Banks’ Culture books are modern space opera done right. The old-timey space opera was basically just westerns in space. A classic example are E. E. Doc Smith’s Skylark and Lensman series. They are good fun, but they are pretty much tough-guy space police fighting bigger and bigger baddies in bigger and bigger battles. The culture books are space opera for the thinking man.
Banks, now sadly passed before his time, said in an interview that he would love to live in the Culture, and so would I. He said it was an attempt at the most positive civilization he could imagine which was still recognizably human. It’s pretty much a utopia, except it’s interesting.
I guess my favorite bit is the spaceships. I’m a hopeless dork for big thingies, and I don’t know anybody who did it better than Banks. There are many types, including the General Systems Vehicles. Here you have a spaceship, held together with forcefields, which is a big city in one chunk. Think many kilometers long, several wide, and a couple tall, build in layers. They have big bays for building smaller ships, they have, well, everything a civilization needs, they have millions of inhabitants, humans, AI drones, and aliens of all kinds... they have smaller ships and aircraft and even indivicuals flying around it and over the parks. They are intelligent, run by “Minds”, hyper-AIs which work in hyperspace too... What’s not to love.
Look To Windward goes beyond even that. It has pathos and tension like most culture books. And it has outstanding inventions, one of the greatest is “air spheres”, which are collosal spheres of air which circle around the galaxy, which contain a whole world and civilization of their own, insanely old and wise, many of the citizens are intelligent, inscrutable plant-based “dirigibles” which themselves are individually millions of years old... A scholar from the Culture is trying to study these amazing beings, and he comes across a secret plot from outside, aimed at one of the Culture’s “orbital” worlds (like Ringworld, only not quite that large).
For me at least, this is just an exceptionally satisfying novel on so many levels. I wish I’d met Iain Banks.
I also wish they’d make movies from them, except I’m not optimistic they would get it right, it would be difficult, especially as everything today has to be all action.
|Art by Mark J. Brady|
(Inspired by the novel but not an illustration)