With the ability to create any kind of world imaginable in perfect virtual reality, some civilisations have created their own Heavens. The mind-states of citizens are uploaded to the VR upon their deaths and they’re able to enjoy their ‘afterlife’ forevermore. However, certain civilisations have used VR to create ‘the other place’. Virtual Hells are used to fulfil the promise of eternal torment for criminals and ‘sinners’. And, of course, the Culture takes issue with such unthinkable barbarity.
I found this an incredibly imaginative way of dealing with the idea of death and the afterlife in sci-fi without making the story supernatural. It’s even believable. It’s depressingly easy to imagine the justifications people would present for creating a Hell to punish others. They sound very similar to justifications for the death penalty: deterrent, revenge, ‘justice’. It’s also interesting to imagine the ways religious fundamentalists may justify artificially creating the afterlives of their religions, something that Surface Detail unfortunately doesn’t touch upon.
The Culture isn’t the only civilisation to take issue with the use of virtual Hells. The galactic community has separated into two camps, those who make use of Hells and those who abhor the practice. In order to prevent the brewing conflict a ‘Confliction’ is agreed upon. This is a way of preventing war in the ‘Real’ by fighting a war in virtual reality, with both sides swearing to abide by the result. Should the anti-Hell side win, the Hells would be abolished. However, this arrangement can only work when both sides are certain to accept the result. Consequently, the Culture decided not to take part in the Confliction in order to deny the pro-Hell side an opportunity to call foul: “Of course you won, you had the Culture on your side!”
This spectacularly imaginative and utterly enthralling premise is the best thing about an otherwise disappointing novel.
There are six main characters. The antagonist of the story is a cartoonishly evil capitalist called Joiler Veppers, whose lack of emotional depth makes his POV chapters a real slog. The book opens with him murdering his chattel slave when she attempts to escape. The murdered slave, Lededje, is then unexpectedly reincarnated aboard a Culture ship because of sci-fi stuff. She immediately decides to return to her home to kill Veppers. Lededje is an enjoyable enough character, and her journey back home with the Culture warship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints has to be my favourite human/ship-Mind pairing of the series so far. But even so, my complete lack of interest in Joiler Veppers made it hard for me to care for her, either.
Vatueil is a soldier who has fought the Confliction for several lifetimes, slowly working his way through the ranks until he became a commander. When his side seems set to lose the Confliction he decides to break the agreement and cheat, first attempting sabotage and, when that doesn’t work, planning on bringing the war into the Real. And you can bet that if real war breaks out over the Hells then the Culture won’t take a back-seat as the did in the Confliction. Knowing the Culture, they may even have been planning for (read: orchestrating) it from the beginning.
Yime Nsokyi is this novel’s resident Culture agent. She spends most of the book attempting to reach Lededje to prevent her from killing Joiler Veppers: killing the most powerful man in the region without carrying out the proper calculations isn’t the way of Culture interventionism.
Chay and Prin are academics belonging to an elephantine-esque herd species, and they abhor their society’s use of a virtual Hell. However, they’ve been unable to mobilise public opposition because their leaders deny the Hell’s very existence, claiming it’s simply a myth, albeit a useful one for keeping the population in line. Chay and Prin decide to enter the Hell in order to return with evidence and expose it to the wider public.
Surface Detail uses these interweaving strands of the story to gradually reveal the novel’s main plot but I’m not convinced it needs so many. Yime Nsokyi was a mildly interesting character but she had very little to do and spent the majority of the novel simply attempting to reach Lededje. Veppers was disappointingly unambiguous, especially in comparison to villainous characters from other Culture novels, who are usually so well-rounded they become as sympathetic as the protagonists. Often those characters are the protagonists. But there’s absolutely nothing redeeming about Veppers. Lededje was… ok, but the most interesting part of her story was the warship she travelled with. The last line of the book reveals something about the Vatueil character which either casts the book in an entirely different light or only proves that that character has a lot more potential. I’m not sure I can know without rereading it.
