Iain Banks was one of the best writers of the 20th century, best known for his popular space opera novels known as the Culture series. Many of Banks novels have been adapted for theatre, radio, and television over the years. The man left behind an incredible body of work, and if you're new to the science fiction game, you might be wondering, what are the best Iain Banks books?
We need to talk a bit more about the Culture series before we go any further. There are so many great books in the series that it's best to unpack it a bit before you get too lost.
The Culture is a utopian, space communist society of humanoids, aliens, and highly advanced forms of artificial intelligence living throughout the Milky Way Galaxy. He took some inspiration from one of his biggest influences, sci-fi writer Dan Simmons. The major theme in the series is the state trying to deal with civilizations and cultures that do not share its ideals.
Even though these stories aren't about humans, there is a lot of humanity in the best Iain Banks books. Stories about loss, redemption, and self-discovery are at the heart of Bank's best tales. Check out the best of his work below.
Consider the Phlebas
Of course, the first novel in the Culture series is among the best Iain Banks books. It was his first science fiction novel published, writing under the pen name Iain M. Banks. The plot revolves around the Idiran-Culture War, and Banks takes us through multiple levels in the conflict.
The massive conflict spans the entire galaxy, but mostly centers around an outsider protagonist who is working against the culture. It's a grim and gritty space opera, and a great jumping off point for the rest of the Culture series.
The Player of Games
The Player of Games follows Gurgeh, a famously skilled player of board games and other similar contests — he is the best game player in the entire Culture. His level of mastery is so advanced that he's become bored with his successful life.
He decides to go on a quest to compete against an alien society where games decide real world order of things, and it's perhaps the most accessible and fun book in the Culture series. It's clearly one of the best Iain Banks books, and it makes a great starting point if you're looking for a way into his work — he's a big reason why genre literature deserves more respect.
Use of Weapons
Another entry in the Culture series, Use of Weapons is one of Banks's best known novels. Published in 1990, the books was nominated for the British Science Fiction award. It centers on a man called who was born outside of the Culture, but was recruited into it by a Special Circumstances agent to work as an operative intervening in less advanced civilizations.
It's broken up into two different narrative voices, mostly alternating throughout the length of the work. It was incredibly well received, and in 2012 it was selected by Damien Broderick for his article "The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010."
The Wasp Factory
The Wasp Factory is the literary debut of Scottish author Ian Banks, it's the bizarre and darkly comic look into the mind of a child psychopath. Since this is the novel that started it all, it's clearly one of the best Iain Banks books.
The young teenager lives on a remote Scottish Island, and though it was widely acclaimed as a sensational literary debut, the book was heavily criticized for its grotesque violence. It's a first person narrative, and while it's much more straight forward than his later works, it gave a glimpse of things to come.
Espedair Street is a literary novel by sci-fi writer Iain Banks. It tells the story of bass player Dan Weir and his struggles to deal with both fame and insignificance. There is plenty of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and it's also one of the few Bank's books to have a happy ending.
While not his most ambitious work, Espedair Street is one of the best Iain Banks books for its fun and accessibility. It's also his best book to read if you aren't that big a fan of sci-fi but want to check out his work.
Complicity is about a Scottish newspaper called The Caledonian, and a serial murderer whose identity is a mystery. The protagonist is a gonzo journalist that can't seem to get over his past experiences covering the Gulf War. He smokes tons of cigarettes and marijuana, drinks copious amounts of liquor, plays computer games, and has risky sex with a married woman.
As the story goes on, the journalist begins to find his life somehow connected to the serial killer. It's mystery/thriller, and one of the best Iain Banks books if you're a fan of the genre. The book is not short on violence, and Banks himself said: "It's a bit like The Wasp Factory except without the happy ending and redeeming air of cheerfulness."
The State of the Art
The State of the Art is a short story collection, but it also gives us a small glimpse into the world of the Culture. There are seven short stories in all, and one novella that takes up a large portion of the book.
It offers a nice little introduction into Banks's universe, and is one of the Best Iain Banks books for novices — which is to take nothing away from the quality. Most of the tales are pretty grim and gritty, and the title story is about a ship with a mind of its own.
Winner of a British Science Fiction Award, Feersum Endjinn is told from four different viewpoints and makes a lot of demands on the reader, so it's not for the beginner, but it is one of Iain Banks best books. Not exactly true science fiction, the book was still widely praised for its brilliance.
The plot centers around a man who has seven lives and has already died six times. He must figure out who the killer is before it's too late — he is on his last life. The book is an elaborately drawn out puzzle, and I'd hate to give anything more away.
The Hydrogen Sonata
The Hydrogen Sonata is the final book in the Culture series, and one of the best Iain Banks books of all time. It was released 25 years after the first novel and became an instant best seller. The Gzilt (a group of people in the culture) are ready to sublime to the the next plane of existence. But first some old scores must be settled.
It's probably the most satirical and cranky of the Culture novels, published just a year before his death. if you've come this far with the series, you owe it to yourself to complete the journey.
The Crow Road
The Crow Road is a novel about self discovery, loss, and love. The main character has concerns about his belief in God, or the existence an afterlife. He cannot accept a universe without some higher power, some purpose — he can't believe that people can just cease to exist when they die.
It's not a simple read, but it is one of the best Iain Banks books. Banks uses multiple voices and points of view, jumping freely in both time and character, so close attention is crucial.