Thursday, 25 September 2014

Planet Of The Apes

A novel.
A series of five feature films.
Novelizations of the four original films.
A live action TV series.
A prose adaptation of TV episodes.
A TV "Annual" book.
A record.
An animated TV series.
A Marvel Comics adaptation of the first film.
A real bad Marvel Comics on-going series.
A one-off feature film.
A new series of, so far, two feature films.

In the first film series, a chimpanzee couple featured in the first three episodes and their son, Caesar, was the hero of the remaining episodes. The name "Caesar" is retained for the hero of the new series.

The double surprise ending of the novel was, first, that, while the astronauts had been on Soror, apes had become intelligent and had taken over on Earth and, secondly, that the apes later had space travel.

The surprise ending of the first film was that the Planet of the Apes visited by the astronauts was in fact Earth after a nuclear war. The surprise ending of the second film was that a belatedly detonated doomsday bomb destroys Earth. The surprise beginning of the third film was that a chimpanzee couple time traveled to present day Earth. The surprise ending of the third film was that that couple become ancestors of the intelligent apes that later dominate Earth. The fourth and fifth films show the human-simian conflict that leads to an ape-dominated Earth.

Thus, in the novel and the first film, space travel transported characters to the ape-dominated planet. At the mid-point of the film series, time travel was introduced to keep the series going and a time travel paradox was used to explain the series. The new series dispenses with space travel and time travel and moves directly to a different version of the human-simian conflict that leads to an ape-dominated Earth.

Addendum, 26 Sept 2014: Human-simian conflict is covered in a journal in the original novel. Amazon has some more recent books that I am unfamiliar with.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Dates Of Future Past

1984 is a novel.
2000 AD is a comic.
2001 is a film.
Year 2018! is an alternative title of They Shall Have Stars, Volume I of James Blish's Cities In Flight future history.
Revolt In 2100 is Volume III of Robert Heinlein's Future History.

A Case Of Conscience, Volume III of James Blish's After Such Knowledge Trilogy, is set in 2049-'50.

Having lived from 1949 until, so far, 2014, I hope to live until the years of the two Blish novels.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Lines Of Development

In the 1960's and early '70's, I read as much science fiction (sf) as I could find. Thus, I became very familiar with the works of certain authors. I caught up with Clifford Simak and read his then newly published The Goblin Reservation but did not continue to buy new works by Simak partly because I thought that he had become repetitive and self-parodying and partly because I was by then less interested in reading new sf.

I know of only a single work by Ward Moore, Bring The Jubilee, and have read only a single work by Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates. In both these cases, the common topic of interest is time travel.

The following lists are not intended to be exhaustive but they do represent what I regard as certain major lines of development among the sf writers that I have read:



Wells and Heinlein are two starting points. Sf readers will notice that many prominent names are absent, often because they started to write long after I had ceased to read. I have appreciated rereading the works of several of the listed authors. Because Poul Anderson uniquely combines quality with quantity, he has become the subject of a blog. Because of Greg Bear's connections with Anderson, I have this month started to read, and post about, Bear's Way Trilogy.

Saturday, 26 July 2014


Fred Hoyle's Black Cloud explains genius in human beings:

"'The infrequency of genius is to be explained in simple probabilities. A child must learn a great deal before it reaches adult life. Processes such as the multiplying of numbers can be learned in a variety of ways. This is to say, the brain can develop in a number of ways, all enabling it to multiply numbers, but not all with by any means the same facility. Those who develop in a favourable way are said to be "good" at arithmetic, while those who develop inefficient ways are said to be "bad" or "slow". Now what decides how a particular person develops? The answer is - chance. And chance accounts for the difference between the genius and the dullard. The genius is one who has been lucky in all his processes of learning. The dullard is the reverse, and the ordinary person is one who has neither been particularly lucky nor particularly unlucky.'"
-Fred Hoyle, The Black Cloud (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1965), pp. 206-207.

A human scientist deduces that genius is not only rare but also not hereditary:

"'It also explains why a genius can't pass his faculties to his children. Luck isn't a commodity with a strong inheritance.'" (p. 207)

Here, Hoyle anticipates the plot of a Larry Niven novel. The Puppeteers promote the Birthright Lottery because they believe that luck is inheritable. Teela Brown, descended from four generations of Lottery winners, is demonstrably lucky - or so we think, although this judgment can always be revised in the light of subsequent events. Is it her genes that are lucky?

If the Black Cloud is right that genius is a matter of luck and if the Puppeteers are also right that luck is inheritable, then subsequent generations of teelas must be not only so lucky and safe that Niven cannot write interesting stories about them but also so quick-thinking and intelligent that we would not be able to understand their thought processes.

A British SF Classic II

Compare CS Lewis' angelic "Heaven"-dwelling eldila with the space-dwelling beings in works by Fred Hoyle, James Blish and Poul Anderson. These three hard sf writers present scientific rationales for their imagined extra-planetary intelligences.

Hoyle's Black Cloud, addressing human scientists, says:

"'...conventional religion, as many humans accept it, is illogical in its attempt to conceive of entities lying outside the Universe. Since the Universe comprises everything, it is evident that nothing can lie outside it. The idea of a "god" creating the Universe is a mechanistic absurdity clearly derived from the making of machines by men. I take it we are in agreement about all this.'"
-Fred Hoyle, The Black Cloud (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1965), p. 203.

