"Banks loved metafictional negotiations, complex plots, and deconstructionist approaches, but he also loved story; he tied every subplot, told the tale of every character, and made sure to repay out good faith in him in kind.”
In “The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks - A Critical Introduction” by Simone Caroti
As a wildly innovative, imaginative, popular and subversive novelist, his works are infused with darker elements that give them a forbidden, cultish, underground status, but the fictions that are perceived as being in his more conventional and less evidently speculative mode fail to. It's entirely possible that readers expect SF to be simpler and less demanding based on their previous experience of reading SF, rather than on mere prejudice. After all, you don't have to eat all that much crap before you become unable or unwilling to distinguish it from fudge brownies.
Well I've done a systems check this morning and it appears that, yes, the anal probe has caused some slight damage to the self-censorship circuit boards, which may also have caused the nuance software to be over-ridden. This meant that the remains of the message was diverted to the spamsac. I include it here under the Full Disclosure subroutine:
"Of course, this logic doesn't just apply to SF. If, for example, someone gave me “Amsterdam”, “Freedom” and "My Brilliant Friend” to read, telling me that it was the best of contemporary fiction, then I would legitimately be led to expect that there was no such thing as a fudge brownie, and that the main requirement for reading contemporary fiction would be to install the Brainfuck 2.0 virus whilst sticking hot knitting needles in one’s ocular sensors." (although in italics, they're my own words)
If Iain (M) Banks hadn't written non-genre fiction, lit critics wouldn't have given him the time of day. A damn shame, because, as he said "My best writing is my Skiffy stuff". Good and bad literature can be found in any form, since Sturgeon's Law applies. Some of the best written, most thought provoking things I have read are SF; some of the worst drivel, non-genre. Banks revealed in one of his last interviews that his SF never sold as well as the ‘literary’ novels. Which surprised me at least. The Culture was his true love. It's a damn shame. Most of his best writing about ethics, morality and the consequences of technological change - plus a lot of very funny observational stuff - are in the Culture novels. Mind you, “The Quarry” was a masterpiece of non-genre fiction.
The sheer dullness of the biases in favour of mundane fiction, which is usually about middle class people having divorces and is thus correspondingly dull. If some people would shaved their heads, stuck electrodes all over them, put them in perspex capsules and given them orders via an octopus in a crash helmet they'd have approached the experiment in a much more SF frame of mind. And I do read mundane fiction. Sometimes all that divorcing is livened up with a bit of satire.
Caroti’s take on the Banks’ works comes from a fan, and that’s the best kind of literary criticism to read. I’ve read the culture novels several times and I’ve also written several posts about those journeys. And I was still was able to find something worth reading.
My takes on some of the Culture Books:
So much going on in this one. With Sma, we see the Culture in all its high-minded liberal splendour. Then through Zakalwe we see the gritty, grubby reality of what the Culture's interventionist ideals really demand. Add to that one of the more charismatic drones, a dual narrative and one of the most gut-wrenching twists I've ever experienced and you've got yourself a Big Book.
A close contender for number one. The scope and scale of this story and its locations are simply incredible, and Horza is a protagonist (?) who really gets under your skin. Many of his objections to the Culture are not unfounded and reflect the tendency of the progressive left to almost become a monoculture in its quest for diversity and inclusiveness. What I remember most of all from this one though, is Banks' shocking brutality (the train crash, most of all) and the miserable futility of it all, capped by Balveda's section of the epilogue.
One of my favourites, though I gather not so popular with many fans of the series. I think it just chimes with my interest in interventionism, combining it with more show-don't-tell (another weakness of mine) than we're used to from the Culture books. I found both Vossil and DeWar to be very relatable, even though they're so different, and I enjoyed trying to piece together the snatches we're given of their past relationship. The two nations are presented in an interesting manner - with the royalists and their charismatic king facing up against a republican nation who are perhaps more meritocratic, but also clearly more authoritarian. Once again, Banks treats us to a shocking climax, this time one that underlines the price of winning power.
In which we are treated to Gergeh, something of a black sheep in a culture that's supposed to have none, being manipulated into subversively diverting the course of a less enlightened species. Though it doesn't have the big, smack-me-in-the-face moments of Use of Weapons and Consider Phlebas, this is probably the most tightly-written and pleasing book in the series.
Once again, one that I enjoyed a lot but many fans didn't. It's basically a more refined version of Use of Weapons, but with themes of family and coming of age taking centre stage. I also enjoyed the exploration of galactic politics as they are at this stage of the series, where the Culture is no longer the biggest dog in the fight.
A big favourite of many readers, and was amongst mine for a long time. Then I re-read it and realised that although the antics of the Minds and ships and the Affront are all great fun, the humans involved rather let the side down. It seemed implausible that Byr and Dajeil would want anything more to do with one another.
7. The Hydrogen Sonata
Great humans, great locations, great ships, great drones, and a fitting send off for the series, dealing as it does with events dating back to the birth of the Culture and the sublimation of a major galactic player. However, I didn't feel it was quite firing on all cylinders. The book's central McGuffin didn't seem big enough to justify all the fuss made over it. Most of all, I felt the process of subliming lost something in being translated from the abstract to the specific.
8. Look to Windward
I never thought this one was more than okay. I remember reviewers at the time speculating that Banks may have run out of steam and that this book, with its throwback to the Idiran War, might represent a bookend for the series. Although Quilan and Masaq Hub's are very moving, and we're treated to another example of what happens when the Culture's arrogance gets people killed, the rest of the goings on on Masaq just felt a bit tacked-on.
9. Surface Detail
This one just seemed a bit too 'cookie cutter' to me - a revenge fantasy protagonist goes after perhaps the most clichéd of Banks' villains. The best bit of the book are the Hells and the politics and conflict surrounding them. It's thought-provoking stuff, as you can sort of imagine a time when we might be able to digitise consciousness and there are probably already people on Earth who would advocate the use of virtual Hells. The Quietudinal Service was an interesting idea, but it seems unlikely we wouldn't have heard of them before now. It felt like Banks was kicking ideas around.
10. The State of the Art
One for the completists, really. The main draw here is the titular story, which is okay but only really serves to shock the reader that Earth is not, as we'd probably assumed, the birthplace of the species that eventually became the Culture. We get to see a little more of Sma and Skaffen Amtiskaw, but we don't really learn anything new about them.
NB: As you can see, I’m not exactly fanboying here. But I still think Banks fiction was one of the best things that happened to SF. If you do read genre fiction, or watch opera and ballet (typical plot: boy meets girl, girl meets wizard, wizard turns girl into waterfowl) or even read the classics - in short regularly take your brain outside of literary realism, which may as well be bloody soap operas, you’re going to have a whole extra bunch of mental levers available to get the most out of “other art”. Plus it’s not bloody soap operas.
SF = Speculative Fiction.