Iain Banks

Scottish writer (1954–2013)

Iain Menzies Banks (February 16, 1954June 9, 2013), officially Iain Banks, was a Scottish writer. As Iain M. Banks he wrote science fiction; as Iain Banks he wrote literary fiction.

A guilty system recognizes no innocents. As with any power apparatus which thinks everybody’s either for it or against it, we’re against it.



Short fiction

All page numbers from the trade paperback edition published by Night Shade Books (ISBN 978-1-59780-074-7)
Only Descendant and State of the Art are set in the world of his Culture series
For details on the original publication of each story, see the Wikipedia page
All ellipses in the original stories
  • It’s as if I drifted into this situation. I didn’t ever think about fighting or doing anything risky at all, not until the war came along. I agreed it was necessary, but that seemed obvious; everybody thought so, everybody I knew, anyway. And volunteering, agreeing to take part; that too seemed... natural. I knew I might die, but I was prepared to risk that; it was almost romantic. Somehow it never occurred to me that it might entail privation and suffering. Am I as stupid as those throughout history—those I’ve always despised and pitied—who’ve marched off to war, heads full of noble notions and expectations of easy glory, only to die screaming and torn in the mud?
    • “Descendant” (p. 40)
  • There is a saying that we provide the machines with an end, and they provide us with the means.
    • “Descendant” (p. 40)
  • “Tell me, suit, don’t you wonder if it’s all worth it?’
    “If what’s all worth what?” it says, and I can hear that condescending tone in its voice again.
    “You know; living. Is it worth all the... bother?”
    “No, I don’t ever wonder about it.”
    “Why not?” I’m keeping my questions short as we walk, conserving energy and breath.
    “I don’t need to wonder about that. It’s not important.”
    “Not important?”
    “It’s an irrelevant question. We live; that’s enough.”
    • “Descendant” (p. 44)
  • I’ve been thinking about the war a lot recently, and I think I’ve decided it’s wrong. We are defeating ourselves in waging it, will destroy ourselves by winning it.
    • “Descendant” (p. 46)
  • We created something a little closer to perfection than ourselves; maybe that’s the only way to progress. Let them try to do the same. I doubt they can, so they will always be less as well as more than us. It’s all just a sum, a whispered piece of figuring lost in the empty blizzards of white noise howling through the universe, a brief oasis in an infinite desert, a freak bit of working out in which we have transcended ourselves, and they are only the remainder.
    • “Descendant” (pp. 47-48)
  • “Nothing is sacred to you, Mr. Munro. You base your beliefs on the products of human thought, so it could hardly be otherwise. You might believe in certain things, but you do not have faith. That comes with submission to the force of divine revelation.”
    “So, because I don’t have what I think of as superstitions, because I believe we just happen to exist, and believe in... science, evolution, whatever; I’m not as... worthy as somebody who has faith in an ancient book and a cruel, desert God?”
    • “Piece” (p. 73)
  • It’s very nearly 1989 but it’s midnight in the Dark Ages just the thickness of a book away, the thickness of a skull away; just the turn of a page away.
    • “Piece” (p. 74)
  • Reason shapes the future, but superstition infects the present.
    • “Piece” (p. 75)
  • And coincidence convinces the credulous. Two things happen at the same time, or one after another, and we assume there must be a link; well, we sacrificed a virgin last year, and there was a good harvest. Of course the ceremony to raise the sun works—it comes up every morning, doesn’t it? I say my prayers each night and the world hasn’t ended yet...
    Dung beetle thinking. Life is too complicated for there not to be continual coincidences, and we just have to come to terms with the fact that they merely happen and aren’t ordained, that some things occur for no real reason whatsoever, and that this is not a punishment and that is not a reward. Good grief; the most copper-bottomed, platinum-card proof of divine intervention, of some holy masterplan, would be if there were no coincidences at all! That really would look suspicious.
    • “Piece” (p. 75)
  • Of course they aren’t ready for it, of course we’ll spoil the place. Are they any more ready for World War Three? You seriously think we could mess the place up more than they’re doing at the moment? When they’re not actually out slaughtering each other they’re inventing ingenious new ways to massacre each other more efficiently in the future, and when they’re not doing that they’re committing speciescide, from the Amazon to Borneo... or filling the seas with shit, or the air, or the land. They could hardly make a better job of vandalizing their own planet if we gave them lessons.
    • “State of the Art” (p. 84)
  • I came out stunned. I was angry at them, then. Angry at them for surprising me, touching me like that. Of course I was angry at their stupidity, their manic barbarity, their unthinking, animal obedience, their appalling cruelty; everything that the memorial evoked... but what really hit me was that these people could create something that spoke so eloquently of their own ghastly actions; that they could fashion a work so humanly redolent of their own inhumanity.
    • “State of the Art” (p. 94)
  • An excess of boringness does not make a thing interesting except in the driest academic sense. A place is not boring if you have to look really hard for something which is interesting. If there is absolutely nothing interesting about any particular place, then that is a perfectly interesting and quintessentially un-boring place.
    • “State of the Art” (p. 112)
  • Beauty is something that disappears when you try to define it.
    • “State of the Art” (p. 128)
  • On Earth one of the things that a large proportion of the locals is most proud of is this wonderful economic system, which, with a sureness and certainty so comprehensive one could almost imagine the process bears some relation to their limited and limiting notions of either thermodynamics or God, all food, comfort, energy, shelter, space, fuel, and sustenance gravitates naturally and easily away from those who need it most and towards those who need it least. Indeed, those on the receiving end of such largesse are often harmed unto death by its arrival, though the effects may take years and generations to manifest themselves.
    • “State of the Art” (p. 136)
  • It is the case that because Free Enterprise got there first and set up the house rules, it will always stay at least one kick ahead of its rivals. Thus, while it takes Soviet Russia a vast amount of time and hard work to produce one inspired lunatic like Lysenko, the West can so arrange things that even the dullest farmer can see it makes more sense to burn his grain, melt his butter, and wash away the remains of his pulped vegetables with his tanks of unused wine than it does to actually sell the stuff to be consumed.
    And note that even if this mythical yokel did decide to sell the stuff, or even give it away—the Earthers have an even more devastating trick they can perform; they show you that those foods aren’t even needed anyway! They wouldn’t feed the least productive, most unimportant untouchable from Pradesh, tribesperson from Darfur, or peon from Rio Branco! The Earth has more than enough to feed all its inhabitants every day already! A truth so seemingly world-shattering one wonders that the oppressed of Earth don’t rise up in flames and anger yesterday! But they don’t, because they are so infected with the myth of self-interested advancement, or the poison of religion acceptance, they either only want to make their own way up the pile so they can shit upon everybody else, or actually feel grateful for the attention when their so-called betters shit on them!
    It is my contention that this is either an example of the most formidable and blissfully arrogant use of power and existing advantage... or scarcely credible stupidity.
    • “State of the Art” (p. 137)
  • All the usual rules of uprising realpolitik still apply, especially that concerning the peculiar of dialectic of dissent which—simply stated—dictates that in all but the most dedicatedly repressive hegemonies, if in a sizable population there are one hundred rebels, all of whom are then rounded up and killed, the number of rebels present at the end of the day is not zero, and not even one hundred, but two hundred or three hundred or more; an equation based on human nature which seem often to baffle the military and political mind.
    • “A Few Notes on the Culture” (pp. 168-169)
  • While the forces of repression need to win every time, the progressive elements need only triumph once.
    • “A Few Notes on the Culture” (p. 169)
All page numbers from the trade paperback edition published by Orbit Books
  • Something in your voice tells me we approach the question of remuneration.
    • Chapter 2 “The Hand of God 137” (p. 20).
  • Empathize with stupidity and you’re halfway to thinking like an idiot.
    • Chapter 2 “The Hand of God 137” (p. 27).
  • That was how divorced from the human scale modern warfare had become. You could smash and destroy from unthinkable distances, obliterate planets from beyond their own system and provoke stars into novae from light-years off...and still have no good idea why you were really fighting.
    • Chapter 2 “The Hand of God 137” (p. 32).
  • Pity they didn’t devote a little more ingenuity to staying alive rather than conducting mass slaughter as efficiently as possible.
    • Chapter 4 “Temple of Light” (p. 96).
  • The underlying point held; experience as well as common sense indicated that the most reliable method of avoiding self-extinction was not to equip oneself with the means to accomplish it in the first place.
    • Chapter 4 “Temple of Light” (p. 96).
  • “Don’t you have a religion?” Dorolow asked Horza.
    “Yes,” he replied, not taking his eyes away from the screen on the wall above the end of the main mess-room table. “My survival.”
    • Chapter 5 “Megaship” (p. 102).
  • “The war won’t end,” Aviger said. “It’ll just die away...I don’t think the Culture will give in like everybody thinks it will. I think they’ll keep fighting because they believe in it. The Idirans won’t give in, either; they’ll keep fighting to the last, and they and the Culture will just keep going at each other all the time, all over the galaxy eventually, and their weapons and bombs and rays and things will just keep getting better and better, and in the end the whole galaxy will become a battleground until they’ve blown up all the stars and planets and Orbitals and everything else big enough to stand on, and then they’ll destroy all of each other’s big ships and then the little ships, too, until everybody’ll be living in single units blowing each other up with weapons that could destroy a planet...and that’s how it’ll end; probably they’ll invent guns or drones that are even smaller, and there’ll only be a few smaller and smaller machines fighting over whatever’s left of the galaxy, and there’ll be nobody left to know how it all started in the first place.”