The only story I consistently enjoyed was Chay and Prin’s. Hell has driven Chay to madness and she’s convinced there was never any life before Hell, and that the ‘Real’ was just a myth in order to keep them hoping, and thus making their torment worse. It’s therefore down to Prin to break them both out of Hell, as per the original plan to get back to the Real and expose its existence to the public. But something goes wrong and only Prin gets through, leaving Chay in the Hell alone to face even worse punishment for their escape attempt.
If you’ve read much Banks, especially books like The Wasp Factory and Use of Weapons, then you know he takes a sadistic pleasure in the obscene. He must have been in his element thinking up what horrific punishments he could dish out in Hell. One particularly horrific segment describes how the demon’s semen would burn their rape victim’s insides like an acid, and that it could lead to the conception of some kind of parasitic monster which will agonisingly bite and claw and rip its way out of your body. Conception can happen to both men and women, no womb required. Hell doesn’t discriminate.
So yes, despite the barrage of negativity I did enjoy quite a few elements of Surface Detail. Some of the side characters are fantastic and I as I mentioned at the start, the overall concept – the virtual manifestations of afterlives – is outrageously imaginative and certainly captured my attention. But many of the main characters are one-note and the gradually revealed conspiracy isn’t all that interesting. Overall I just didn’t enjoy the book very much.
So, after reading seven-out-of-ten Culture novels, the score sits at 3-3; I loved The Player of Games, Use of Weapons and Look to Windward but didn’t enjoy Consider Phlebas, Excession or Surface Detail very much. However, one of the best things about the Culture series is I can dislike a book, or even several books, and yet find that my love for the series as a whole is more than the sum of its parts. I’m still excited for the last three: Inversions, Matter and The Hydrogen Sonata.
This review has no spoilers with the exception of one potentially spoilerish section towards the end, but I’ll give warning when we reach that paragraph.
With each new Banks novel I read, and especially with each Culture novel, I become sadder he’s gone. I only started reading him after he had already died and I’m gutted that I’ll never get to feel the anticipation or excitement of waiting for his next book to be published. On the positive side, though, he’s left behind such an immense body of work that four novels in and I’m not even halfway through the Culture stories yet.
As I discussed in my Use of Weapons review, the only way the Culture have been able to find purpose in their hedonistic (arguably decadent) lives is by interfering in other civilisations in an genuine attempt to help make things better- the Culture practice a benevolent kind of imperialism. Look to Windward deals with the consequences of a Culture interference gone horrendously wrong; their attempt to interfere in a world named Chel led to a civil war of unprecedented brutality which resulted in the death of over four billion Chelgrians. The war only stopped when the Culture admitted that they had inadvertently caused it through their manipulation.
Look to Windward contains some of the most beautiful and poetic imagery conjured up by Banks yet. For example, the light of two supernovae which destroyed entire solar systems and the billions of lives they sustained (caused by the Idiran-Culture War fought over eight centuries ago) is only now reaching the Culture world Masaq, and so the Culture’s attempts to make amends for their disastrous interference in Chelgrian politics takes place against the backdrop of this “light of ancient mistakes.”
Regarding themes, this is perhaps the most anti-Culture of the Culture novels. It asks tough questions, touched upon but never quite fully explored in the other novels, about if the Culture is right in their interventionist policies and whether or not the Culture’s human civilians (endlessly apologetic about their mistakes but ultimately complicit in these imperial policies) may be considered just as responsible for the decisions of the Culture’s Minds and therefore legitimate targets for retaliation.
These questions are asked by Quilan, a Chelgrian soldier sent to Masaq’ on a revenge mission for causing the Chelgrian civil war. Banks likes to instil heroic, or at least sympathetically human, characteristics in his ‘villains’, and Quilan is no different. The details of his revenge mission against the Culture is gradually revealed and despite its heinousness Quilan himself is presented as courageous and loyal. He may even be considered the unambiguous hero of the novel by vehemently opposed to the Culture’s own-brand of imperialism.
As the full details of Quilan’s mission are only made apparent later in the book it may be a spoiler to mention it so I won’t- but the backstory is very intriguing. It involves a real-life Chelgrian ‘heaven’ created by a subset of the population who have ‘Sublimed’. Sublimation is a vague process by which sentient beings leave the physical world to live on some higher plane of existence. It’s an interesting subplot and I’m excited to read more about the process of Sublimation, which is the focus of The Hydrogen Sonata (Culture #10).
