Classic British science fiction published since the late 1980s onwards. His work largely hasn't dated, and typically offers grand concepts alongside characters developed beyond genre stereotypes. Most of these novels and short stories (unless noted) loosely form a series about a highly advanced post-scarcity civilisation known as the Culture, with what relatively few opportunities for conflict remain stemming from disagreement between individuals or their interaction with other civilisations.
It's a toss-up whether this is the best introduction to the universe of the Culture or that title goes to The Player of Games. Personally I'd recommend Player, but Phlebas should be read before the later entry in the series Look to Windward. It shows the reader fragments of the Idiran war, a large interstellar conflict, through a handful of characters on the periphery. What you get is a sense of scope, but also how little agency individuals have to affect this massive universe. Whilst not the most satisfying entry, worth a read or two.
A master game-player is approached (actually, is blackmailed) into representing the Culture's contact division as it challenges an alien civilisation that retains strong class and gender inequalities. This gives Banks ample scope to fill readers in how things work within the fictional universe he's building, in which most events are guided by vast machine intelligences. The book builds slowly but rapidly gains pace after the halfway point, and repays repeated readings. Recommended as a strong entry and a good jumping-on point.
Maybe I'm getting jaded, but I didn't find the reveal towards the end of Weapons very horrifying, or agree with the many positive reviews it's received. The frame for the story is another individual used by the Culture to guide civilisations towards less brutal regimes, with lots of flashback and a personal character arc that, as I say, I didn't find gripping. However, there's also enough dealing with the Culture itself that I more-or-less enjoyed the work as a whole. Writers may also find the complicated narrative structure fascinating.
A collection of short stories, some identifiably dealing with the Culture. Some of these in turn deal with its interaction with Earth a few decades ago, which is interesting to read from the perspective of someone growing up after the Cold War. The focuses chosen by the author do mean that the collection has dated a little, and there are some stories that're either experimental or aren't strictly speaking science fiction included, which I didn't appreciate as a kid but found much improved on re-reading as an adult.
Possibly the most "regular sci-fi" book Banks has done, this feels very much a product of the 80s. The protagonist puts a retired team of special operatives back together for a personal mission, there are twisted family relationships, etc. I suspect I was spoilt by reading Excession as a second book after Player of Games, then coming back to these earlier works. What the author creates and develops (an area of the galaxy, a civilisation with its own quirks and politics) is actually impressive, it's just that Banks is capable of much more.
I'd heard a lot about this book prior to reading it, and anticipated finding the sections written in phonetic English (by a dyslexic character) much more difficult than turned out to be the case; I got up to normal skim-reading speed quite quickly. Without wanting to spoil too much, the ending touches on the Culture and efforts to save a world that barely understands its technological legacy. The structure of the novel is more fun to unpick than annoying or confusing, even if a few of the subplots do wander.
One of my favourite books ever, although you do need to have read another Culture novel such as Player of Games to have some context before embarking on it. Of all the books, this one deals most with the whimsical hyper-intelligent artificial Minds that steer the course of the Culture's parts of the universe. It's a little like Catch 22 in that (if like me) you may miss the shape of the plot the first time through: there are so many concepts and keen asides to discover. Ultimately, it's more about people (some of them machines) than technology.
Another book I was expecting not to like, as it deals with Culture operatives at large within a primitive feudal society. So much on the quiet that editions after the first omitted a frontispiece that made sly reference to this fact. The characters are genuinely likeable, though, and the narrative discusses some of the ethical questions of interfering in other civilisations whilst exploring how two characters do so differently on the same world. The interleaved tales of the doctor and the royal bodyguard make for very pleasant light reading.
Best read after Consider Phlebas, which I didn't first time through, and you need to be in a frame of mind to appreciate it... basically the plot is about revenge and loss, touching on the consequences of making mistakes when dealing with the paths of entire civilisations. It's also very personal for some of the individual characters involved, and the ending a tour-de-force. The last Culture novel published until Matter eight years later, and in many ways it concludes the arc.
Although not a Culture novel, this'd easily fit up or down a universe in Bank's model. Certainly the same scope is there, with all of the usual big concepts, lengthy description and a slight authorial penchant for sadism present at times. I certainly found it more interesting than Against A Dark Background, on the whole. There's definitely a sense that the author may be slowing down after Windward, but this is certainly worth a look once you've gotten through most of the other books listed.
A mightily heavy volume. The first new Culture novel after a long gap, its strength is putting the Culture into a wider context... there are glimpses of other civilisations operating on the same level, neither lessers to be interfered with or Sublimed races that have opted out of the physical universe altogether. There's also plenty of description and high concept present, as usual. Unfortunately, large swathes of the narrative deal with a feudal medieval society that just isn't that interesting, and the ending, despite the length, feels very rushed. Disappointing taken as a whole.
A return to form that's almost a greatest hits collection... see how many previous tropes you can spot. However, like Matter it also suffers from subplots that you'll probably want to skip through. Broadly, the novel deals with the assumption that if mind states can be recorded, morally bereft societies (the type that consider themselves highly moral) would create virtual hells to torture copies of individuals after 'death' as a means of social control, which the Culture is fighting to put an end to. Ship scenes, big ideas and a pantomine villain round things out.
Iain very unfortunately died the year following publication, which makes the quality of this as a capstone on his Culture books all the more a matter for mixed feelings. It's a return to form, with lots of the trademark supertech and a plot revolving around a civilisation about to sublime away from physical existence. The Gzilt also have a holy book that's unusually accurate in its predictions. Great stuff, and also a fantastic standalone read, although there are references back to other entries in the series such as Excession.