Until I read MATTER, Iain M. Banks’ Culture series of sci-fi novels seemed daunting and unreadable. But MATTER proved me wrong, as often is the case, and I noticed that what I thought of as an unassailable literary cliff was really a gym climbing wall with plenty of handholds.
The series isn’t numbered, although there are some books that are rough sequels to others and some that share characters, in passing (or so I’ve read). Seriously opinionated Internet commenters debate ad nauseum as to what the correct reading order of the books should be; After MATTER, I basically chose the two that looked coolest to me: USE OF WEAPONS and CONSIDER PHLEBAS.
To give a bit of background, “The Culture” is a galactic civilization that has evolved well beyond the human conception of what humanity is. People change bodies, have no real economy, and do basically what they please. They live side-by-side with artificial intelligences, many of whom exist in the form of intelligent starships with self-chosen, humorous names (such as “No More Mister Nice Guy” and “Youthful Indiscretion”). The Culture has a Special Circumstances unit of agents who intervene in less-developed societies’ affairs in an attempt to stabilize them, and these agents appear in many of the books.
USE OF WEAPONS, which I read first, is about a retired Special Circumstances operative named Cheradenine Zakalwe who is brought back into service to handle a matter that only he is deemed to be able to take care of. Here’s a good time for a warning: USE OF WEAPONS is perhaps not the best choice for your first in the series; the narrative is extremely nonlinear — as the Zakalwe proceeds with the mission at hand, the chapters flash back to other moments in his career, and not in chronological order. But as he navigates from wartorn memory to wartorn present and the portrait of his life takes shape, USE OF WEAPONS ends with an ending that could not have been possible with any other plot structure.
This sounds super-deep and heavy, but Banks’ writing is so good that he can pull off funny, tear-jerking and thrilling all at once, and the plot, once you get accustomed to not knowing exactly when something is happening, rolls along as a great pace.
CONSIDER PHLEBAS is the first of the Culture books, but really, the Culture is more of a peripheral player; the main character, a shape-shifter named Horza, tries to complete a crazy-dangerous mission amid an all out war between the Culture and the warlike Idrians. This is epic-scale war, with casualties measuring in megadeaths and strategies mapped out in decades the nth degree.
A Culture artificial intelligence, called a Mind, has been trapped on a remote world, and Horza’s tasked with retrieving the mind for the Idrians, while the Culture’s agents go after the Mind themselves. While the Big Concepts of the book attend to identity, honor and resilience in the face of ridiculous odds, CONSIDER PHLEBAS is also about badass fight scenes, cybernetic games of chance with human lives used as poker chips, EMPIRE STRIKES BACK-style spaceship escapes, explosions, disgusting apocalypse cults and tons of other really fun, sci-fi adventure tropes. It’s really good, and works on whatever level at which you wish to read it.
Of the three Culture books I’ve read so far (there are plenty more), I’d say go for CONSIDER PHLEBAS first, then make a stab at USE OF WEAPONS. If USE doesn’t grab you, head over to MATTER, and circle back to WEAPONS later, because it’s truly radical.