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?

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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?

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May 1st!

Have I been a busy bee! I started my job at Halifax last month, and while it’s not the most exciting work in the world, it pays the bills and I can listen to audiobooks all day long. I’ve only just discovered the joy of audiobooks, listening first to Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men – as good as the film, though it runs on a little – and Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer which has awakened in me a previously dormant passion for courtroom drama (although I am a fan of Phoenix Wright).

Audiobooks are fascinating little works. One voice actor has to do a dozen voices – male, female, old, young – and read it and pace it in a way that resembles a radioplay, but which doesn’t take away from the flow of the book. And some books work better than others. I tried listening to Catch-22, but for all it may be a classic work of literature, it doesn’t work as well read out as a thriller.

I went home for Easter and picked up a few books, including the Writers and Artists Yearbook which is proving to be worth its weight in gold. Struggling as I am to be a freelance writer, it’s remarkably useful to have a thick book filled with tips and advice and the people you need to be talking to. I wound up writing some stuff for submission – we shall see where it gets me.

I rattled this out on the train home. I quite like it.

My office is a seat on a Class 156 Sprinter from Norwich to Manchester. Coffee quivers in my cup from the dee-dum-dee-dum of the sleepers. Diesel-electric motor whine and grumble. Past the window float volcano-shaped mounds of gravel and dirt; float little houses owned by people with names like Pat and Geoff; float giant-like pylons stalking the land. We arc round a corner and pick up a little speed to make the straight towards Crown Point where hairless men in orange tabards hose down banana-yellow HST125s. Then bursting into open country, the flicker-flicker of tree branches.
The people on this train have a hundred different destinations. For some, this is the Ely train, to their homes and families in Cambridgeshire. No, insist others, this is the Sheffield train, the distant North. Sheffield? others cry in alarm. We’re going to Manchester.
For me, though, this is just a step in a journey; from Norwich to Peterborough, from Peterborough to Leeds, then a bus journey back to my front door and – home.

Books! and the Kuu bar

me eating creme brulee

Today wasn’t an entirely wasted day! I went back to Shinjuku – that old tart – for the first time in a long time, only to find that I’d totally forgotten how to behave. I walked into people. I got lost. I barged into elevators. There’s a knack to getting through Shinjuku, and I’d entirely forgotten it.

But I found Kinokuniya once again (I always think it’s on the wrong street) and basked myself in its beautiful seven floors of books. Books! Books with words. Books with pictures. Books to educate. Books to entertain. Books that can, in a tiny package and for a small fee, change your very being. To distract me from morose thoughts, I simply need to have recourse to books, as Michel de Montaigne said.

I bought Freakonomics, because everyone else in the world has read it by now and it was only 850 yen. I bought our super-dull textbook for next year, called New Approaches to Pre-Advanced Intermediate Grammar Solutions For Learning Japanese in Context (or something like that). And I got our recommended Japanese-Japanese dictionary, 小学国語学習辞典 (Primary School Japanese Study Dictionary). As the name suggests, it’s for primary school kids, but it’s full of cute pictures and I like my textbooks with cute pictures.
Plus, it gives a tiny insight into how Japanese children learn the language. Obviously the bulk is just natural acquisition, but I noticed things in the dictionary like a little box distinguishing the homophones 形 and 型 and the tiny semantic difference, which is something I was beginning to wonder about in my own study, and intriguing insights into how Japanese kids are taught kanji (by year, organised by theme, and the dictionary scattered with what seem to be pictographic representations of the components, as far as I can tell).

I also bought a book called Read Real Japanese Fiction, because it caught my eye with an appealing offer of six short stories from contemporary Japanese writers, together with grammatical explanations and a glossary. I strongly believe the best way to learn a language is through interaction with a genuine corpus of day-to-day use; having never read much fiction in Japanese (aside from manga, which has its own stylistics) I thought it would be good to have a primer in Japanese fiction so as to become more literate.

So I retired to a nearby cafe with a maple latte and began reading 「神様」 (“God”), a short story by Hiromi Kawakami about a bear who moves in three doors down. I read quite slowly (I’m only three pages in), but it’s incredibly exciting to be reading an actual Japanese story, and I can already feel my comprehension increasing.

A little later, I joined Ella, Fran, and Hime for a visit to Kuu, this bar in Shinjuku I’m doing a review of. I want to save my thoughts for the review, but it was a nice place, I tried some ten-year old Yamazaki whisky, and we got free creme brulees (I think because I had a coupon).

delicious creme brulee mmm

JD Salinger

So I read that JD Salinger is dead at 91.

It seems strange to call him one of my literary heroes based on one novel – and a short novel at that – but what a novel. I think I first tried reading it when I was 18 – a year older than Holden Caulfield, but then he was always a bit precocious, so it came at a perfect time in my life.
I never finished it before it had to go back to the library, but in 2008 I took it out while travelling round the US. In New York and on cramped commuter jets I read this incredible, piercing tale of a guy confused and shaken up by the world, a brain too big to contain, a young man teetering on the brink of astounding success or crippling failure. I don’t think I’d be a writer today without having read Catcher in the Rye.

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.

I figured I could get a job at a filling station somewhere, putting gas and oil in people’s cars. I didn’t care what kind of job it was, though. Just so people didn’t know me and I didn’t know anybody. I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody.

That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say “Holden Caulfield” on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say “Fuck you.” I’m positive, in fact.

Onion: Bunch Of Phonies Mourn J.D. Salinger

night and day in shinny Shinjuku

Got an email the other day from my editor saying about how there was a new capsule hotel starting up in Kyoto and that I could go along to the opening and do a piece about it if I wanted, and I was like hell yeah. One is never truly a journalist until one starts getting freebies.

Read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity recently, and it made me laugh, and I identified with portions of it quite a lot, and what more can you ask from a book, really?

Yesterday after class I headed down to Shinny-Shin Shinjuku (as it will hereby be known) and walked down to Kinokuniya’s South store, the one I tried to get to the other day and missed by about a minute’s walk, in hindsight. (I took the train to Yoyogi that time, which is actually about five minutes walk from Shinjuku anyway, but a totally different neighbourhood.)

I picked up my reserved copy of J301, and then browsed the English-language fiction, and got William Gibson’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, which – hey! – is set in Tokyo, and is the sequel to Idoru, which I read last time I was here and tragically, just after finishing it, I left it next to an ATM in Kobe and never saw it again.

God, William Gibson. The writer I want to be. Everything I want to write about is pretty much summed up in his works, and he keeps saying things which make me nod my head and make me angry that I didn’t think of it before. Doubtless, in ten years’ time I will look back and laugh at my angry adolescent love of cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk and nascent post-modernist evolutionary self-facilitating technological underground networking media nodes, but right now it still fascinates me.

I thought I’d do a bit of photography around Shinjuku, but it was cloudy and the light was bad and nothing quite worked.

shades of SimCity

So I went to Starbucks (where all those chairs are in the above photo) to buy hot chai and catch up on NaNoWriMo, as I was a couple days behind. I wrote and wrote. Then I went to the cafe next door, which sold me disgusting coffee but it was only 200 yen and I wrote some more. In total, 3,800 words, almost bringing me back on track.

I realised about fiveish or sixish that I was going to hit the rush hour of a million Tokyoites passing through Shinjuku on their way home via the westward arteries of the Chuo- and Keio-sen, so I left, straight into a glorious illuminated wonderland. Oh, Tokyo, how I love thee.


I believe that this may be the karaoke place in Lost in Translation, though I'm not sure.



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