Look to Windward is teeming with several other wonderful world-building subplots and themes. One main theme deals with the attitudes of human Culture citizens towards death. Does it constitute ‘cheating’ that so many engage in extreme sports and other deadly pastimes in Virtual Reality and in real-life (but with individual personalities safely backed-up should ‘body-death’ occur)? Should this blasé approach to death be considered decadent in a society which has effectively eliminated all threat of real death in their daily lives? Is it especially distasteful for them to engage in such hobbies when Culture interference just caused billions of real deaths in another, less privileged civilisation?
Here’s that spoiler warning I promised at the start, though it only relates to a subplot of the book:
If Look to Windward has one drawback it would be the subplot of a Culture citizen who finds out about the Chelgrian revenge plot and attempts to warn the Culture of it. This storyline ultimately it doesn’t go anywhere and I’m not sure why it was included. Perhaps it was to highlight the futility of human citizens in the Culture doing anything important when a Mind could do it much more quickly and effectively? This doesn’t seem a strong enough reason to me. Though this sequence is set on one of the most fantastically imaginative worlds in the series so far it still amounted to unwelcome interruptions to the more interesting main story.
End of potential spoilers.
Furthermore, Iain Banks is a big fan of his twist endings and they work more often than not in his Culture books, but this one felt superfluous to me.
Nonetheless, I could easily have started rereading Look to Windward the moment I put it down. It’s rich, imaginative, sprawling, challenging, funny and exciting. The sheer scope is outrageous; Look to Windward the very definition of space opera.
On a final note, I listened to this story as an audiobook (my first ever unabridged one, in fact). The narrator, Peter Kenny, brought this story to life in a way I would never have imagined.
Use of Weapons builds upon a premise set-up by Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games; in post-scarcity Utopia, where the citizens do not know of want, hunger, poverty, or any other kind of hardship, the one thing that they lack, the one thing that cannot be provided for them in their atheistic, hedonistic lives, is purpose. When everything is provided for you, how can your life feel important or necessary?
The Culture’s answer: bring enlightenment (secularism, socialism, democracy, etc.) to the rest of the galaxy. Very rarely will the Culture itself declare war to achieve this, as they did in Consider Phlebas. Instead they tend to use various covert means to interfere in other civilisations. Depending on the calculations of the hyper-intelligent AI’s which run the Culture, they may attempt to nudge the society in the ‘correct’ direction / install a slightly less brutal dictator / provoke or influence the course of wars / set-in-motion the complete annihilation of a specific regime, or even a way of life, as the did in Player of Games. And, if they deem the society ready, they will absorb the remains of the civilisation (for these interferences may cause the deaths of billions if they can be justified as being for the ‘greater good’) into the Culture itself. While the protagonist of the Player of Games was essentially an ignorant pawn in the Culture’s plan, Use of Weapons follows the willing participants of Culture’s ‘Special Circumstances’ section, which is essentially their MI6 who are responsible for dealing with ‘the moral equivalents of black holes’; situations where the Culture’s usual rules cannot apply due to the infinite number of complex variables involved with realigning the political landscape of entire galactic clusters. Whether the Culture is right in this approach is clear to Banks himself (emphatically yes), but there’s more dispute around this question amongst his readers. This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the entire series so I’ll dedicate a specific blog post to it after a couple more books.
Use of Weapons comprises of two separate narrative timelines, alternating by chapter – one strand going forward in time and the other going backwards, both leading to their own climax at the end of the novel. The forward strand follows a specific Special Circumstances mission to prevent the outbreak of a destabilising war in one cluster of the galaxy, while the backwards timeline delves into the past of the Culture mercenary hired to carry out this mission, Cheradnine Zakalwe. Though Zakalwe is far and above the most well-fleshed-out character so far, I was disappointed we didn’t get more the series’ first main female character (and most likeable of all of the main characters) Diziet Sma. Or her partner, for that matter (this novels’ resident Mind, Skaffen-Amtiskaw, who I’m pleased to say is as quirky and funny as the Culture AI’s usually are). However, that highly likeable and entertaining characters don’t feature enough can only be a minor gripe.
