The Culture Reading Order: How to read Iain M. Banks’s Series?

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The Culture series is a science fiction series written by Scottish author Iain M. Banks that was published between 1987 and 2012. It is a space opera with a focus on the human and political aspects of its universe. Banks describes The Culture as “an expression of the idea that the nature of space itself determines the type of civilizations which will thrive there.”

More precisely, The Culture is a group-civilization formed from multiple humanoid species that established a loose federation approximately nine thousand years before the story of the series begins. You can learn a lot more about it in the notes written by Banks.

How To Read The Culture Series in Order?

The Culture series comprises nine novels and one short story collection. Even a reference is occasionally made to the events of previous novels, each novel of The Culture series is a self-contained story with new characters.

Reading The Culture Books in Publication Order:

  1. Consider Phlebas – The war raged across the galaxy. Billions had died, billions more were doomed. Moons, planets, the very stars themselves, faced destruction – cold-blooded, brutal, and worse, random. The Idirans fought for their Faith; the Culture for its moral right to exist. Principles were at stake. There could be no surrender. Within the cosmic conflict, an individual crusade. Deep within a fabled labyrinth on a barren world, a Planet of the Dead proscribed to mortals, lay a fugitive Mind. Both the Culture and the Idirans sought it. It was the fate of Horza, the Changer, and his motley crew of unpredictable mercenaries, human and machine, actually to find it, and with it their own destruction.
  2. The Player of Games – Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel and incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game… a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game, and with it the challenge of his life – and very possibly his death.
  3. Use of Weapons – The man known as Cheradenine Zakalwe was one of Special Circumstances’ foremost agents, changing the destiny of planets to suit the Culture through intrigue, dirty tricks or military action. The woman known as Diziet Sma had plucked him from obscurity and pushed him towards his present eminence, but despite all their dealings, she did not know him as well as she thought. The drone known as Skaffen-Amtiskaw knew both of these people. It had once saved the woman’s life by massacring her attackers in a particularly bloody manner. It believed the man to be a burnt-out case. But not even its machine intelligence could see the horrors in his past.
  1. The State of the Art (short story collection and novella) – The first-ever collection of Iain M. Banks’s short fiction, this volume includes the acclaimed novella, The State of the Art. This is a striking addition to the growing body of Culture lore, and adds definition and scale to the previous works by using the Earth of 1977 as contrast. The other stories in the collection range from science fiction to horror, dark-coated fantasy to morality tale.
  2. Excession – Two and a half millennia ago, the artifact appeared in a remote corner of space, beside a trillion-year-old dying sun from a different universe. It was a perfect black-body sphere, and it did nothing. Then it disappeared. Now it is back.
  3. Inversions – In the winter palace, the King’s new physician has more enemies than she at first realizes. But then she also has more remedies to hand than those who wish her ill can know about. In another palace across the mountains, in the service of the regicidal Protector General, the chief bodyguard, too, has his enemies. But his enemies strike more swiftly, and his means of combating them are more traditional.
  1. Look to Windward – It was one of the less glorious incidents of a long-ago war. It led to the destruction of two suns and the billions of lives they supported. Now, 800 years later, the light from the first of those ancient mistakes has reached the Culture Orbital, Masaq. The light from the second may not.
  2. Matter – In a world-renowned, even within a galaxy full of wonders, a crime occurs within a war. For one man it means a desperate flight and a search for the one, maybe two, people who could clear his name. For his brother, it means a life lived under constant threat of treachery and murder. And for their sister, even without knowing the full truth, it means returning to a place she’d thought abandoned forever. Only the sister is not what she once was. Djan Seriy Anaplian has changed almost beyond recognition to become an agent of the Culture’s Special Circumstances section, charged with high-level interference in civilizations throughout the greater galaxy. Concealing her new identity, and her particular set of abilities might be a dangerous strategy, however.
  3. Surface Detail – It begins in the realm of the Real, where matter still matters. It begins with a murder. And it will not end until the Culture has gone to war with death itself. Lededje Y’breq is one of the Intagliated, her marked body bearing witness to a family shame, her life belonging to a man whose lust for power is without limit. Prepared to risk everything for her freedom, her release, when it comes, is at a price, and to put things right she will need the help of the Culture.

  1. The Hydrogen Sonata – The Scavenger species are circling. It is, truly, the End Days for the Gzilt civilization. An ancient people, organized on military principles and yet almost perversely peaceful, the Gzilt helped set up the Culture 10,000 years earlier and were very nearly one of its founding societies, deciding not to join only at the last moment. Now they’ve made the collective decision to follow the well-trodden path of millions of other civilizations: They are going to Sublime, elevating themselves to a new and almost infinitely more rich and complex existence.

Notes on the Culture Reading Order

You can read the Culture in the order you want, it is not important. Though, there are a few things you may want to consider first.

  • The State of the Art being a collection of short stories and a novella is not the best entry point, better be familiar with the series before reading this one.
  • Consider Phlebas is the first published, but a lot of readers recommend not to start with it as he is not representative of what the series is. Although, Inversions is also not a good entry point being too different from the rest of the books in the series (at least, read Use of Weapons before Surface Detail).
  • Nevertheless, Consider Phlebas contains a few references to events that may improve your reading of the rest of the series, idem with Use of Weapons, you may want to read them early.

If you like our article about the Culture series in order, don’t forget to bookmark it! And for more Space Operas, take a look at Polity or The Expanse.

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