    • Chapter 11 “The Command System: Stations” (pp. 380-381).
  • “One can read too much into one’s own circumstances. I am reminded of one race who set themselves against us—oh, long ago now, before I was even thought of. Their conceit was that the galaxy belonged to them, and they justified this heresy by a blasphemous belief concerning design. They were aquatic, their brain and major organs housed in a large central pod from which several large arms or tentacles protruded. These tentacles were thick at the body, thin at the tips and lined with suckers. Their water god was supposed to have made the galaxy in their image.
    “You see? They thought that because they bore a rough physical resemblance to the great lens that is the home of all of us—even taking the analogy as far as comparing their tentacle suckers to globular clusters—it therefore belonged to them. For all the idiocy of this heathen belief, they had prospered and were powerful: quite respectable adversaries, in fact.”
    “Hmm,” Aviger said. Without looking up, he asked, “What were they called?”
    “Hmm,” Xoxarle rumbled. “Their name...” The Idiran pondered. “...I believe they were called the...the Fanch.”
    “Never heard of them,” Aviger said.
    “No, you wouldn’t have,” Xoxarle purred. “We annihilated them.”
    • Chapter 13 “The Command System: Terminus” (pp. 445-446).
All page numbers from the trade paperback edition published by Orbit Books
  • “So it’s false.”
    “What isn’t?”
    “Intellectual achievement. The exercise of skill. Human feeling.”
    • Chapter 1 “Culture Plate” (p. 5).
  • All reality is a game. Physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance; the same description may be applied to the best, most elegant and both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying games. By being unknowable, by resulting from events which, at the sub-atomic level, cannot be fully predicted, the future remains malleable, and retains the possibility of change, the hope of coming to prevail; victory, to use an unfashionable word. In this, the future is a game; time is one of its rules.
    • Chapter 1 (p. 48).
  • Empires are synonymous with centralized — if occasionally schismatized — hierarchical power structures in which influence is restricted to an economically privileged class retaining its advantages through — usually — a judicious use of oppression and skilled manipulation of both the society’s information dissemination systems and its lesser — as a rule nominally independent — power systems. In short, it’s all about dominance.
    • Chapter 1 (p. 91).
  • It looks perverted and wasteful to us, but then one thing that empires are not about is the efficient use of resources and the spread of happiness; both are typically accomplished despite the economic short-circuiting—corruption and favoritism, mostly—endemic to the system.
    • Chapter 1 (p. 91).
  • A guilty system recognizes no innocents. As with any power apparatus which thinks everybody’s either for it or against it, we’re against it. You would be too, if you thought about it. The very way you think places you among its enemies. This might not be your fault, because every society imposes some of its values on those raised within it, but the point is that some societies try to maximize that effect, and some try to minimize it. You come from one of the latter and you’re being asked to explain yourself to one of the former. Prevarication will be more difficult than you imagine; neutrality is probably impossible. You cannot choose not to have the politics you do; they are not some separate set of entities somehow detachable from the rest of your being; they are a function of your existence. I know that and they know that; you had better accept it.
    • Chapter 2 “Imperium” (p. 215).
  • “Is all this serious?” Gurgeh said, turning, amused, from the screen to the drone.
    “Deadly serious,” Flere-Imsaho told him.
    Gurgeh laughed and shook his head. He thought the common people must be remarkably stupid if they believed all this nonsense.
    • Chapter 2 (p. 225).
  • “You like music, Mr. Gurgeh?” Hamin asked, leaning over to the man.
    Gurgeh nodded. “Well, a little does no harm.”
    • Chapter 2 (p. 277).
  • “One of the advantages of having laws is the pleasure one may take in breaking them. We here are not children, Mr. Gurgeh.” Hamin waved the pipestem round the tables of people. “Rules and laws exist only because we take pleasure in doing what they forbid, but as long as most of the people obey such proscriptions most of the time, they have done their job; blind obedience would imply we are—ha!”—Hamin chuckled and pointed at the drone with the pipe—“no more than robots!”
    • Chapter 2 (p. 279).
  • The news team, and Hamin, seemed well pleased. “You should have been an actor, Jernau Gurgeh,” Hamin told him.
    Gurgeh assumed this was intended as a compliment.
    • Chapter 3 “Machina Ex Machina” (p. 306).
  • “I’m very sorry,” the drone said, without a trace of contrition.
    • Chapter 3 (p. 308).
  • He looked up from it at the stars again, and the view was warped and distorted by something in his eyes, which at first he thought was rain.
    • Chapter 4 “The Passed Pawn” (p. 390).
All page numbers from the trade paperback edition published by Orbit Books
Note: there are two alternating sets of chapter numbering in this book. The first is indicated by English words, and counts up from One to Fourteen. The second is indicated by Roman numerals, and counts down from XIII to I.
  • The sky was aquamarine, stroked with clouds. She could smell the grass and taste the scent of small, crushed flowers. She looked back up over her forehead at the gray-black wall towering behind her, and wondered if the castle had ever been attacked on days like this. Did the sky seem so limitless, the waters of the straits so fresh and clean, the flowers so bright and fragrant, when men fought and screamed, hacked and staggered and fell and watched their blood mat the grass?
    Mists and dusk, rain and lowering cloud seemed the better background; clothes to cover the shame of battle.
    • Chapter Two (pp. 50-51).
  • He knew in his heart that there was a relief in not being listened to, sometimes. Power meant responsibility. Advice unacted upon almost always might have been right, and in the working out of whatever plan was followed, there was anyway always blood; better it was on their hands. The good soldier did as he was told, and if he had any sense at all volunteered for nothing, especially promotion.
    • Chapter XII (p. 65).
  • Sex was an infringement, an attack, an invasion; there was no other way he could see it; every act, however magical and intensely enjoyed, and however willingly conducted, seemed to carry a harmonic of rapacity. He took her, and however much she gained in provoked pleasure and in his own increasing love, she was still the one that suffered the act, had it played out upon her and inside her. He was aware of the absurdity of trying too hard to develop the comparison between sex and war; he had been laughed out of several embarrassing situations trying to do so (“Zakalwe,” she would say when he tried to explain some of this, and she would put her cool slim fingers behind his neck and stare out from the rambunctious black tangle of her hair. “You have serious problems.” She would smile), But the feelings, the acts, the structure of the two were to him so close, so self-evidently akin, that such a reaction only forced him deeper into his confusion.
    • Chapter IX (pp. 144-145).
  • “I’m from out of town,” he said breezily. This was true. He’d never been within a hundred light-years of the place.
    • Chapter IX (p. 147).
  • “I think I know the real reason.”
    “Which is?”
    “Alcohol in the dust clouds. Goddamn stuff is everywhere. Any lousy species ever invents the telescope and the spectroscope and starts looking in between the stars, what do they find?” He knocked the glass on the table. “Loads of stuff, but much of it alcohol.” He drank from the glass. “Humanoids are the galaxy’s way of trying to get rid of all that alcohol.”
    • Chapter IX (p. 148).
  • He would give up then, and console himself with something she’d said: that you could not love what you fully understood. Love, she maintained, was a process, not a state. Held still, it withered. He wasn’t too sure about all that; he seemed to have found a calm clear serenity in himself he hadn’t even known was there, thanks to her.
    • Chapter IX (p. 149).
  • What they had talked themselves into, they could be silent out of.
    • Chapter IX (p. 157).
  • “Let’s waste a little time, hmm?”
    “A nice euphemism, sir,” she mused distantly.
    He smiled. “Come and help me think of better ones.”
    She smiled and they both looked at each other.
    There was a long pause.
    • Chapter IX (p. 157).
  • “Well,” he sighed to no one in particular, and looked up into yet another alien sky. “Here we are again.”
    • Chapter Six (p. 178).
  • Such a stupid act. Sometimes heroics revolted him; they seemed like an insult to the soldier who weighed the risks of the situation and made calm, cunning decisions based on experience and imagination, the sort of unshowy soldiering that didn’t win medals but wars.
    • Chapter VIII (p. 183).
  • The youth was a cretin, and didn’t even realize that he was.
    He could think of no more disastrous combination.
    • Chapter V (p. 303).
  • There are no gods, we are told, so I must make my own salvation.
    • Chapter V (p. 303).
  • What is all your studying worth, all your learning, all your knowledge, if it doesn’t lead to wisdom? And what’s wisdom but knowing what is right, and what is the right thing to do?
    • Chapter Ten (p. 316).
  • “You’re a wicked man.”
    “Thank you. It’s taken years of diligent practice.”
    • Chapter Eleven (p. 355).
  • “These people have successfully incorporated a belief in your martial prowess into their religion; how can you deny them?”
    “Believe me, it would be easy.”
    • Chapter Twelve (p. 390).
  • He suspected the troops felt closer to somebody who spoke a different language but asked them questions than they did to somebody who shared their language and only ever used it to give orders.
    • Chapter Twelve (p. 394).
  • He shrugged. “Whatever.”
    “Aw, Darac, come on; argue, dammit.”
    “I don’t believe in argument,” he said, looking out into the darkness (and saw a towering ship, a capital ship, ringed with its layers and levels of armament and armor, dark against the dusk light, but not dead).
    “You don’t?” Erens said, genuinely surprised. “Shit, and I thought I was the cynical one.”
