Iain M. Banks (1954-2013) is one of my very favorite science fiction writers and of those writings that appeal most is the Culture Series, released between 1987 and 2012.

The Culture is a utopian, post-scarcity space society of humanoid aliens, and advanced superintelligent artificial intelligences living in artificial habitats spread across the Milky Way galaxy. The main theme of the series is the dilemmas that an idealistic, more advanced civilization faces in dealing with smaller, less-advanced civilizations that do not share its ideals, and whose behavior it sometimes finds barbaric.

In some of the stories action takes place mainly in non-Culture environments, and the leading characters are often on the fringes of (or non-members of) the Culture, sometimes acting as agents of Culture (knowing and unknowing) in its plans to civilize the galaxy. Each novel is a self-contained story with new characters, although reference is occasionally made to the events of previous novels.

His science fiction books (non-Culture) also include Against a Dark Background (1993); The Algebraist (2004) and Transition (2009). Banks also wrote mainstream fiction and won acclaim in doing so, but I personally favor his sci-fi work.

Sometimes a recommendation is useful.


The Out of Context Problem (OCP)

An example of OCP is an event in which civilization does not consider the possibility that a much more technologically advanced society can exist and then encounters one. The term is coined by Banks and described as follows:

An Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilizations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop. The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you’d tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbors were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on the wet grass… when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you’ve just been discovered, you’re all subjects of the Emperor now, he’s keen on presents called taxes and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.


Life Imitates Art

As a posthumous tribute to Iain Banks, aerospace manufacturer SpaceX named two of its autonomous spaceport drone ships after sentient starships Just Read the Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You which first appeared in the novel The Player of Games. A third drone craft was named A Shortfall of Gravitas, inspired by the starship Experiencing a Significant Gravitas Shortfall in Look to Windward.

The Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship, Just Read the Instructions.


It’s weird when science fiction sounds more like reality than the mainstream media broadcasts.  From Yesterday…

COVID-19 End Game?


  1. Haven’t read him but if you and Musk both recommend him, well, will have to head over and find some books of his.

  2. Banks was a genius, gone too soon.

    He went out with class though – when he learned he was terminal, he proposed to his longtime girlfriend saying “Would you do me the honor of becoming my widow?”.


    • I remember reading of his fatal illness. When many people die, it’s like somebody torched a library.

      sic transit gloria mundi

  3. You Bastard. When I had finally gotten the shelf space so I didn’t look like a penniless grad student. I’m running out of wall to put the bookshelves against. I need wall space to hang my guitars, too, and to stack my amplifiers! That’s not a wall, that’s my bathroom door! I need that access! I just picked up Ian Rankin. I already had Robert Rankin. Now it’s Ian Banks, thank you very much. This is getting out of hand. Sarah Hoyt has a half dozen titles freshly out, Larry Correia will personally beat me up If I don’t get “Bloodlines” (Chill, little guy, I already ordered an autograph copy through Uncle Hugo’s), Johnny Ringo claims his muse just gave birth, and Michael Z Williamson is talking about purchasing the entire armory of a former Socialist Republic, which may include the Navy and Air Force. And I need to pick up the missng parts of John D. McDonald, there’s holes in my Chesterton, and my kids have adopted my Menken, Kipling, and Lewis

    • JC, You forgot to mention my Red Mist Trilogy, but you can buy it on e-books, Apple books, Kindle, etc. It doesn’t have to be print…

      Red Mist should be available later this month across many platforms and in print. I don’t know when, but soon.

    • You can put guitar hangers on your bookshelves, so the shelves serve dual purpose. Either from the top like you’re hanging stockings, or screwed into the uprights.

      We don’t have a Christmas Tree. We take the fake Christmas Tree branches and put them on top of the bookshelves and decorate the part sticking out with lights and ornaments. Very pretty and makes a nice ‘garland’ and there is no huge footprint taken up by a tree, very important since I live in a small apartment but love Christmas ornaments and lights, and guns, and swords, and spears and knives, and tools… Dangit, need more space!

    • My iPad is filling up, much easier than a Library addition to the house and I have enough projects in the queue…plus I can cart it around, and so far in Colorado plenty of fossil fuel juice for recharging.

  4. Couldn’t agree more: Iain M. Banks is one of the best English language authors in any genre. He is brilliant in terms of inventiveness — i.e., “sense of wonder” — but is also a superior stylist: the writing is appealing for its own sake, a quality often lacking in SF. Banks was an unabashed socialist but, I think, was realistic about it. In his article “Some Notes on the Culture” I believe he acknowledged that the socialist paradise of the Culture could only exist where all goods and services were unlimited and free, as provided by the robotic Minds. No one in the Culture has to work for a living, so they have developed the hobby of meddling in the affairs of lesser societies to bring them the joys of civilization.

    An interesting question for me regarding the Culture is: who works for whom? Are the Minds and other sentient AIs the slaves of the human population, providing them with their every need, or are the humans more like pets of the infinitely smarter and more powerful Minds? To me it seems more like the latter. But the Minds are not portrayed as remote, incomprehensible and godlike creatures; they have remarkably human personalities (as do many of the alien species), which helps make the series so much fun to read.

    • The more eccentric mind ships are the most fun to read about IMHO. It’s a work of fiction and I take it as that. I have socialist friends in the Scottish National Party who have risen in that organization. (yes, I know that they are not well regarded outside of Scotland for the most part) I overlooked Banks’ politics to enjoy the writing and he’s a maistro.

  5. Thanks for the Banks recommend.
    The name is very familiar, but I don’t recall reading his work.
    Probably due to swiss cheese brain like Slo Jo.

    The OCP concept caused me to flash back the the high school math geek classic *Flatland”.

  6. Having read quite a few of Banks’ books, I always thought the Culture had more than a touch of the busy-body we-know-best-how-to-live-YOUR-life about them, like the democrats writ large. My favourite two of his which are sort of pre-Culture or fringe-Culture are The Algebraist and Feersum Engin.

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