Image from The Culture Series by Iain M. Banks
Excerpt from "Want to get into Iain M. Banks' great Culture series?"
Here's a handy primer that will introduce you to the Culture, the pan-galactic civilization whose members and ex-members are the subjects of so many Banks novels, including Surface Detail.
You don't need to read the every Culture novel to appreciate the glory of a single title - the books are only loosely connected. But this guide will help give you a sense of the space opera background for the series.
Not only do we have a rundown of every single Culture novel, but we've also got some important excerpts from an obscure essay Banks wrote in 1994 about the ideas behind the Culture universe. Get ready to enter a world where ships are sentient, humans live for half a millennium, and living on a planet is probably the most backward thing you can do.
The Culture Novels:
Set during the war between The Culture and the Idirans, this is one of Banks' most widely-praised science fiction novels. Its events also shape the Culture for hundreds of years afterward. The Idirans are a lizard-like, hierarchical people who want to colonize as many worlds as possible in order to convert as many creatures as possible to their religion. The Culture, on the other hand, wants to spread its more democratic-anarchic beliefs to as many worlds as possible. Essentially, the two empires are fighting to control the ideologies of colony worlds. Our protagonist, Horza, has grown disgusted with the Culture way of life and has become a spy for the Idirans. As the war reaches a howling crescendo, we follow Horza from a dying ring world full of cannibalistic cultists, to a ship full of criminals, and at last to final showdown deep within the catacombs of a dead world. This is action-packed world-building at its most alluring: full of cool fights and interesting philosophical debates. Plus, Banks pulls a typical counter-intuitive move by introducing us to The Culture through the eyes of an outsider who has grown disgusted with it.
Image from the cover of Excession by Mark Salwowski.