Extrapolation

Reviews of Books

Extrapolation (2019), 60, (2), 201–227.

Abstract

Reviews of Books Reviews of Books Some More Notes on the Culture. Paul Kincaid. Iain M. Banks. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2017. ix + 190 pp. ISBN 978-0-25-20825-04. $22 pbk. Reviewed by Rob Latham As Paul Kincaid points out in his excellent single-author study, Iain M. Banks’s “Culture” novels virtually single-handedly rehabilitated the subgenre of space opera, which had fallen into disrepute in the wake of Star Wars (1977). Indeed, Consider Phlebas (1987)—the first published, though not the first written, volume in the series—stands as “one of the key works that kick-started the so-called British Boom” (27). Banks’s novels did not stint on space opera’s characteristic pleasures—splashy battles, mysterious alien artifacts, an array of exotic cultures—while at the same time showing that the subgenre is capable of handling complex thematic issues related to gender identity, political power, and religious belief. Kincaid identifies a key ambiguity at the heart of Banks’s Culture series: the abiding tension between the domestic and foreign policies of the eponymous post-scarcity utopia—on the one hand, it is devoted to its own citizens’ liberty and pleasure while, on the other hand, it engages in quasi-imperialist realpolitik in its encounters with competing space-based civilizations. The “avowed ideals of the Culture” thus do not tally with its actual ethico-political practices (46). Kincaid smartly tracks this ambiguous “counternarrative” (49)—of an anti-utopian impulse subsisting within a utopian society—across Banks’s eight Culture novels. His treatment, however, is somewhat halting due to the book’s resolutely chronological organization: rather than grouping the Culture novels into a single chapter, Kincaid distributes his coverage over three separate chapters, interweaving commentary on other non-Culture novels produced during the same temporal span. While this set-up fruitfully permits him to highlight points of connection between Banks’s sf and non-sf works, it also forces readers specifically interested in the “Culture” series to jump around from chapter to chapter. This small complaint aside, it deserves to be said that Kincaid is one of the most astute and sensitive critics of the Culture series around, and his readings of the novels are consistently intelligent and occasionally provocative. Kincaid’s first chapter—which treats Banks’s first three novels, The Wasp Factory (1984), Walking on Glass (1985), and The Bridge (1986)—is the most Extrapolation, vol. 60, no. 2 (2019) https://doi.org/10.3828/extr.2019.13

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