    “It’s not cynicism,” he said flatly. “I just think people overvalue argument because they like to hear themselves talk.”
    “Oh well, thank you.”
    “It’s comforting, I suppose.” He watched the stars wheel, like absurdly slow shells seen at night: rising, peaking, falling...(And reminded himself that the stars too would explode, perhaps, one day.) “Most people are not prepared to have their minds changed,” he said. “And I think they know in their hearts that other people are just the same, and one of the reasons people become angry when they argue is that they realize just that, as they trot out their excuses.”
    “Excuses, eh? Well, if this ain’t cynicism, what is?” Erens snorted.
    “Yes, excuses,” he said, with what Erens thought might just have been a trace of bitterness. “I strongly suspect the things people believe in are usually just what they instinctively feel is right; the excuses, the justifications, the things you’re supposed to argue about, come later. They’re the least important part of the belief. That’s why you can destroy them, win an argument, prove the other person wrong, and still they believe what they did in the first place.” He looked at Erens. “You’ve attacked the wrong thing.”
    • Chapter II (p. 417).
  • In all the human societies we have ever reviewed, in every age and every state, there has seldom if ever been a shortage of eager young males prepared to kill and die to preserve the security, comfort and prejudices of their elders, and what you call heroism is just an expression of this fact; there is never a scarcity of idiots.
    • Chapter Thirteen (p. 434).
  • He had to give orders that meant men died, and sometimes sacrifice hundreds, thousands of them, knowingly sending them to their near-certain deaths, just to secure some important position or goal, or protect some vital position. And always, whether they liked it or not, the civilians suffered too; the very people they both claimed to be fighting for made up perhaps the bulk of the casualties in their bloody struggle.
    He had tried to stop it, tried to bargain, from the beginning, but neither side wanted peace on anything except its own terms, and he had no real political power, and so had had to fight.
    • Chapter I (p. 443).
  • More than anything else now, though, he wanted to save Darckense. He had seen too many dead, dry eyes, too much air-blackened blood, too much fly-blown flesh, to be able to relate such ghastly truths to the nebulous ideas of honor and tradition that people claimed they were fighting for. Only the well-being of one loved person seemed really worth fighting for now; it was all that seemed real, all that could save his sanity.
    • Chapter I (p. 444).
All page numbers from the hardcover edition published by Bantam Books
  • Tishlin’s dubious look indicated he wasn’t totally convinced this phrase contributed enormously to the information-carrying capacity of the language.
    • Chapter 2 “Not Invented Here” section II (p. 58).
  • The combination of modern ordnance and outdated tactics had, as usual, created enormous casualties on both sides.
    • Chapter 3 “Uninvited Guests” section I (p. 66).
  • She took a deep breath. Suddenly, she felt quite entirely sober. “Is this as important as I think it is?”
    “Almost certainly much more so.”
    “Oh,” she said, “fuck.”
    • Chapter 3 “Uninvited Guests” section IV (p. 98).
  • Here, in the bare dark face of night
    A calm unhurried eye draws sight
    —We see in what we think we fear
    The cloudings of our thought made clear
    • Chapter 3 “Uninvited Guests” section IV (p. 104).
  • It was like living half your life in a tiny, stuffy, warm gray box, and being moderately happy in there because you knew no better...and then discovering a little hole in one corner of the box, a tiny opening which you could get a finger into, and tease and pull at, so that eventually you created a tear, which led to a greater tear, which led to the box falling apart around you...so that you stepped out of the tiny box’s confines into startlingly cool, clear fresh air and found yourself on top of a mountain, surrounded by deep valleys, sighing forests, soaring peaks, glittering lakes, sparkling snowfields and a stunning, breathtakingly blue sky. And that, of course, wasn’t even the start of the real story, that was more like the breath that is drawn in before the first syllable of the first word of the first paragraph of the first chapter of the first book of the first volume of the story.
    • Chapter 4 “Dependency Principle” section III (p. 120).
  • It was just like some ancient electricity-powered computer; it didn't matter how fast, error-free, and tireless it was, it didn't matter how great a labor-saving boon it was, it didn't matter what it could do or how many different ways it could amaze; if you pulled its plug out, or just hit the off button, all it became was a lump of matter; all its programs became just settings, dead instructions, and all its computations vanished as quickly as they'd moved.
    It was, also, like the dependency of the human-basic brain on the human-basic body; no matter how intelligent, perceptive and gifted you were, no matter how entirely you lived for the ascetic rewards of the intellect and eschewed the material world and the ignobility of the flesh, if your heart just gave out...
    That was the Dependency Principle; that you could never forget where your off switches were located, even if it was somewhere tiresome.
    • Chapter 4 “Dependency Principle” section III (p. 122).
  • He wanted to be who he was, not the person he would become if he lost the one trait that distinguished him from everybody else, no matter how perverse that decision seemed to others.
    • Chapter 4 “Dependency Principle” section V (p. 129).
  • The double-sun system was relatively poor in comets; there were only a hundred billion of them.
    • Chapter 5 “Kiss the Blade” section I (p. 133).
  • I am not being obtuse.
    You are being paranoid.
    • Chapter 5 “Kiss the Blade” section II (p. 136).
  • There came a point when if a conspiracy was that powerful and subtle it became pointless to worry about it.
    • Chapter 5 “Kiss the Blade” section III (p. 149).
  • He was tall and very dark-skinned and he had fabulously blond hair and a voice that could raise bumps on your skin at a hundred meters, or, better still, millimeters.
    • Chapter 5 “Kiss the Blade” section IV (p. 151).
  • Even the pain of what had felt on occasion like an irretrievably broken heart had consistently proved less lasting than she’d initially imagined and expected; the revelation that a boy’s taste was so grotesquely deficient he could prefer somebody else to her always reduced both the intensity and the duration of the anguish her heart demanded be endured to mark such a loss of regard.
    • Chapter 6 “Pittance” section III (p. 180).
  • Look at these humans! How could such glacial slowness even be called life? An age could pass, virtual empires rise and fall in the time they took to open their mouths to utter some new inanity!
    • Chapter 7 “Tier” section II (p. 212).
  • If you have any helpful suggestions I’d be pleased to hear them. If all you can do is make snide insinuations then it would probably benefit all concerned if you bestowed the fruits of your prodigious wit on someone with the spare time to give them the consideration they doubtless deserve.
    • Chapter 7 “Tier” section III (p. 219).
  • Death, he remembered somebody saying once, was a kind of victory. To have lived a long good life, a life of prodigious pleasure and minimal misery, and then to die; that was to have won. To attempt to hang on forever risked ending up in some as-yet-unglimpsed horror future. What if you lived forever and all that had gone before, however terrible things had sometimes appeared to be in the past, however badly people had behaved to each other throughout history, was nothing compared to what was yet to come? Suppose in the great book of days that told the story of everything, all the gone, done past was merely a bright, happy introduction compared to the main body of the work, an unending tale of unbearable pain scraped in blood on a parchment of living skin?
    Better to die than risk that.
    Live well and then die, so that the you that is you now can never be again, and only tricks can re-create something that might think it is you, but is not.
    • Chapter 8 “Killing Time” section V (pp. 259-260).
  • That’s the trouble with people like them, I suppose; whenever you think you’re detecting the first signs of them starting to behave responsibly, it’s just them being even more devious and underhand than usual.
    • Chapter 8 “Killing Time” section V (p. 261).
  • I am, as I have always been, of the opinion that while the niceties of normal moral constraints should be our guides, they must not be our masters.
    • Chapter 8 “Killing Time” section VII (p. 269).
  • Maybe it wasn’t anything remotely to do with religion, mysticism or metaphilosophy after all; maybe it was more banal; maybe it was just...accounting.
    • Chapter 11 “Regarding Gravious” section VI (p. 364).
  • Any such inklings were like a few scattered grains of truth dissolved in an ocean of nonsense, and were anyway generally inextricably bound up with patently paranoid ravings which served only to devalue the small amounts of sense and pertinence with which they were associated.
    • Chapter 11 “Regarding Gravious” section VI (p. 365).
  • She supposed she ought to feel impressed that Genar-Hofoen was sticking to his principles in the face of imminent death—and she did feel a little admiration—but mostly she just thought he was being stupid.
    • Chapter 11 “Regarding Gravious” section VII (p. 369).
  • How depressing, the Sleeper Service thought. That it should all come down to this; the person with the biggest stick prevails.
    • Chapter 11 “Regarding Gravious” section X (p. 372).
Nominated for the 1998 British Science Fiction Award
All page numbers are from the trade paperback first edition published by Orbit ISBN 978-1-85723-763-4
  • The only sin is selfishness.
    • Prologue (p. 1; opening words)
  • That was another thing she taught me. That you are what you do. To Providence—or Progress or the Future or before any other sort of judgment apart from our own conscience—what we have done, not what we have thought, is the result we are judged by.
    • Prologue (p. 3)
  • Truth, I have learned, differs for everybody. Just as no two people ever see a rainbow in exactly the same place—and yet both most certainly see it, while the person seemingly standing right underneath it does not see it at all—so truth is a question of where one stands, and the direction one is looking in at the time.
    • Chapter 2 (p. 22)
  • “Some of us prefer history to legends, lady,” DeWar said heavily, “and sometimes everybody can be wrong.”
    • Chapter 2 (p. 37)
  • No! Get away from me, you wittering purple rogues! Away and become bankers the lot of you—admit what you really love!
