When Banks died, I was in the process of starting one of my usual re-reads of the Culture novels. I decided it was not the time to start that re-read. I said to myself, “I’ll just wait another couple more years.” It’s now 2017, and I’m not sure I’ll re-read them now in one large gulp. I want to be able to savour the remaining books over time. One of my main attractions to Banks' novels lies in his version of AI. Stephen Hawking and colleagues worry about tooth and claw Darwinian features of AI, that threaten us all. Why not allow for the possibility that a truly superior intelligence would follow its own independent moral code? Banks' machine minds have values and follow courses of action that are far more admirable than what our species can manage.
No longer being able to look forward to a new Iain. M. Banks novel every twenty months or so is a source of great sadness. "Consider Phlebas" was such a dazzling, utterly astonishing tour-de-force, the grandest and saddest of all space operas, which nothing before or since has even come close to. And I can still remember the delight of coming across a 'hard' SF writer whose politics were, for a change, anti-authoritarian.
The concept of The Culture was brilliant, partly because of the wonderful plot opportunities it offered, but also as a wildly optimistic if improbable speculation about how human (and by extension, alien) intelligence might one day be weaned from self-destructive selfishness. Banks' descants on the Culture, its workings and philosophy; they're always intriguing and never preachy. The one question he tended to skirt around was the age-old one of humanity's inherent if occasional will to evil for its own sake: in a perfectly liberal society in which everybody can have almost anything they want, what do you do with somebody who just wants to hurt others? In one of the novels, the question is posed by a new arrival to a Culture planet or orbital, and the answer is something like "they don't get invited to parties very often", which is not good enough...
The Culture is a fascinating fictional presentation of a "post-scarcity" society, and it's to Banks's credit that he explored the implications of that idea intelligently and honestly enough to raise some questions.
If the only way for human beings to experience their full potential is to exploit the services of a technology so advanced that the technology itself is sentient, how is that different from human slavery? it's very noticeable that Banks's Culture characters sometimes tend to act and speak like spoiled aristocrats - and these are some of my favourite characters.
If the answer is that the AIs are so far advanced beyond us in power and intelligence that their apparent services are just trivial (to them) gestures to keep us happy, are we not then the slaves, the happy sheep, who could be discarded by the actual masters at any time?
Is slave/master the only relation possible between sentient beings?
Certainly, I never read the relation of minds and humans as anything other than symbiotic cooperation between equals (different but with the same rights and expectations). In the same way that humans cooperating can achieve great things, minds cooperating (with other minds or with humans) can also achieve more than they would alone.
Finally, and I think this is a point that Banks is making with minds too - if minds are sentient beings with infinitely more power than humans, would it be a bad thing if humans, having created minds, disappeared? I don't think so. I'd weep for the extinction of intelligence in our universe, but not for the extinction (or evolution) of a species to something greater. But then, one of my favourite Banks’ novels was/is ”Excession”, so what do I know.
(My own copy bought in 1994 at the British Bookshop)
Some of the other books are also cleverer but “Consider Phlebas” will always be my first and favourite Banks even when I gave it “only” 4 stars when I first read in 1994. It's a noirish take on space opera with enormous vistas, action scenes, dark humour and grim determination. It's like Star Wars for adults. Too much so for Hollywood, but perhaps not for HBO. “Consider Phlebas” knocked me out, slung me over its shoulder and carried me off; by the time I woke up I was hooked.
I like all the novels and love the idea of the Ships who get to name themselves. I always got the sense that the Culture was more like a 'phase' than an 'empire' - bits of it sublime or break away at the edges but there's always new species deciding they quite fancy living that way for a while, so there will always be a Culture or something like it as part of the galactic ecosystem.
God, I miss Banks. I have “The Quarry” but can't bring myself to read it because then there'd be no new ones to look forward to.
After having lost touch with SF for 10 years or more, it was Iain Banks's books that drew me back into it. As I said, I had given up on SF for more than a decade when someone persuaded me to try it, and I was enthralled. It may not be great literature, but it is great fun and better written than most "serious" novels I must plough through. The only SF author I still read at a time when I mainly eschew intentional fiction altogether. Consistently brilliant. His books could sometimes do with pruning these days but I still love The Culture and his ability to tell a tale.
One of the brightest and most original minds in SF; he is sorely missed.
SF = Speculative Fiction.