A Gift from the Culture • 1987 • Space Opera short story by Iain M. Banks

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

First sentence: Money is a sign of poverty.

Synopsis:  Wrobik Sennkil lives as a gambler in a world which isn’t far more advanced in technology as ours. He’s a transgender alien in that world, a renegade citizen of the far advanced Culture which is a interstellar society of humans and sentient machines. 

“Isn’t that funny, Wrobik here being an alien? And him looking just like us.”
“An alien and queer,” Cruizell rumbled, scowling. “Shit.”

A classic noir crime story unfolds when two criminals confront Wrobik because of his gambling debts. Two criminals, Kaddus and Cruizell, blackmail him into a terrorist act of shooting down a starship which is planned to land the most prominent military leader of the world at the capital city. 

How would they achieve that? They found a handgun produced in the Culture which the planet’s technology has nothing to counter. It would easily destroy the starship, but has a safety guard installed that only Culture citizens could ever use the gun. Here, Wrobik comes into play.

“Hey, Wrobik, cheer up, yeah? You’re going to shoot down a fucking starship. It’ll be an experience.”

Wrobik doesn’t really want to, but Kaddus uses Wrobik’s lover and use him as leverage. Time to get acquainted with the gun:

“I am a Light Plasma Projector, model LPP 91, series two […] Brain value point one.”

It’s an antique one of good quality, with the intelligence of maybe a dog. Modern handguns would be sentient Personal Armed Escort Drones, they would “immediately signal for help, use its motive power to try to escape, shoot to injure or even kill anybody trying to use or trap it, attempt to bargain its way out, and destruct if it thought it was going to be taken apart or otherwise interfered with.” Kaddus was enormously lucky to get the antique one and also to find the alien Wrobik for the upcoming task!

Review: The first sentence refers to Culture’s post-scarcity society with its “no-credit gambling clubs“, people having everything they need and can work just when and if they want to.

Iain Banks didn’t write many short stories, and Gift from the Culture is the only one set in his famous Space Opera series named Culture. The story was published in 1987, just before the very first book Consider Phlebas in that series, at a time when Cyberpunk was still en vogue with its depressing mega-corporations, failed states, and dystopian views on society. Space Operas were considered more a thing from the Golden Age of SF, and Banks kind of gave it a huge push back into modernity. 

I’m currently re-reading Consider Phlebas and thought it would be a good idea to go back right to the start. The story works as a standalone, and one can take it as an introduction to the series setting, an outside-in view, just like the first novel. 

I found this short story very engaging, not because of the plot, but because of the insights into Wrobik and the Culture. The mechanics of the crime, the setting up of the handgun, was perfectly constructed and even funny to read at times. There is nearly no tension arc, because the end result is given halfway through, and the main protagonist isn’t exactly charming.

The story drew me in nonetheless and it was a short ride that let me disregard its faults. If you want to get in touch with Bank’s writing, like short stories, and are interested in the Culture, then this might be well worth half an hour reading time. I noticed several reviewers who didn’t like it at all, so it might just be me who relates very well to the author’s style.

Meta: isfdb. I’ve read it it in the Big Book of SF.

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15 Responses to A Gift from the Culture • 1987 • Space Opera short story by Iain M. Banks

  1. pdtillman says:

    Goodness. What a link! “United Diversity Co-op”! Got to be legit, right?


  2. pdtillman says:

    And of course it has its own Wiki page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Gift_from_the_Culture
    With a dumb notability tag that I’m about to remove. What, the poster doesn’t think Hartwell and Cramer are reliable enough? Sheesh.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. bormgans says:

    I loved the Culture books, but thought this was a bit meager too. I should reread some of the novels too someday. I hope they hold up. Looking forward to your CP review…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hmm. I’ve read The State of the Art, but I can’t remember this story. One day I will reread the Culture and review them all on the site.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I believe I read this one some time ago (ah, my sieve-like memory!) since the details you listed sound familiar. It’s been some time since I read something from Banks and I’m considering giving Phlebas a second chance, given that my first read did not go all that well…

    Liked by 1 person

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