    • Chapter 3 (p. 45)
  • “See if you can hold off this pack of blood-sucking scavengers. Here’s my duelling sword.” The King handed me his own sword! “You have full permission to use it on anyone who looks remotely like a physician.”
    • Chapter 3 (p. 47)
  • Pain, or even just discomfort, is like the warning sent by a frontier guard, sir. You are free to choose to ignore it, but you should not be unduly surprised if you are subsequently over-run by invaders.
    • Chapter 3 (p. 51)
  • You can draw the blinds in a brothel, but people still know what you’re doing.
    • Chapter 4 (p. 69)
  • Did the Doctor really imagine that everbody went around believing different things? One believed what one was told to believe, what it made sense to believe. Unless one was a foreigner, of course, or a philosopher.
    • Chapter 7 (pp. 125-126)
  • “I believe in Providence, mistress.”
    “But when you say Providence, do you really mean god?”
    “No, mistress. I don’t believe in any of the old gods. No one does any more. No one of sense, at any rate. Providence is the rule of laws, mistress,” I said.
    • Chapter 7 (p. 126)
  • Mocking the wisdom that comes with age is a fit sport only for those who expect never to attain much of it themselves.
    • Chapter 7 (p. 127)
  • Of course, she does seem to be a rather good doctor. At the very least she has done the King no obvious harm, and that in my experience is far more than one might reasonably expect from a court physician.
    • Chapter 7 (p. 130)
  • But there we are. Some things never do make perfect sense. There must be some explanation, and it is perhaps a little like the Doctrine of the Perfect Partner. We must be content to know that she exists, somewhere in the world, and try not to care overmuch that we will probably never meet her.
    • Chapter 7 (p. 132)
  • “I had formed the impression the Protector valued your counsel.”
    “It is most valued when it most closely accords with his own view.”
    • Chapter 8 (p. 140)
  • “Quettil, it doesn’t matter,” the King said airily, waving one hand. “I prefer accuracy to flattery.”
    • Chapter 9 (p. 158)
  • People often behave badly when they are trying to prove a point.
    • Chapter 10 (p. 177)
  • We only become beasts—we become worse than beasts—when we torment others.
    • Chapter 11 (p. 197)
  • “One does not spy on one’s own people,” ZeSpiole informed him. “One has, rather, conduits of communication which lead to the common man.”
    • Chapter 18 (p. 295)
  • There is always the right of the strong to take the weak and the rich to take the poor and the powerful to take those who have no power. UrLeyn may have written down our laws and changed a few of them, but the laws that still bind us to the animals cut the deepest. Men compete for power, they strut and parade and they impress their fellows with their possessions and they take the women they can. None of that has changed. They may use weapons other than their hands and teeth, they may use other men and they may express their dominance in money, not other symbols of power and glamour, but...
    • Chapter 20 (p. 335)
  • What I know was passed to me by others, and so must surrender the toll which information tends to pay when it passes through the minds and memories of others.
    • Chapter 23 (p. 371)
  • Perhaps my certainty is misplaced.
    • Epilogue (p. 399)
  • I am told he is something of a scholar, which is no bad thing in a king, providing it is not taken to excess.
    • Epilogue (p. 402)
All page numbers are from the 2012 trade paperback edition published by Orbit ISBN 978-1-84149-059-5, 10th printing
All spelling, italics, and punctuation as in the book
  • Oh, they never lie. They dissemble, evade, prevaricate, confound, confuse, distract, obscure, subtly misrepresent and wilfully misunderstand with what often appears to be a positively gleeful relish and are generally perfectly capable of contriving to give one an utterly unambiguous impression of their future course of action while in fact intending to do exactly the opposite, but they never lie. Perish the thought.
    • Chapter 1 “The Light of Ancient Mistakes” (p. 25)
  • We always want more, he thought, we always take our past successes for granted and assume they point the way to future triumphs. But the universe does not have our own best interests at heart, and to assume for a moment that it does, ever did or ever might is to make the most calamitous and hubristic of mistakes.
    • Chapter 2 “Winter Storm” (p. 36)
  • The background to the war, my studious Homomdan pal, is three thousand years of ruthless oppression, cultural imperialism, economic exploitation, systematic torture, sexual tyranny and the cult of greed ingrained almost to the point of genetic inheritability.
    • Chapter 3 “Infra Dawn” (p. 66)
  • Is your own existence so replete with equanimity you find no outlet for worry except on behalf of others?
    • Chapter 3 “Infra Dawn” (p. 67)
  • Oh, yeah, this Ziller guy. Some spoiled, fur-rending liberal brat who thinks it’s his God-given duty to do the whining for those who can’t be bothered whining for themselves.
    • Chapter 4a “Scorched Ground” (p. 73)
  • “They spend time. That’s just it. They spend time traveling. The time weighs heavily on them because they lack any context, any valid framework for their lives. They persist in hoping that something they think they’ll find in the place they’re heading for will somehow provide them with a fulfilment they feel certain they deserve and yet have never come close to experiencing.”
    Ziller frowned and tapped at his pipe bowl. “Some travel forever in hope and are serially disappointed. Others, slightly less self-deceiving, come to accept that the process of travelling itself offers, if not fulfilment, then relief from the feeling that they should be feeling fulfilled.”
    • Chapter 5 “A Very Attractive System” (p. 113)
  • “The point is,” Ziller said, “that having carefully constructed their paradise from first principles to remove all credible motives for conflict amongst themselves and all natural threats...Well, almost all natural threats, these people then find their lives are so hollow they have to recreate false versions of just the sort of terrors untold generations of their ancestors spend their existences attempting to conquer.”
    • Chapter 5 “A Very Attractive System” (p. 114; ellipsis represents a one-sentence elision of description)
  • I’m supposed to be at this sort of thing but even I find it pretty damn tedious at times. Still, receptions and parties are pan-cultural, so we’re told. I’ve never been sure whether to be reassured or appalled by that.
    • Chapter 8a “The Retreat at Cadracet” (p. 154)
  • “What, now?”
    “Soon equates to good, later to worse, Uagen Zlepe, scholar. Therefore, immediacy.”
    • Chapter 8b “Dirigible” (p. 176)
  • Believe me; democracy in action can be an unpretty sight.
    • Chapter 8c “The Memory of Running” (p. 198)
  • “The point is: what happens in heaven?”
    “Unknowable wonderfulness?”
    “Nonsense. The answer is nothing. Nothing can happen because if something happens, in fact if something can happen, then it doesn’t represent eternity. Our lives are about development, mutation and the possibility of change; that is almost a definition of what life is: change.”
    “Have you always thought that?”
    If you disable change, if you effectively stop time, if you prevent the possibility of the alteration of an individual’s circumstances—and that must include at least the possibility that they alter for the worse—then you don’t have life after death; you just have death.”
    “There are those who believe that after death the soul is recreated into another being.”
    “That is conservative and a little stupid, certainly, but not actually idiotic.”
    “And there are those who believe that, upon death, the soul is allowed to create its own universe.”
    “Monomaniacal and laughable as well as provably wrong.”
    “There there are those who believe that the soul—”
    “Well, there are all sorts of different beliefs. However, the ones that interest me are those concerning the idea of heaven. That’s the idiocy it annoys me that others cannot see.”
    • Chapter 11 “Absence of Gravitas” (pp. 229-230)
  • Are you really as ignorant as you appear, Trelsen, or is this some sort of bizarre act, perhaps even meant to be amusing?
    • Chapter 11 “Absence of Gravitas” (p. 231)
  • “Oh. I didn’t realise.”
    “Then you’re simply ignorant rather than malevolent. Congratulations.”
    • Chapter 11 “Absence of Gravitas” (p. 231)
  • “You serious?”
    “I’m always serious, never more so than when I’m being flippant.”
    • Chapter 11 “Absence of Gravitas” (p. 231)
  • “But even if all the other stuff seems a bit esoteric, just think of all those other avatars at all those other gatherings, concerts, dances, ceremonies, parties and meals; think of all that talk, all those ideas, all that sparkle and wit!”
    “Think of all that bullshit, the nonsense and non-sequiturs, the self-aggrandisement and self-deception, the boring stupid nonsense, the pathetic attempts to impress or ingratiate, the slow-wittedness, the incomprehension and the incomprehensible, the gland-addled meanderings and general suffocating dullness.”
    • Chapter 11 “Absence of Gravitas” (p. 245)
  • “It must be a burden, not even being able to say you were just obeying orders.”
    “Well, that is always a lie, or a sign you are fighting for an unworthy cause, or still have a very long way to develop civilisationally.”
    • Chapter 13 “Some Ways of Dying” (p. 312)
  • “Elated? Pleased?”
    “Those are the closest words. There is an undeniable elation in causing mayhem, in bringing about such massive destruction. As for feeling pleased, I felt pleasure that some of those who died did so because they were stupid enough to believe in gods or afterlives that do not exist, even though I felt a terrible sorrow for them as they died in their ignorance and thanks to their folly.”
    • Chapter 13 “Some Ways of Dying” (p. 315)
  • Never forget I am not this silver body, Mahrai. I am not an animal brain, I am not even some attempt to produce an AI through software running on a computer. I am a Culture Mind. We are close to gods, and on the far side.
    We are quicker; we live faster and more completely than you do, with so many more senses, such a greater store of memories and at such a fine level of detail. We die more slowly, and we die more completely, too.
