The Culture Series Critical Essays

Iain Banks


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Each of the three long novels of the Culture series is a spirited adventure story; together with the novella, they constitute a postmodernist rethinking of what has been called “space opera,” a subgenre of literature dealing with interstellar conflict and involving action-filled plots. The texts gain power and excitement from the interpenetration of traditional storytelling and contemporary narrative fashions.

The first and longest book, Consider Phlebas, is unabashedly an adventure story. It is the first of Iain Banks’s books to fall clearly within the realm of science fiction. The hero of Consider Phlebas lives by wits, courage, and physical prowess, all abetted by the advanced technologies of the Culture and by his special ability to change his body to duplicate that of another. He survives imprisonment, torture, fire fights, shipwreck, a cannibal king on a desert island, and other threats. The novel moves from climax to climax at breathtaking speed, with action that rivals any classic tale of interstellar war. The narrative, which is fairly straightforward when focused on Horza, is also interrupted by brief chapters called “state of play” in which a Culture woman meditates on the meaning of the events, their likely outcome, and the nature of the Culture itself. The final chapter of the narrative not only takes its title (and the major image of the sacrificed, dead sailor) from the fourth section of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) but also is preceded by a chapter whose ending imitates the style Eliot uses to end the third section of his poem. Such self-conscious narrative elements, coupled with the use of...

(The entire section is 688 words.)