a job before the course even finishes. There’s a radio station, TV studio, and a lot of Macs. Macs everywhere. I’m writing on a Mac right now. It feels so … shiny.

The core of the course is stuff like feature writing, a lot of shorthand, media law and public affairs. There’s also a new module for Broadcast Journalism, which I’m seriously considering; they’re opening a TV studio with greenscreen and a lot of fabulously complicated kit to mess around with. Obviously, in ten years when the singularity strikes and AIs take over the world, it’s gonna be very useful to be able to diversify into video and audio, so I think I’m going to take that.

I don’t have a house at the moment. This is proving to be less awkward than you’d expect; I’m staying in a decent hostel, and Norwich is only two hours away by train, so it wouldn’t be too difficult to just commute in on Mondays and out on Thursdays. Obviously, though, I’m looking for somewhere more permanent. We’ll see.

Dear Esther

Dear Esther. I sometimes feel as if I’ve given birth to this island. Somewhere, between the longitude and latitude a split opened up and it beached remotely here.

So, Dear Esther. Normally £6.99 on Steam, I bought it in the Steam sale for £1.75 (apparently 118,000 people did the same), figuring I’d see what the fuss was all about.

Dear Esther came out first as a free mod for Half-Life 2 in 2008 and I vaguely remember playing it when it came out. This new version features updated graphics, more narration, and a fuller soundtrack. It is a game where … I mean, it’s a movie-like thing which … It’s kinda more like a short story with…

Is it a game? Well, no, and if you go in thinking it is you’re gonna have a bad time. There is no interaction beyond choosing where you walk and where you look, though if you don’t look you will miss some parts. Is it more like a movie? Well, the Metal Gear Solid series has enough cutscenes that I consider it at least part movie, and though I think the MGS games are groundbreaking, it’s more because of their cinematic content than the gameplay. Dear Esther is not cinematic, and I think this is why it’s so important.

It is a piece of software where you walk around a deserted island, listening to yourself narrating letters to Esther. It soon becomes clear that she is gone, and the narrator is struggling to cope with this for reasons that are gradually uncovered as you progress. The best comparison is probably to a short story, and as a short story it’s pretty decent – some nice metaphors and allusions, some thought-provoking passages, but nothing that you couldn’t read in any literary collection.

So why is it presented in this format?

The mount is clearly the focal point of this landscape; it almost appears so well placed as to be artificial. I find myself easily slipping into the delusional state of ascribing purpose, deliberate motive to everything here. Was this island formed during the moment of impact; when we were torn loose from our moorings and the seatbelts cut motorway lanes into our chests and shoulders, did it first break surface then?

It really is beautiful, and screenshots can hardly do it justice. With all our modern graphics technology, most games barely give you any time to appreciate the sights – even exceptions like BioShock only give you about ten seconds of looking-around-time before you start getting distracted. Dear Esther avoids this, and I was still savouring the sights right up to the final point. Particular praise should be given to the caves, which are staggeringly well-rendered, rock formations glowing like some psychedelic cathedral. It turns out John Walker did the same thing as I did in his review – taking screenshots of the pure beauty.

The best way I could describe Dear Esther is as a “taking a long walk and having a think” simulator. Ever taken a long walk to enjoy the scenery, to brood, to cheer yourself up? That’s Dear Esther, although to make it interesting your thoughts are someone else’s, not your own. When you turn off the main path, climb a small outcropping and watch the beautifully-rendered ocean pounding against the rocks below while a voice remembers a trip to Cromer, that’s pretty much all there is to Dear Esther.