    • Chapter 13 “Some Ways of Dying” (p. 316)
  • Did you know that true subjective time is measured in the minimum duration of demonstrably separate thoughts?
    • Chapter 13 “Some Ways of Dying” (p. 316)
  • Just as I need never wonder what it is like to die, so I need never wonder what it is like to kill, Ziller, because I have done it, and it is a wasteful, graceless, worthless and hateful thing to have to do.
    • Chapter 13 “Some Ways of Dying” (p. 317)
  • When it was first revealed that each of our own deaths had to be balanced by that of an enemy—
    ~ It wasn’t revealed, Huyler. It was made up. It was a tale we told ourselves, not something the gods graced us with.
    • Chapter 14 “Returning to Leave, Recalling Forgetting” (p. 335)
  • There is an old Sysan saying that the soup of life is salty enough without adding tears to it.
    • Chapter 14 “Returning to Leave, Recalling Forgetting”
  • ~ Want to know one ugly thought?
    ~ Are there not enough in the world already?
    ~ Assuredly. But sometimes ugly thoughts can be prevented from becoming ugly deeds by exposing them.
    ~ If you say so.
    ~ One should always ask who has most to gain.
    • Chapter 16a “Expiring Light” (p. 382)
All page numbers are from the February 2009 first trade paperback edition published by Orbit ISBN 978-0-316-00537-1, 2nd printing
All spelling, italics, and punctuation as in the book
  • Roundly insulting one’s superiors behind their backs was one of the perks of being inferior, Choubris held.
    • Chapter 3 “Folly” (p. 44)
  • Holse had no idea how these things worked; he had never really bothered with religion, though he had always paid lip-service to the church for the sake of an easy life. He had long suspected that the WorldGod was just another convenient semi-fiction supporting the whole structure that sustained the rich and powerful in their privilege.
    • Chapter 6 “Scholastery” (p. 101)
  • “Fate, I tell you, if not the hand of the WorldGod itself…or whatever manipulatory appendage WorldGods possess. Anyway, the hand, metaphorically, of the WorldGod. Possibly.”
    “I think you underguess the workings of blind chance, sir.”
    • Chapter 8 “Tower” (p. 132)
  • This version felt like the truth, she thought; close enough to the myths and legends of her own people, but less self-serving, less dramatically glorious, more equivocal in its moral implications.
    • Chapter 10 “A Certain Lack” (p. 166)
  • Ultimately the galaxy, indeed the sum of the universe in its entirety, was mostly nothing; average it all out and it made a pretty good vacuum. But within the foci of matter there were the systems, the stars and planets and habitats—what a cornucopia of life was there!
    • Chapter 10 “A Certain Lack” (p. 167)
  • Life buzzed in, fumed about, rattled around and quite thoroughly infested the entire galaxy, and probably—almost certainly—well beyond. The vast ongoingness of it all somehow put all one’s own petty concerns and worries into context, making them seem not irrelevant but of much less distressing immediacy. Context was indeed all, as her father had always insisted, but the greater context she was learning about acted to shrink the vast-seeming scale of the Eighth Level of Sursamen and all its wars, politics, disputes, struggles, tribulations and vexations until it all looked very far away and trivial indeed.
    • Chapter 10 “A Certain Lack” (p. 167)
  • Had they felt righteous, believing that the justice of their cause was being recognized by higher powers? For no doubt that was how they did think. It seemed to tyl Loesp everybody always thought they were right, and shared, too, the quaint belief that the very fervency of a belief, however deluded, somehow made it true.
    They were all of them fools.
    There was no right and wrong, there was simply effectiveness and inability, might and weakness, cunning and gullibility. That he knew this was his advantage, but it was one of better understanding, not moral superiority—he had no delusions there.
    • Chapter 11 “Bare, Night” (p. 190)
  • Ideas about what happened after you died varied even among the priestly cast. Primitives were able to have more straightforward religions because they didn’t know any better. Once you knew even a little of the reality of the situation in the outside universe, it all got a bit more complex: there were lots of aliens and they all had—or had once had—their own myths and religions. Some aliens were immortal; some had constructed their own fully functional afterlives, where the deceased—recorded, transcribed—ended up after death; some had made thinking machines that had their own sets of imponderable and semi-godlike powers; some just were gods, like the WorldGod, for example, and some had Sublimed, which itself was arguably a form of ascension to Godhead.
    • Chapter 12 “Cumuloform” (p. 206)
  • Ferbin’s father had had the same robustly pragmatic view of religion as he’d had of everything else. In his opinion, only the very poor and downtrodden really needed religion, to make their laborious lives more bearable. People craved self-importance; they longed to be told they mattered as individuals, not just as part of a mass of people or some historical process. They needed the reassurance that while their life might be hard, bitter and thankless, some reward would be theirs after death. Happily for the governing class, a well-formed faith also kept people from seeking their recompense in the here and now, through riot, insurrection or revolution.
    A temple was worth a dozen barracks; a militia man carrying a gun could control a small unarmed crowd only for as long as he was present; however, a single priest could put a policeman inside the head of every one of their flock, for ever.
    • Chapter 12 “Cumuloform” (p. 206)
  • Most men—most women, too, no doubt—lived and died under the general weight of the drives and needs, expectations and demands they experienced from within and without, beaten this way and that by longings for sex, love, admiration, comfort, importance and wealth and whatever else was their particular fancy, as well as being at the same time channelled into whatever furrows were deemed appropriate for them by those on high.
    In life you hoped to do what you could but mostly you did what you were told and that was the end of it.
    • Chapter 15 “The Hundredth Idiot” (p. 281)
  • “The source of my name,” the vehicle had replied, “The Hundredth Idiot, is a quotation: ’One hundred idiots make idiotic plans and carry them out. All but one justly fail. The hundredth idiot, whose plan succeeded through pure luck, is immediately convinced he’s a genius.’ It is an old proverb.”
    • Chapter 15 “The Hundredth Idiot” (p. 281)
  • Really we’re no better—you’re no better—than the savages. They always find excuses to justify their crimes, too. The point is not to commit them in the first place.
    • Chapter 16 “Seed Drill” (p. 292)
  • On this purely practical issue he judged massacre wasteful and even contrary as a method of control. Fear lasted a week, anger a year and resentment a lifetime, he’d held.
    • Chapter 17 “Departures” (p. 305)
  • Even galaxy-spanning anarchist utopias of stupefying full-spectrum civilisational power have turf wars within their unacknowledged militaries.
    • Chapter 18 “The Current Emergency” (p. 333)
  • I do what I can to make this war as humane in its inhumanity as I can, and in any case, I always know that however bad it may be, its sheer unnecessary awfulness at least helps guarantee that we are profoundly not in some designed and overseen universe and so have escaped the demeaning and demoralising fate of existing solely within some simulation.
    • Chapter 18 “The Current Emergency” (p. 345)
  • How goes your peace conference?
    Slowly. Having exhausted the possibilities of every other form of mass-murder they could possibly employ against each other, the natives now appear intent on boring each other to death. They may finally have discovered their true calling.
    • Chapter 19 “Dispatches” (p. 355)
  • We’ve filled the known universe with credulous idiots and we think we’ve sneakily contributed to our own safety by making it hard for anything untoward to creep in under our sensor coverage whereas in fact we’ve just made sure we harvest zillions of false positives and probably made the really serious shit harder to spot when it does eventually come flying.
    • Chapter 19 “Dispatches” (p. 357)
  • But are we within likelihood? Batra asked. Are we even still within the realm of anything other than paranoid lunacy?
    • Chapter 19 “Dispatches” (p. 357)
  • He was almost unbearably attractive. Djan Seriy had therefore naturally gone instantly to what she regarded as her highest alert state of suspicion.
    • Chapter 20 “Inspiral, Coalescence, Ringdown” (p. 368)
  • He might have been blushing. “I’m sorry. You live there. I don’t need to tell you how fabulous they are.”
    “Well, for me it is—was—just home. When one grows up in a place, no matter how exotic it may seem to others, it is still where all the usual banalities and indignities of childhood occurred. Home is always the norm. It is everywhere else that is marvellous.”
    • Chapter 20 “Inspiral, Coalescence, Ringdown” (p. 369)
  • Stick to the plan. Not just obey orders. If you were being asked to do something according to a plan, then the way the Culture saw it, you should have had at least some say in what that plan actually was. And if circumstances changed during the course of trying to follow that plan then you were expected to have the initiative and the judgment to alter the plan and act accordingly. You didn’t keep on blindly obeying orders when, due to an alteration in context, the orders were in obvious contradiction to the attainment of whatever goal it was you were pursuing, or when they violated either common sense or common decency. You were still responsible, in other words.
    • Chapter 20 “Inspiral, Coalescence, Ringdown” (p. 381)
  • It seemed at first glance like utter madness, yet it also, when one thought about it, appeared somehow no less implausible than any other explanation of how things truly were, and it had a sort of completeness about it that stifled argument. Assuming that every branching fork on the Universe map was taken randomly, all would still somehow be well; the likely things would always outnumber the unlikely and vastly outnumber the ludicrous, so as a rule things would happen much as one expected, with the occasional surprise and the very rare moment of utter incredulity.
    Pretty much as life generally was, in other words, in his experience. This was at once oddly satisfactory, mildly disappointing and strangely reassuring to Holse; fate was as fate was, and that was it.
    He immediately wondered how you could cheat.
