What order to read the Iain M. Banks Culture series? The obvious order is publication order, which is also almost identical to the internal chronological order.
But the problem with this order is that Consider Phlebas, the first novel, is by far the weakest book, and isn’t a good representation of the overall series due to the viewpoint character being an enemy of the Culture and an outsider. I’ve heard from a lot of people who say something similar to “Oh, the Culture series? I tried that but the first book didn’t really grab me so I didn’t continue.”
The other problem is that Bank planned to end the series once, with Look to Windward, but then later picked the series up again… and then died suddenly without writing another natural ending point.
I’ve seen some people suggest the short story collect and novella The State of the Art as a good starting point. I disagree because it frames the Culture in relation to the planet Earth in the 20th century which, while fun, is a limiting perspective to approach the rest of the series. It’s best to get to know the Culture from the inside first, and then see it from a 20th century Earth point of view.
While most novels can stand alone, they usually benefit from seeing how the world of the Culture has developed to that point over the hundreds of years that are covered by these books, each book being decades or centuries apart chronologically. There are also some returning characters many books apart, though I won’t reveal where due to encroaching on spoiler territory.
The SFBRP Reading Order
So when re-reading the entire series for us to review on the podcast, I put together an order that starts with the strongest early book, then moves mostly chronologically. However, it separates a few books by tone (putting some fun books between the heavy books) and groups a few books by theme, like putting The State of the Art with Inversions. It also moves Look to Windward to the end of the series, to its natural place as an ending to the Culture series, and also to go with the “death and afterlife” group.
1. Player of Games. Probably the best introduction to the Culture, laying out the Contact and Special Circumstances factions and what they get up to, which makes up the bulk of the series. It’s also one of the best novels in terms of writing, and it’s not too “heavy”. Viewpoint: normal culture citizen.
2. Consider Phlebas. The war in this book is the main threat threat the Culture experiences at its own level, and not massively overpowered or underpowered compared to their opponents. It’s also the first book chronologically, so it makes sense to go near the start. Warning: almost universally considered the weakest book in the series, so once you get through this it’s trending up in the future! Viewpoint: outside enemy of the Culture.
3. Excession. The best introductions to the Culture ships, one of the most memorable and fun aspects of the series. While there are human-level characters, it’s really all about the ships. It’s also super fun! You need a break after some of the heavier books.
4. Use of Weapons. Really heavy stuff, showing how war isn’t all about ship minds having fun. It has an internal story structure that some readers might find challenging, but it’s worth it. Viewpoint: outsider being used by the Contact and Special Circumstances elements of the Culture.
5. The State of the Art. Once the Culture has been established, it’s good to see where the Earth fits in with it. We also get to see more of Diziet Sma, a character from Use of Weapons. Viewpoint: Culture insider looking at Earth.
6. Inversions. A Culture novel without any viewpoint characters knowing about the Culture. This fits well with State of the Art, as you can imagine what it would be like for someone on Earth to be in the same situation. Warning: this will make ZERO sense if you’ve not read the previous books.
7. Matter. This is probably the most “minor” Culture book in the series, in my opinion. It’s okay, and that’s about it. At least after Inversions it’ll get you back into the swing of spending time with ships and drones.
8. Surface Detail. The first on the list of three “death and afterlife” Culture novels. This shows “man’s” attempt at creating an afterlife.
9. The Hydrogen Sonata. This shows the “science” of a true kind of afterlife on a civilization level, with much talk of subliming, or not subliming, and what life actually means when faced with something better after death.
10. Look to Windward. This is quite out of sequence chronologically and by publishing date, but should be the best way to finish off the series. Most of the action takes place within the Culture, rather than, like most of the novels, outside of it. It completes the “death and afterlife” series in the most satisfying way. It also pairs well with Consider Phlebas, so it’s good to have these two topping (almost) and tailing this list. Viewpoint: an alien visiting the Culture.
If you’re interested, you can follow along with our progress reading through this series on the podcast with the following links