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The Hydrogen Sonata: Iain M. Banks on 25 Years of Writing Space Opera Novels


Space opera has come of age in recent decades, its potential for complex characters, mind-blowing scope, and a kind of joyous, just plain wonderful strangeness expressed fully in the novels of writers like M. John Harrison, Alistair Reynolds, and Justina Robson, to name just a few. But the Godfather of this sea-change, and still one of the major players in space opera today, is Iain M. Banks.

For twenty-five years now Banks’ restless imagination has conjured up dozens of unique characters, aliens, and approaches to storytelling for his Culture space opera series. The novels often wed page-turning adventure, mystery, and intrigue to incisive commentary on issues related to war, morality, philosophy, and religion. At least two Culture novels, if not more, qualify as masterpieces: Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons. Many of the others come close, with every reader having their own favorites—expect arguments in the comments.

His latest, The Hydrogen Sonata, has just been released by Orbit. In the novel, the ancient people who helped set up the Culture ten thousand years before plan to go Sublime, elevating themselves to a more complete existence. But this process is interrupted when a regimental command is destroyed, with the hunt on for the fugitives and for the oldest man in the universe. And all of this may have much, much wider implications—for the Culture and for everyone else. Suffused with wit and humor, yet also including those amazing moments space opera fans live for, The Hydrogen Sonata continues to fruitfully explore the Culture milieu.

What is the Culture? A far-future human-based galactic civilization that, in its attempts at progressive, benevolent rule, sometimes gets it chillingly wrong. Perhaps his most inspired creation has been the Culture’s intelligent ships, with avatars that can manifest as human. In Excession, the first Culture novel I read, the ship battles and ship communications were a major (and often tense!) highlight.

On the occasion the quarter-century anniversary of Banks’ signature creation, Omnivoracious caught up with the author to talk Culture. We started with the obvious question: Did Banks ever imagine he’d still be writing Culture novels when the first one, Consider Phlebas, was published back in 1987.

Banks--Hydrogen Sonata“Nope,” he says, “Though the Culture was already kind of a mature technology even then; I started thinking and writing about it back 1974 with the original version of Use of Weapons; The Player of Games first draft came next in '79 and Phlebas was written in '82 or '83.” He’s now on his tenth Culture book with The Hydrogen Sonata, and “Honestly, they were each a joy to write, though Player of Games went the quickest; buzzed through that first draft in three weeks!”

Later Culture novels, according to Banks, have shifted in focus, and are “more about contextualizing the Culture within the greater galactic meta-civilization and—often—going back to some passing detail mentioned in an earlier book that I've become interested in and want to explore more fully. I guess I'm still waiting for some aspect of the (mooted) future that I feel I can’t best explore through the Culture.” The Culture in his opinion represents a best-case scenario for humanity’s future, “Though frankly we should be so lucky….”

Some of the Culture novels, like Inversion, are set on planets that don’t have direct knowledge of the Culture, and so the intergalactic elements appear in disguised form. How has fans reacted when they don’t get their full Culture fix? “Tolerantly, so far! Ideally, if maybe rather callously, you can't really worry about that; you just get on with writing the book you want to write.”

Several times in the Culture novels, Banks has used non-SF influences or experimental techniques to great effect. In Consider Phlebas, the reports and entries at the end hide a fact that when revealed puts prior events in a more poignant light. Banks says he was “kind of aping Tolstoy, frankly; I wanted something of the feeling I remembered getting from reading the end pieces of War and Peace. Aim high, is my motto.”

In the amazing novel Use of Weapons, Banks pulled out all of the stops, using a unique, out-of-sequence structure that helped create a harrowing portrait of war and a unique portrait of a haunted character. As might be expected, it took a lot of work to reach the point that the experimentation worked. “The '74 draft was awful,” Banks says, and “had the surprise ending in the middle for pointless and self-defeating reasons of formal symmetry. Ken MacLeod suggested the solution of having two narratives heading in opposite temporal directions.”

The infamous shock toward the end of Use of Weapons, the Culture novel Banks calls his favorite, “came quite late in the planning process. The initial idea was something to do with power and powerlessness, I seem to recall and contrasting the character’s military prowess with his utter rubbishness when it came to relationships. I invented the Culture solely to give him a benign moral context but then it just sort of ... accrued.” As for telling Use of Weapons in a more conventional way, it just “never occurred to me. Bizarrely, it seemed like the obvious thing to tell it the way I did, both initially and after Ken's brainwave.”

Even with the intricacies of novel structure, it was easier to keep track of Culture history, events, and characters when Banks had written just a few installments. Banks admits it’s “become [an issue] as the stories have proliferated. [So] yes I do have a document on my writing computer called Culture Facts that I refer to if I forget what color a drone's aura field turns when it's being sarcastic.”

Many series, no matter how vast in scope often fall into a decaying orbit, but Banks’ newer Culture novels are still fresh, new, and exciting. “I suppose my dotage and decline will manifest in due course and I'll have to withdraw myself from front-line duties, as it were,” he says. “However so far, according my extremely robust and entirely reliable—if admittedly also entirely internal—monitoring regime that point is still, happily, some way off.”

Omnivoracious couldn’t let Banks go without at least one highly personal question: If the Culture future actually existed and you were part of it, where would you live and what would you do? “On an Orbital, with a view over a fjord or large river to mountains and islands. I suspect I'd be building something geeky, like the miniature battleships water maze feature mentioned in Surface Detail. I might even be writing stories.”

You can find all of Banks’ Culture novels here on If you haven’t read them before, you’re in for a treat!



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I sure hope this is better than Inversion. That one was great up until about the last chapter, and then it felt like he just gave up, stopped writing, and handed the draft off to his agent for immediate publication.

Interesting. You read the Culture as a human-based society? I read it as a machine-based society, whose native inhabitants are the Minds that exist, first as drones, and then as ships, and eventually Orbitals. Being a totally artificial society, it can integrate biological races and help augment and maintain them without losing their particular biological character.

To me, the Culture is what might eventually happen if the robots at the end of the movie AI continued their society indefinitely into the future.

Also -- I think Excession and Look To Windward may be among the best Culture novels, at least for me. Player of Games was the most fun, the most palatable introduction to the world, though it didn't have the grand ambitions of better Space Opera. I REALLY want to re-read Exc. and L2W, but the guy is writing Culture novels faster than I can keep up with reading them (since I have a lot of other reading to fit it into).

Glad to hear about a new one!

One of these days I am going to have to try a (real) Culture novel.

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