    • Chapter 21 “Many Worlds” (p. 387)
  • “Well, it all sounds most unpleasant,” Droffo said. He shook his head. “You hear all sorts of ridiculous stories; the workers are full of them. Too much drink, too little learning.”
    “No, more than that, sir,” Neguste told him. “These are facts.”
    “I think I might dispute that,” Droffo said.
    “All the same, sir, facts is facts. That itself’s a fact.”
    • Chapter 22 “The Falls” (p. 421)
  • He was starting to change his mind about the old Warrior Code stuff knights and princes invoked, usually when they were drunk and in need of spilling their words, or trying to justify their poor behavior in some other field.
    Behave honourably and wish for a good death. He always dismissed it as self-serving bullshit, frankly; most of the people he’d been told were his betters were quite venally dishonourable, and the more they got the more the greedy bastards wanted, while those that weren’t like that were better behaved at least partly because they could afford to be.
    Was it more honourable to starve than to steal? Many people would say yes, the rarely those who’d actually experienced an empty belly, or a child whimpering with its own hunger. Was it more honourable to starve than to steal when others had the means to feed you but chose not to, unless you paid with money you did not have? He thought not. By choosing to starve you became your own oppressor, keeping yourself in line, harming yourself for having the temerity to be poor, when by rights that ought to be a constable’s job. Show any initiative or imagination and you were called lazy, shifty, crafty, incorrigible. So he’d dismissed talk of honour; it was just a way of making the rich and powerful feel better about themselves and the powerless and poverty-stricken feel worse.
    • Chapter 27 “The Core” (pp. 549-550)
  • A good death. Well, he thought, given that you had to die, why want a bad one?
    • Chapter 27 “The Core” (p. 551)
  • I was toying with the idea of having to give up writing SF in the relatively near future, not because I wanted to but because I felt I’d have to. I think you get fewer ideas as you get older, and even though you get better at using and developing the few you do have, that’s not enough. Written SF relies heavily on ideas—you can write a perfectly good mainstream novel with no original ideas at all; you just have to tell an interesting story with interesting characters who have something to say. I don’t mean that as a criticism either: that encompasses perfectly valid, rich, and rewarding literary forms, but you can’t get away with that in science fiction. You have to have completely new ideas in there somewhere or it doesn’t really cut it as proper SF, and I was concerned about that.
    • Interview (p. 601; freestanding interview with the author; not part of the text of the book)
  • I think that humanity is just too tied up with the physical, anchored into the setting, if you like; who you are is actually about your entire position within the world you inhabit. Consciousness is like an abstract of that framework, it’s not just the bit in your head. AIs, yes; almost a given. I find it hard to understand that anyone could argue that you can’t have machines that exhibit consciousness; it’s a weird attitude unless you subscribe to the superstition that you have to have a supernatural soul to exhibit consciousness. Saying that the material world is incapable of forming a substrate for sentience or intelligence seems nonsense to me. We, as human beings, are made up of matter, and we exhibit intelligence (well… but anyway). We start from nothing bigger than a sperm and an egg, after all, and then just have lots more matter added. It’s astonishing and wonderful, and we in a sense, rightly talk about the miracle of birth. But for goodness’ sake, ultimately it’s just evolution and applied biochemistry. I believe matter can provide a home for consciousness—it seems perverse to argue that only biology is capable of this.
    • Interview (p. 603)
All page numbers are from the May 2011 first trade paperback edition published by Orbit ISBN 978-0-316-12341-9, first printing
All spelling, italics, and punctuation as in the book
  • Lededje formed the uncomfortable impression that the other woman was trying hard to be reassuring. This had never proved to be a good sign in Lededje’s past and she seriously doubted the pattern was about to change now.
    • Chapter 5 (p. 66)
  • Almost every developing species had a creation myth buried somewhere in its past, even if by the time they’d become space-faring it was no more than a quaint and dusty irrelevance (though, granted, some were downright embarrassing). Talking utter drivel about thunderclouds having sex with the sun, lonely old sadists inventing something to amuse themselves with, a big fish spawning the stars, planets, moons and your own ever-so-special People – or whatever other nonsense had wandered into the most likely feverish mind of the enthusiast who had come up with the idea in the first place – at least showed you were interested in trying to provide an explanation for the world around you, and so was generally held to be a promising first step towards coming up with the belief system that provably worked and genuinely did produce miracles: reason, science and technology.
    • Chapter 8 (pp. 121-122)
  • The majority of species, too, could scrape together some sort of metaphysical framework, a form of earlier speculation – semi-deranged or otherwise – regarding the way things worked at a fundamental level which could later be held up as a philosophy, life-rule system or genuine religion, especially if one used the excuse that it was really only a metaphor, no matter how literally true it had declared itself to be originally.
    • Chapter 8 (p. 122)
  • Most species capable of forming an opinion on the subject had a pretty high opinion of themselves, and most individuals in such species tended to think it was a matter of some considerable importance whether they personally survived or not. Faced with the inevitable struggles and iniquities attendant upon a primitive life, it could be argued that it was an either very gloomy, unimaginative, breathtakingly stoic or just plain dim species that didn’t come up with the idea that what could feel like an appallingly short, brutal and terrifying life was somehow not all there was to existence, and that a better one awaited them, personally and collectively – allowing for certain eligibility requirements – after death.
    • Chapter 8 (p. 122)
  • Naturally, also, both sides were convinced they had right on their side, not that either was remotely naive enough to think that that had any possible bearing on the outcome whatsoever.
    • Chapter 8 (p. 134)
  • “There are no guarantees in war,” Green said.
    “Oh, there are,” blue said quietly, looking away into the darkness. “It’s just that they guarantee death, destruction, suffering, heartache and remorse.”
    • Chapter 8 (p. 140)
  • Utility is seven-eighths Proximity.
    • Chapter 10 (p. 214)
  • I hope I did not alarm you unduly with my little display last night. I get into character sometimes, find it hard to know when I’m causing distress. My apologies, if any are required. If not, then please accept them in any event, on account, to be banked against any future transgression.
    • Chapter 12 (p. 232)
  • He was not what he appeared to be.
    He was beginning to wonder if he had ever been.
    The ice inside the water planet did not exist; neither did the water planet itself, nor the star it orbited nor the galaxy beyond nor anything of what appeared to be real no matter how far out you might think you were looking. Nor how far in you looked, either. Peer into anything closely enough and you would find only the same graininess that the Real exhibited; the smallest units of measurement were the same in both realms, whether it was of time or extent or mass.
    For some people, of course, this meant the Real itself was not really real, not in the sense of being genuinely the last un-simulated bedrock of actuality. According to this view everybody was already in a pre-existing simulation but simply unaware of it, and the faithful, accurate virtual worlds they were so proud of creating were just simulations within a simulation.
    That way though, arguably, madness lay. Or a kind of lassitude through acceptance that could be exploited. There were few better ways of knocking the fight out of people than by convincing them that life was a joke, a contrivance under somebody else’s ultimate control, and nothing of what they thought or did really mattered.
    • Chapter 13 (pp. 246-247)
  • Some problems were generational; you just had to wait for the relevant elders to die off and be replaced with more progressive types. With luck.
    • Chapter 13 (p. 257)
  • Filhyn smiled. “Is it not always better to tell the truth though, Representative?”
    Errun looked at her, shook his head. “The truth? No matter what? For good or ill? Are you mad? I do hope you’re having a joke with me here, young lady….Don’t pretend you are so naive, Filhyn. The truth is not always useful, not always good. It’s like putting your faith in water. Yes, we need the rain, but too much can sweep you away in a flood and drown you. Like all great natural, elemental forces, the truth needs to be channelled, managed, controlled and intelligently, morally allocated.” He glared at her. “You are having a joke with me, aren’t you?”
    I might as well be, she thought. She wondered if she would finally be a real politician when she agreed with what Errun was saying.
    • Chapter 13 (p. 260; ellipsis represents the elision of one sentence of description)
  • And what was glory but something that reduced the more there were of you to share it?
    • Chapter 13 (p. 262)
  • I’m negotiating a tricky course between the minefield of personal honesty on one side and the rocky coast of operational security on the other.
    • Chapter 16 (p. 292)
  • I’m just puzzled why I’m here. All I can think of is you still want to know something else. Or is this just the first circle of Hell? Do I stay here for ever being bored to death?
    • Chapter 17 (p. 311)
  • I beg to differ, as those who are right have always begged to differ from those who are wrong but refuse to admit it.
    • Chapter 17 (p. 327)
  • “Chay, you must be quiet now, and prepare to meet your maker.”
    “I had no maker. My maker was the universe, or my parents.”
    • Chapter 19 (p. 369)
  • They looked happy as zealots who’d just found a heathen to burn, Veppers thought. That was a little worrying.
    • Chapter 20 (p. 390)
  • “You’d make a great teenage boy,” she told the avatar.
    “I beg your pardon?”
    “You still think girls get moist when they hear arcane nomenclature. It’s sweet, I suppose.”
    • Chapter 21 (p. 410)
  • The avatar laughed, raised his eyebrows at her. “Golly. What shall we do, Lededje?”
    She thought. “The smartest thing?” she suggested.
    • Chapter 21 (p. 417)
  • “I suppose I’d only be exposing my hopeless naivety if I asked if there was some alternative to this.”
    “It would be more of a hopeless inability to come to terms with reality,” the avatar told her.
    • Chapter 21 (p. 418)
  • There now; cynical, paranoid and pessimistic. I think that completes the set, doesn’t it?