One potentially much bigger problem with this book is that, once again, the stakes don’t feel very high – at least in regards to the main Special Circumstances mission. Just as the events in Consider Phlebas eventually felt completely minor to the result of the overall war, this mission is just another job to Zakalwe, even less important and / or less exciting than some previous missions depicted in the backwards timeline. This is perhaps a by-product of the very universe in which it these novels are set; when a civilisation about as omnipotent as any sentient beings can become interfere with other societies as often as the Culture do, it eventually stops being a big deal. But more likely, in my opinion, is that this is intentional Banksian design, whereby we are supposed to feel that, yes, stopping the potential war in this specific cluster is basically meaningless in the grand scheme of things. And while this latter explanation certainly has a theoretical appeal, in reality it constricts the excitement of what might otherwise be much more thrilling action scenes. Billions of lives are at stake here but if things go wrong, does it really matter in the long run? In terms of the stakes not feeling high enough, it also doesn’t help that Zakalwe is at time a kind-of Action Man caricature; he comes across as the perfect, almost superhuman soldier / military strategist / special agent.
However, where Banks and Use of Weapons in particular excel is in themes and characters. The book’s title refers to one of the it’s major themes – the construction and use of weapons. And the deadliest weapons are the ones masquerading as something entirely different; the ship that isn’t a ship, the chair that isn’t a chair, the brother who isn’t a brother. Some people can use weapons others couldn’t even imagine.
Early on it is implied something happened in Zakalwe’s past which has changed him, or perhaps irreparably broken the man he was before the Culture found him. Whatever happened to Zakalwe caused him to put all his faith in the idea that when working for the Culture he was, at least, ‘doing the right thing’. Zakalwe is the kind of person who can make use of anything as a weapon, and his performance in war show that he’s too detached (& at times ruthless) to be able to make moral judgements about right and wrong himself, yet for some reason being ‘good’ remains important to him.
That’s all I can really discuss without getting into major spoilers. I’d be happy to write a spoiler-heavy post if there’s demand for it (though very few people read this blog, so I don’t know why there would be).
By it’s very nature Use of Weapons is a novel you must read a second time to fully appreciate. This time around I gave it 4/5 stars on Goodreads, but I expect a second read would easily push me to 5/5.
If you’re at all interested in the Culture series then you will definitely want to read Use of Weapons, though you certainly shouldn’t start with it. My advice would be skip Consider Phlebas, use Player of Games as an introduction, then perhaps move on to Use of Weapons. You might also consider giving Iain Banks blog post ‘A Few Notes on the Culture’ (which is far more than ‘a few’) a read, if you don’t mind a fairly extensive explanation of the universe he’s created before finding out about it in the books.
P.S.: The biggest mark against this Use of Weapons(from my admittedly biased perspective) is that it now makes three-for-three male Culture protagonists that I’m supposed to believe are straight. Come now, Iain, we all know everyone’s bisexual in the future!
As I don’t own the actual book and I listened to the BBC dramatization of the story, this is a review of the title novella only, and not the full collection of short stories.
First, a little background: the Contact section of the Culture finds and monitors other planets and/or species to assess if they’re ready to be ‘Contacted’ and invited to join the ever-expanding Culture. The State of the Art novella depicts a Contact mission to 1976 Earth.
This plot is a very transparent excuse for Banks to vent his frustrations about the failings of our species by criticising it through the lens of his own personal utopia- the Culture. This lack of subtly could be a criticism of the story, but I’ve personally never understood the obsession with subtly for subtly’s sake. If you have a point you’d like to make in your fiction- hammer away. It doesn’t make the story less enjoyable. In fact, my favourite part of the books I’ve read so far has been the blatant exposition which fleshes out the Culture a bit more.
In any case, this novella has something far more valuable than subtle attacks against human nature- it’s fun! It’s fun to hear Culture citizens struggling a little with our languages (‘homophobia’ is an alien concept to them) and get excited by Star Wars. It’s also interesting to hear our protagonist, who comes from a society which has actually achieved socialist utopia, critique our communism in practice (this is Cold War era Earth and partially set in East Germany). Deziet Sma is also the first female protagonist of a Culture story I’ve come across, and probably my favourite protagonist thus far. Luckily for me, she also features in Use of Weapons, which I’m currently reading.
