If you don’t f*@% with the Culture, then what?


Well, it’s a weekend for finishing off books, apparently – I just listened to the last little bit of Surface Detail, a Culture Novel, and one that I first began reading via Audible.com nearly a year ago, in July 2011, shortly after getting back from the CSSF workshop and determined to familiarize myself with some of the masters of science fiction that I hadn’t been exposed to yet. I also got, at close to the same time:

  • “More than Human”, by Theodore Sturgeon.
  • “Gateway”, by Frederik Pohl.
  • “Timescape”, by Gregory Benford.
  • “Darwin’s Radio”, by Greg Bear.
  • and, a bit later, “Childhood’s End”, by Arthur C. Clarke.

I wanted to get something by Sturgeon and Pohl because they were both selected as theme authors for the 2011 Campbell Conference in Lawrence, and all of the other titles or authors were taken from the reading list of the CSSF Intensive Institute for novels. I didn’t really finish any of them off that quickly, with the possible exception of ‘Gateway’, which I enjoyed considerably, and only got to the end of “Timescape” in February.

Overall, I enjoyed “Surface Detail”, and had fun listening to it, but I’m still not quite sure what to make of it as more than a crazy adventure among the stars. I really wasn’t sure what was going on for the first few hours’ worth of narration, and then some of the plot threads began to gather enough for me to find my bearings. I quickly felt sympathy for Lededje, was intrigued by some of Vateuil’s military derring-do, and loved to hate Veppers. At first, I despised Demeisen/’Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints’, (the former is an avatar, the latter a spaceship, but both names essentially represent a single character,) but by the end, I thoroughly enjoyed him as the sadistic asshole that he usually is.

And one of the best parts of the book were the alien civilizations that Iain M. Banks brings to life – the all-too-human Sichultia, the polite and diminutive GFCF, the herdlike conservative Pavuleans, and, of course, The Culture themselves.

Even despite tentative attempts to research the Culture online, (tentatively because I don’t really want to stumble across spoilers for other books,) I don’t really understand them. I know that they’re spacegoing, idealistic, practical, fiercely protective of their own but not generally antagonistic, and have some rather peculiar political and social structures. They have a frankly mind-boggling technological level, and some of the greatest influences from within the Culture are not the organic, mostly ‘pan-Human’ citizens, but the incredibly capable artificial intelligence ‘Minds’ which generally oversee spaceships or other artificial habitats.

Have you read any of the stories of the Culture? What did you think? If not, what’s your favorite science fiction high-tech society?

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One Response to If you don’t f*@% with the Culture, then what?

  1. Kurt says:

    The Culture series is pretty fascinating, although Banks is established enough that he doesn’t have to follow most rules of novel-writing, and you get long-winded, winding novels now like Surface Detail. That one comes fairly late in the series, thousands of years after the first, Consider Phlebas. My understanding is that Banks has created his own idea of a utopic society and is now systematically deconstructing it or at least exploring the necessary fallout and contradictions arising from encountering other civilizations or their technology. The first one I read was Player of Games, which is much more straightforward narratively and addresses cultural interference, whereas Phlebas is more about how a hedonistic, pacific society would engage with war.

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