    • Chapter 22 (p. 428)
  • Backed up, tooled up, riled up. Time to waste something.
    • Chapter 22 (p. 432)
  • Hell was always for other people.
    • Chapter 22 (p. 435)
  • Prin let the old one witter on. They could make him stay in here, stop him from leaving and stop him from offering any violence to this dream-image of the old representative, but they couldn’t stop his attention from wandering. The techniques learned in lecture theatres and later honed to perfection in faculty meetings were proving their real worth at last. He could vaguely follow what was being said without needing to bother with the detail.
    When he’d been a student he had assumed he could do this because he was just so damn smart and basically already knew pretty much all they were trying to teach him. Later, during seemingly endless committee sessions, he’d accepted that a lot of what passed for useful information-sharing within an organisation was really just the bureaucratic phatic of people protecting their position, looking for praise, projecting criticism, setting up positions of non-responsibility for up-coming failures and calamities that were both entirely predictable but seemingly completely unavoidable, and telling each other what they all already knew anyway. The trick was to be able to re-engage quickly and seamlessly without allowing anyone to know you’d stopped listening properly shortly after the speaker had first opened their mouth.
    • Chapter 22 (p. 440)
  • Your position is perverse, farcical and as intellectually demeaning as it is morally destitute.
    • Chapter 22 (p. 445)
  • “I hear what you say,” Prin told him, keeping calm.… “It’s nonsense, of course, but it is interesting to know that you hold such views.”
    • Chapter 22 (p. 446; ellipsis represents the elision of a brief descriptive passage)
  • To a gun, all problems resolved into what could be shot at.
    • Chapter 22 (p. 450)
  • “Then what,” Lededje asked, trying to keep her voice cold and not get caught up in the avatar’s obvious enthusiasm, “is making you smile about a disaster?”
    “Well, first, I didn’t cause it! Nothing to do with me; hands clean. Always a bonus.
    • Chapter 23 (p. 468)
  • The meeting was a benign environment; potentially just as tremendously boring as war, but without the slivers of utter terror stuck in there as well.
    • Chapter 23 (p. 478)
  • Very quick deaths, even given that they would have been wired in and speeded up, if I may just leap in front of any nascent and entirely vicarious moral qualms you may be about to suffer from, tiny human. Military personnel, babe; put themselves in harm’s way when they signed up. Just that the poor fuckers didn’t know it was my harm they were putting themselves in the way of. That’s war, doll; fairness comes excluded.
    • Chapter 24 (p. 509)
  • Maybe it was immature to lust after revenge, but fuck that; let the fuckers die horribly.
    Well, let them die.
    She’d compromise that far.
    Evil wins when it makes you behave like it, and all that.
    • Chapter 25 (p. 518)
  • I imagine my sorrow for your loss will prove containable.
    • Chapter 28 (p. 584)
  • Don’t you think it’s hilarious when people think they’re being terribly clever? I know I do. Just as well some of us genuinely fucking are or we’d be in a hell of a fucking state.
    • Chapter 28 (p. 594)
  • On the other hand it could have been worse. And arguably one way of making it worse would be to admit just how badly things had actually gone.
    • Dramatis Personae (p. 622)
  • That was the thing about traitors: they were people who’d already changed their minds at least once.
    • Epilogue (p. 626)
All page numbers are from the September 2013 first trade paperback edition published by Orbit ISBN 978-0-316-21236-6, first printing
All spelling, italics, ellipses, and punctuation as in the book. All bold face as in the book, and represents comments by or conversations among AIs.
  • “His opinion was: ‘as a challenge, without peer. As music, without merit.’”
    • Chapter 2 (p. 33)
  • Old equals sneaky.
    • Chapter 5 (p. 78)
  • It rarely paid to frighten the masses, and it never paid to confuse them.
    • Chapter 6 (p. 92)
  • Never underestimate the sheer selfishness and stupidity of people.
    • Chapter 6 (p. 92)
  • Of course there were doubts about it, there always had been; when you found out about all the other holy books there had ever been throughout the histories of other peoples throughout the galaxy, you realised how common they were, and how fallible, how restricted they were by the usual tribal prejudices and traditions of the people who – it took real blind faith not to accept – had made them up.
    • Chapter 7 (p. 111)
  • The reaction was…mixed. Some people…hated it…others…really hated it.
    • Chapter 7 (p. 124)
  • He, Tik…hated clashing, atonal music. He was basically…taking the piss, showing how…easy it was to write…how difficult to…listen to.
    • Chapter 7 (p. 127)
  • One should never mistake pattern…for meaning.
    • Chapter 7 (p. 127)
  • All of which might make things a little difficult operationally

    Understood. Life is limitations.

    And glibness, patently, on occasion, too. Your pardon, but I sense motions being gone through.

    On occasion, a superfluity of assiduousness can be vulgar.
    • Chapter 8 (p. 145)
  • The Real – with its vast volumes of nothing between the planets, stars, systems and galaxies – was basically mostly vacuum; an averaged near-nothing incapable of true complexity due to its inescapable impoverishment of structure and the sheer overwhelming majority of nothingness over substance.
    • Chapter 8 (p. 149)
  • “I shall take that as meaning I am not being too hopelessly foolish.”
    “You may still be, but then so may I.”
    “Yes, well, let’s not make a competition out of it.”
    • Chapter 8 (p. 151)
  • We are largely the sum of all we’ve done, and to dispose of that knowledge would be to stop being one’s self.
    • Chapter 10 (p. 174)
  • She hadn’t forgotten all her military training; one point she certainly recalled being taught was that anything that looked like an outrageous coincidence was probably enemy action.
    • Chapter 10 (p. 177)
  • We really are taking this person’s existence as being a fact, not a myth?

    We are. It turns out that the myth which has been so carefully fostered is that his existence is mythical.
    • Chapter 11 (p. 200)
  • Here’s some thing we don’t know but we can maybe find out, and it’s something that other people don’t want us to know. How much more seductive can you get?
    • Chapter 11 (p. 202)
  • “Anyway, it was all terribly well organised. Done with military precision.” He barked a laugh. “Better than that, actually; didn’t miss and hit their own people.”
    • Chapter 11 (p. 204)
  • “So why are we bothering?”
    “Just in case.”
    “Just in case what?”
    “Just in case it turns out to be something we should have bothered about. Always try to avoid setting up future opportunities for kicking yourself.”
    • Chapter 11 (p. 207)
  • “So,” she said, “living all this time has been to no purpose, basically.”
    “True, but that hardly distinguishes me from anybody else, does it?”
    “But shouldn’t it, or there’s no point?”
    “No. Living either never has any point, or is always its own point; being a naturally cheery soul, I lean toward the latter. However, just having done more of it than another person doesn’t really make much difference.”
    • Chapter 11 (p. 210)
  • “Well,” the voice said, seemingly oblivious, “one thing that does happen when you live a long time is that you start to realise the essential futility of so much that we do, especially when you see the same patterns of behaviour repeated by succeeding generations and across different species. You see the same dreams, the same hopes, the same ambitions and aspirations, reiterated, and the same actions, the same courses and tactics and strategies, regurgitated, to the same predictable and often lamentable effects, and you start to think, So? Does it really matter? Why really are you bothering with all this? Are these not just further doomed, asinine ways of attempting to fill your vacuous, pointless existence, wedged slivered as it is between the boundless infinitudes of dark oblivion bookending its utter triviality?”
    “Uh-huh,” she said. “Is this a rhetorical question?”
    “It is a mistaken question. Meaning is everywhere. There is always meaning. Or at least all things show a disturbing tendency to have meaning ascribed to them when intelligent creatures are present. It’s just that there’s no final Meaning, with a capital M. Though the illusion that there might be is comforting for a certain class of mind.”
    • Chapter 11 (pp. 210-211)
  • “I take comfort in the loyalty and faith you display towards your crew, Captain.”
    “My crew are loyal to me, Colonel; I am only loyal to the regiment and Gzilt. Also, faith is belief without reason; we operate on reason and nothing but. I have zero faith in my crew, just absolute confidence.”
    • Chapter 12 (p. 249)
  • “The person concerned sounds – to be polite – eccentric.”
    “That would be polite to the point of over-generosity,” Tefwe said. “Awkward, tetchy and unreasonable might be closer to the truth.”
    • Chapter 13 (p. 263)
  • “I do believe my sarcasm-meter just twitched.”
    “A false positive, I fear. I was being entirely sincere.”
    • Chapter 15 (p. 291)
  • “That seems obsessive.”
    “Meticulous care can seem so to those unwilling to recognise it for its true worth.”
    • Chapter 15 (p. 295)
  • Ignorance can be interesting.

    Also fatal.
    • Chapter 16 (p. 303)
  • Obsession is just what those too timorous to follow an idea through to its logical conclusion call determination.
    • Chapter 16 (p. 308)
  • Trust me; it is rarely an encouraging sign when the more apparel is removed, the less attractive a prospective sexual partner becomes.
    • Chapter 16 (p. 316)
  • I have lived ten thousand years; I am used to it. Lovers dying, civilisations dying…one develops a certain god-like indifference to it all, intellectually.
    • Chapter 16 (p. 317)
  • Ah, dear. How fine the line is between acceptably defiant bravado and hopelessly delusional boasting.
    • Chapter 17 (p. 361)
  • Promises take many shapes, and the more…momentous they are, the more they might look like threats. All great promises are threats, I suppose, to the way things have been until that point, to some aspect of our lives, and we all suddenly become conservative, even though we want and need what the promise holds, and look forward to the promised change at the same time.