I mentioned Metal Gear Solid earlier, and the reason I don’t think it qualifies as “games art” is because the artistic content (which I’ll arbitrarily define as something that causes an epiphany in the viewer) is non-interactive, merely cutscenes (although some of the best fourth-wall breaking in MGS pushes this definition). But there was a moment in Dear Esther where the narrator temporarily lost his calm, cultured tone of voice and started to panic, gripped by despair, and at that moment I looked up at the Beacon – a tall communications mast with a flashing red light that is visible through most of the game – and watching the blazing, incessant flashing of the red light made me realise something about the overpowering nature of grief. (See also: the green light in The Great Gatsby, literature fans.) Now that’s art, and it came not from a cutscene, but from something I chose to do. That’s interactivity! That made my £1.75 worth spending.

£7 is a bit much, though.

three amazing Beatles covers

I love the Beatles. I used to like them as much as the next guy, but I bought the amazing Beatles Rock Band two years ago and it really is an amazing piece of work, as much interactive documentary as rhythm game. It gives you a remarkable sense of what an incredible decade they had, ten years of unbridled creativity and growth not matched by any band since, in my opinion.

Just four guys playing rock and roll in clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg … they had some great pop tunes, but then it turned out that the bassist and that guy Lennon had an amazing talent for songwriting, either by themselves or together, and even the guitarist and the drummer could take a stab at it.

They were already at the top of their game with Please Please Me, and the only way to go from there was straight up. Six years and ten albums later everyone was sick of each other, but they still got together for two final albums. Abbey Road is an incredible piece of work considering that everyone involved had decided to stop the fighting just long enough to go out with a bang. And, really, “The End” is an ending to surpass all endings — though in true Beatles style they punctured the pompousness with “Her Majesty” tacked on to the end, a kind of musical reminder that the Beatles will continue for as long as their records can be played.

Anyway, that’s enough fanboyism. It’s hard to improve on greatness, but you can provide a different kind of greatness with a cover. Here, then, are five covers of Beatles songs that aren’t just note-for-note remakes, but which take a different spin on things and make you wonder what could have been…

David Bowie – Across the Universe (Young Americans, 1975)

“Across the Universe” is classic Lennon: trancelike, cosmic, and with the classic Beatles-y mantra “Nothing’s gonna change my world” with a dreamy arrangement (that Ian MacDonald calls “listless”, although he’s entitled to his opinion). Perhaps this is why Bowie fits this song like a glove; I get the sense that Bowie and Lennon are similar people born a decade apart, with Bowie building on the innovations the Beatles and other British bands created in the 60s.

So Bowie’s version, created away from the turmoil of the post Magical Mystery Tour sessions (just before they went to India to unwind) manages to build on the languidness of the original and become something just a little more exciting, infused with Bowie’s spark. Lennon played lead guitar and sang backing vocals on this track, which he considered to be the best version.

T.V. Carpio – I Want To Hold Your Hand (Across the Universe, 2007)

The film Across the Universe got some mixed reviews, and it’s a little messy in terms of plot and character, but it does have some great covers on it. This version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, sung by American actress/singer T.V. Carpio, is a brilliant inversion of the rollicking pop song that broke through in America and, according to MacDonald, taught American artists how to rock and roll again.

Slowed down and turned into a ballad, it could become stale but for a stirring lift in the last verse and chorus. The quickening of the bass lick after “When I feel that something” transforms it into something of beauty. Great cinematography in the film, too.

Joe Cocker – With A Little Help From My Friends (With a Little Help from My Friends , 1969)

It almost feels as if this song was written just for Joe Cocker to cover it. From a comfortable pop record with lullaby lyrics sung by Ringo, it becomes a piece of anthemic rock and roll, transformed by the grit – vulnerability? – in Cocker’s voice. If you’d never heard of the Beatles, you’d never twig that the original was so different.


“Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has! Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.”

– Doctor Emmett “Doc” Brown, PhD

Time to dust off the old blog.

I am becoming a journalist! Yes, I’m plunging back into student life at Harlow College to study a NCTJ diploma in Journalism, after which I will enter the exciting and not-at-all-difficult-to-get-into world of magazine journalism, whether online or in print.

This means a lot of scouting for houses, looking out for work experience, practising my writing and shorthand, and building up my blog some more. I need to find a specialism…

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