A brief run-down of Iain M Banks’ books.
A number of his books are set in the framework of The Culture. This is a large conglomeration of space-going races in an environment in which energy and materials are effectively free, and the citizens of this Empire can devote themselves to lives of their choice. The citizens of The Culture live on planets, as you’d expect, artificial worlds and vast spaceships. The spaceships have quirky names and manufacture themselves without reference to living species. A certain sub-compartment of The Culture is “Special Circumstances”, devoted to interfering with emergent nations.
The Culture is variously the hero and the villain in the books, and some have postulated that it is a metaphor for the USA, though I think Banks was coy on the subject.
An important feature of the Culture are the electronic brains and the robot drones, all of whom are vastly intelligent, though all have personalities, and are, by and large, nicer than the living races. This is not the classic computer intelligence as Big Brother tale.
(These potted summaries do not do credit to the vast imaginative settings, excellent story-telling and characterisation that Banks achieves.)
Consider Phlebas – the excruciating adventures of a sort of freelance spaceman who gets caught up in a space war.
The Player of Games – a product of the Culture competes with the cream of an alien nation on their home ground.
Use of Weapons – an experimental kind of novel with two intertwined timelines, one forward and one backward. I’d rather have read it as a conventional novel, but it works either way. It concerns a soldier of Special Circumstances, and demonstrates the lengths to which they will go.
Excession – The Culture comes up against something vastly more powerful than itself.
Inversions – Culture meddling, seen from the point of view of the meddled-with. Set on a planet which is still in a medieval state of civilization.
Look to Windward – Cunning multi-threaded tale, again the aftermath of Culture meddling, set in two rich but very alien environments, with more non-human participants than is usual with Banks.
The State of the Art – Short stories with some Culture element.
Matter – A large novel concerning warring medieval-level races on an artificial planet which is divided into concentric shells
Surface Detail – A wonderfully detailed and minutely imagined setting for what amounts to a religious war, and the attempts by a playboy to interfere with it. There are six story threads.
Hydrogen Sonata – Another vast spacescape against which races and artificial intelligences wage diplomatic war that would put Machiavelli to shame. It’s all about one race who are preparing to promote themselves to a sort of Nirvana.
Against a Dark Background – Extremely good Quest-oriented sf novel. Funnily enough, the published book omits the excellent Epilogue, which can be obtained on the internet.
Feersum Endjinn – Set on a weird world, populated by weird characters, but extremely gripping. The chief protagonist speaks a hopeless patois resembling Text Speak. You quickly start to sub-verbalise his chapters, whereupon it becomes quite comprehensible.
The Algebraist – Space war, gas planet races, a mysterious book. These are some of the ingredients of another space opera, vast in scale yet human in many ways.
I would also add a book that rightly belongs in the modern novel canon, but which has a parallel universe element to it:
Transition – Multiple narrators and characters flit through a variety of time-streams to meddle with each others’ lives. Very fast-paced, somewhat bewildering at times, but great fun.