    • Chapter 18 (p. 388)
  • We all think we’re special, and in a way we are, but, at the same time, that feeling of being special is one of the things that’s common to us all, that unites us and makes us the same as each other. And when that feeling of…specialness is questioned, we feel threatened, naturally.
    • Chapter 18 (pp. 388-389)
  • The news channels are spasming, or frothing, or whatever it is they do.
    • Chapter 19 (p. 394)
  • “I have buffed and polished my medals for decades of steady, dedicated watchfulness,” the marshal continued, clasping her hands behind her head as she leaned back and relaxed, legs crossed, “counted and re-counted my medals for outstanding work in simulations and exercises, carefully rearranged my medals for heroic bravery under virtual fire, and even found room for my many, many medals for exemplary valour in the face of fellow officers coveting the same promotions as I.”
    • Chapter 21 (p. 443)
  • “Have you always been so suspicious, Banstegeyn?”
    He looked at her, unsmiling. “No, I stumbled into a position of great power quite by accident.”
    • Chapter 21 (p. 443)
  • One should never regret one’s excesses, only one’s failures of nerve.
    • Chapter 22 (p. 462)
  • ~My full name is the Mistake Not My Current State Of Joshing Gentle Peevishness For The Awesome And Terrible Majesty Of The Towering Seas Of Ire That Are Themselves The Mere Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans Of Wrath. Cool, eh?
    • Chapter 23 (p. 502)
  • The truth is the truth. You tell it even when it hurts or it loses value even when it doesn’t.
    • Chapter 23 (p. 505)

Non-Culture Novels

All page numbers are from the trade paperback edition published by Orbit ISBN 1-85723-179-1 in 1995
All italics and ellipses as in the book, unless otherwise noted
  • “No, Geis, it doesn’t wear off. Like certain exotic diseases, and unlike love, synchroneurobonding is for life.”
    Geis lowered his eyes. “You weren’t always so cynical about love.”
    “As they say; ignorance pays.”
    • Chapter 1 “Overture” (p. 15)
  • “Put plainly, I am not at liberty to divulge that information. There, it is said. Let us quickly move on from this unfortunate quantum of dissonance to the ground-state of accord which I trust will inform our future relationship.”
    “So you’re not going to tell me.” Sharrow nodded.
    “My dear lady,” the machine said, continuing to trundle after her. “Without saying so in so many words...correct.”
    • Chapter 1 “Overture” (p. 19)
  • “How are you?”
    “I am here.”
    “Apart from that,” she said levelly.
    “There is no apart from that.”
    • Chapter 2 “The Chain Gallery” (p. 38)
  • Geis is a pain, Sharrow; the guy has a kind of charming facade but basically he’s a social inadequate whose real place in life is out mugging pensioners and cheating and beating on his girlfriends, and if he had three more names and been raised in a rookery in the The Meg rather than the nursery at house Tzant, that’s exactly what he would be doing. Instead he jumps out of the commercial equivalent of dark allies, strips companies and fucks their employees. He’s got no idea how real people work so he plays the market instead; he’s a rich kid who thinks the banks and courts and Corps are his construction set and he doesn’t want anybody else to play. He wants you the way he wants a sexy company, as a bauble, a scalp, something to display. Never get beholden to people like that, they’ll piss on you and then charge irrigation fees.
    • Chapter 3 “Echo Street” (p. 52)
  • “Anyway,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
    “Indeed. I can see contrition oozing from your every pore.”
    • Chapter 3 “Echo Street” (p. 59)
  • Perhaps it was simply bad luck, but despite the fact the sheer capability of the Guns ought to have ensured their owner could effectively become ruler of the entire system, the weapons had invariably been the downfall of whoever had come into possession of them.
    • Chapter 6 “Solo” (p. 109)
  • “Aah...Yes, and how does madam wish to pay?”
    She slapped her credit card on the counter. “Eventually.”
    • Chapter 9 “Reunions” (p. 172)
  • “He might come in useful,” Cenuij said.
    “Yeah,” Zefla said. “So’s a broken leg if you want to kick yourself in the back of the head.”
    • Chapter 11 “Deep Country” (p. 202)
  • She felt cold and battered and tired. This combat flying lark was supposed to have been just a little exotic incident in her life, something to tell people about when she was old. It had never been meant to get this important, never been planned to be this crucial and ghastly and hopeless. It certainly wasn’t supposed to be the end of everything. It couldn’t all just end, could it?
    Yes it could, she thought. Somehow she’d never really thought about it before, but yes; of course it could. She didn’t just accept it now; she knew it now. What a time to learn that particular lesson.
    • Chapter 12 “Snow Fall” (p. 219)
  • “So,” he said to the monk, “you are of an Order which also despises the Great Infernal Wizard.”
    “Indeed, your gracious Majesty,” the monk said, looking down modestly at the carpet. His voice sounded respectful. “Our Belief—perhaps not so dissimilar from your own, more venerable and more widely followed creed, is that God is a Mad Scientist and we His experimental subjects, doomed forever to run the Maze of Life through apparently random and unjust punishments for meaningless and paltry rewards and no discernible good reason save His evil pleasure.”
    • Chapter 13 “At The Court Of The Useless Kings” (p. 228)
  • When you have this sort of power, this responsibility, you can’t choose not to have it when the decisions become tough. You can’t afford to prevaricate or delegate; you have to be engaged. You can’t stay neutral; you can say you’re neutral, and try to act as though you are, but that neutrality will always help one side more than the other; that’s just the way power works...the leverage it exerts.
    • Chapter 15 “Escape Clause” (p. 271)
  • “Details matter, though, don’t you think?” he said. “Sometimes what appear to be utterly inconsequential actions have the most enormous results. Chance makes the casual momentous. It is the fulcrum upon which the levers of action rest.”
    • Chapter 16 “The Ghost” (p. 298)
  • Allow me to attenuate my portentousness for you.
    • Chapter 16 “The Ghost” (p. 298)
  • “I think,” she said carefully, “that perhaps too many people want things to be simple when they are not and cannot be. Encouraging that desire is seductive and rewarding, but also dangerous.”
    • Chapter 16 “The Ghost” (p. 299)
  • “Choice,” he said heavily. A small smile disturbed his face. “We all think we have so much of that, don’t we?”
    • Chapter 19 “Spoiling Bid” (p. 367)
  • “Probably end up as one of those sordid cult leaders,” Zefla said after a while as they plodded into a bare area of the forest where a fire had left thousands of tree trunks standing upright and bare, black posts already surrounded by slender young trees forcing their way towards the sky around them. “You know, pedalling some weird concoction of re-tread gibberish and living in a palace while their followers sleep shifts and work the streets and give you this big flatline smile when you tell them where to stuff their tracts.”
    • Chapter 21 “A Short Walk” (p. 395)
  • Is there anything I can do? Just tell me.
    What can you do?
    Destroy things. All I can do is destroy things. It’s the only thing I’m any good at. Would you like me to destroy something?
    I want you to destroy everything! she screamed. Every fucking thing. All the evil men and compliant women, all the armies and companies and cults and faiths and orders and every stupid fucker in them! All of them! EVERYTHING!
    • Chapter 23 “All Castles Made Of Sand” (p. 427)
  • Molgarin shook his head. “Oh dear,” he said. Something worse than cynicism must be abroad if even our aristocracy cannot accept that the rich and powerful may be motivated by purposes beyond acquiring yet more money and increased influence.” He put his head to one side, as though genuinely puzzled. “Can’t you see, Lady Sharrow? Once one has a certain amount of both, one turns to hobbies, or good works or philosophy. Some people become patrons of the arts or charities. Others may—charitably—be said to raise their own lives to the state of art, living as the common herd imagine they would live if they had the chance. And some of us attempt not merely to understand our history, but to influence meaningfully the course of the future.”
    • Chapter 23 “All Castles Made Of Sand” (p. 432)
  • Hope could be more painful than despair.
    • Chapter 24 “Fall Into The Sea” (p. 474)
  • Sorry? Of course he was sorry. People were always sorry. Sorry they had done what they had done, sorry they were doing what they were doing, sorry they were going to do what they were going to do; but they still did whatever it was. The sorrow never stopped them; it just made them feel better. And so the sorrow never stopped. Fate, I’m sick of it all...
    Sorrow be damned, and all your plans. Fuck the faithful, fuck the committed, the dedicated, the true believers; fuck all the sure and certain people prepared to maim and kill whoever got in their way; fuck every cause that ended in murder and a child screaming.
    • Chapter 24 “Fall Into The Sea” (p. 484; ellipsis represents elision of a short paragraph of description)
  • Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator, though of course if you believe everything you're told you deserve whatever you get.
    • First sentence of the novel
  • Libertarianism. A simple-minded right-wing ideology ideally suited to those unable or unwilling to see past their own sociopathic self-regard.


  • I won't miss waiting for the next financial disaster because we haven't dealt with the underlying causes of the last one. Nor will I be disappointed not to experience the results of the proto-fascism that's rearing its grisly head right now. It's the utter idiocy, the sheer wrong-headedness of the response that beggars belief. I mean, your society's broken, so who should we blame? Should we blame the rich, powerful people who caused it? No let's blame the people with no power and no money and these immigrants who don't even have the vote, yeah it must be their fucking fault.

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