As I mentioned before, I listened to a BBC dramatization of this story. It was abridged, so I’m looking forward to reading the full thing, but I thoroughly enjoyed this adaptation and have listened to it two or three times already. The best part is whoever voices the good ship Arbitrary, hands down, especially for their delivery of the line: “I happen to like heterosexuality, it’s just…funnier.”
I’ve embedded the BBC dramatization below. It’s only 45 minutes, so if you’ve been thinking about getting into the Culture you won’t find a better place to start. And if you’re already a fan and haven’t stumbled across this wee gem yet- enjoy!
The Player of Games (Culture #2) by Iain M. Banks – My Introduction to the Sprawling Culture Universe
First, a little background.
The Culture is a post-scarcity, socialist/anarchist and hedonistic society run by sentient AI’s known as ‘Minds’. Since the humans of the Culture have no need to work most can spend their lives pursuing their hobbies. Enter Jernau Gurgeh- a famous board game player who, bored with the low stakes of wagering in a post-scarcity society, is convinced by the Culture’s ‘Special Circumstances’ section to visit a brutal Empire held together by the intricate game of Azad. Played every six years, the Azad tournament determines a contestant’s position in society- and the ultimate winner is crowned Emperor (the argument goes that the skill it takes to win Azad are the same skills it’d take to run the Empire).
The Player of Games a great introduction to the Culture series. The first third of the book is spent in the Culture itself- giving us a feel for what life in this society is like and Gurgeh’s growing boredom with winning. The rest of the book gives us an opportunity to view the Culture through the eyes of a far less advanced society as Gurgeh competes in the Azad tournament.
It’s a testament to Banks’ writing that descriptions of fictional board games can be so beautifully written and enthralling, even when the actual rules and mechanics of them are kept vague.
The shortest of the Culture novels, Player of Games is has a fairly linear storyline but there are a few things I wish Banks had expanded on. For example, Gurgeh’s tactics in the game become more aggressive as time goes on. But it is impossible for Gurgeh to beat the Azadians using their own tactics as the opponents get tougher. It’s only after his Mind companion convinces him to switch from the harsh Azadian language back to the language of the Culture (Marain) that he is able to return to his original style of play. I would have loved more of a ‘language shaping thought’ motif throughout the novel, though I’m aware this is quite a personal bias as I’ve always been interested in this subject.
The Player of Games serves as the perfect introduction to the wider Culture universe but is equally suited to being a self-contained, old-fashioned sci-fi adventure story. Pick it up if you get a chance.
Consider Phlebas starts off promisingly. The action-packed opening also provides a conceptual framework for the Idiran-Culture War, the main conflict of the novel. This opening provides exactly what I was looking for in my second venture into the universe. I’ve been captivated by the concept the post-scarcity, socialist/anarchist, utopian society of the Culture and Consider Phlebas opens with what is essentially a philosophical debate about the society our protagonist views as atheistic, decadent and machine-controlled.
The problems begin after this opening. After the main plot is established the book takes a 300 page detour before returning to it and the war itself is relegated to the background in favour of a rollicking action-adventure story; one which mostly fails address the philosophical questions raised in the first chapter. Ultimately the story feels like it would rather be a Hollywood movie, populated by mostly stock characters and consisting almost entirely of action set-pieces.
Don’t get me wrong- the concepts for each action sequence are all spectacular; the megaships, the cannibalistic religious cult, the game of ‘Damage’, the Planet of the Dead and indeed the Culture itself are all testaments to Banks’ outrageous imagination and would all have been terrifically exciting if they came second to character development and weren’t simply sequenced one after the other.
At the end of the day I found myself reading out of obligation to finish rather than enjoyment almost from the very beginning. Perhaps if I re-read it with appropriately adjusted expectations I might enjoy it more. I’m still excited to read other books in the series but I’ll be looking for those which prioritise the big science-fiction themes over big action sequences.