I am in agreement now although not when I first read the book fifty years ago because I had been religiously indoctrinated. Hoyle through his characters, both human and non-human, addresses several important issues:

the role of scientists in society;
the relationship of science to reality;
how intelligence evolved on Earth;
whether there is a larger-scale intelligence;
why the laws of physics are as they are;
whether a larger-scale intelligence might explain the laws of physics.

(Hoyle's latter non-fiction included The Intelligent Universe and he argued against Darwinism.)

The novel is set in the 1960's, thus has become what I call a "past future," but it retains an element of futurity because its closing fictitious correspondence is dated 2021 and ends:

"Do we want to remain big people in a tiny world or to become a little people in a vaster world? This is the ultimate climax towards which I have directed my narrative." (p. 219)

So how do we in 2014 answer that question?

A British SF Classic

See previous post.

CS Lewis' reply to HG Wells' The Shape Of Things To Come, That Hideous Strength, was published in 1945, four years before Orwell's 1984 and twelve years before Fred Hoyle's first novel, The Black Cloud.

The Black Cloud contains an apt Biblical quotation but otherwise is an excellent British sf novel in the Wellsian tradition but based on updated data. Hoyle presents not Martians invading Earth but an intelligent gas cloud entering the Solar System. The chapter in which a scientist proves by answering and asking questions that the invasive cloud is alive is a perfect Platonic dialogue.

In Greek literature, "Homer and the poets" were followed by Plato and the philosophers. One of Hoyle's characters realizes that, by answering a question, he has conceded a point, as though he were arguing with Plato's mentor and dramatic persona, Socrates - and, in fact, Socrates appears as a historical character in Hoyle's later sf novel, October The First Is Too Late.

More on this later.

The Bible And Science In Literature

(i) The Bible and Homer are foundation documents of Western civilization.

(ii) Some major works have Biblical and Classical contents, e.g., Dante's Comedy; John Milton's Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes.

(iii) The cited Miltonic works also have Classical forms: epic and dramatic, respectively.

(iv) Many other works refer to the Bible but have historical or contemporary contents.

(v) Mary Shelley initiated speculative fiction about consequences of science, thus about possible futures.

(vi) Because her scientist character, Frankenstein, described in the title as "The Modern Prometheus," creates human life, a new Adam, her novel opens with a quotation from Paradise Lost.

(vii) Wells, Stapledon and others developed the new tradition of speculative fiction/science fiction/sf.

(viii) CS Lewis' interplanetary novels defend a Biblical/medieval world view against the Wellsian/Stapledonian idea that mankind can remake itself with science.

(ix) Paradise Lost influenced Lewis' Perelandra, James Blish's post-Lewis The Day After Judgement and Philip Pullman's anti-Lewis His Dark Materials.

(x) So far, we have:

an ancient Biblical tradition;
a modern science fictional tradition;
continued Biblical themes and references in fiction;
a science fictional defense of Biblical belief by CS Lewis.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Invasions Of Earth

British Invasions

Martians in tripods invaded Britain in The War Of The Worlds.

Earth was invaded and occupied by:

the Mekon's forces from Venus in Dan Dare: Reign of the Robots;
Daleks from the extrasolar planet, Skaro, in Doctor Who;
extrasolar aliens in tripods in John Christopher's Tripods Trilogy.

Daleks, highly evolved beings moving around in protective machines, resemble Wellsian Martians and ruled Earth through roboticised men, "robomen," as the Mekon ruled it through "electrobots."

A novel, a comic strip, a TV series and a trilogy.

American Invasions

The Moon Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
VOR by James Blish
The War Of Two Worlds by Poul Anderson (Martians and extrasolars)
Sleeping Planet by William R Burkett
Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Six novels and also a short story:

Poul Anderson cleverly projected how militarily superior humanoid aliens might conquer Earth economically in "The Soldier from the Stars." But it was another of Anderson's works, "Hunters of the Sky Cave," that prompted this line of thought about planetary invasions and occupations. See here.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

"I've Been Stupid"

"Every human protector must wake this way...I've been stupid."
-Larry Niven, Protector (London, 1974), p. 213.

We do not become protectors. However, we learn, mature and continue to learn - by study, training, experience and, possibly, meditation. We can look back and see that we were stupid. We might even realize that we are still stupid much of the time, a problem not experienced by protectors.

The men who become protectors on the colony planet, Home, cooperate to control the planet and to create more protectors for the coming conflict with the attacking Pak. Similarly, in the world reflected by fiction, those who reach a common understanding of Terrestrial problems cooperate with each other - though not with those of different understandings.

We lack the common purpose of a group of species protectors.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Niven's Collaborations

Larry Niven has collaborated with several other sf writers and franchised one period of his future history to several more. I have ordered from the public library three of Niven's works, each a collaboration with a different other author:

the first part of an sf diptych;
the second part of a fantasy diptych;
the third part of a sf trilogy which is also part of a future history series.

This gets complicated. Fans who have kept up with Niven over the years should recognize the works in question from these descriptions.

Years ago, there was one Ringworld novel in which Louis Wu and his crew visited the Fleet of Worlds en route to the Ringworld. Now, there is a Fleet of Worlds Trilogy and a Ringworld Tetralogy!

On the Poul Anderson Appreciation blog, I have just listed several fictional accounts of visits to Hell, including Inferno and Escape From Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, but have yet to read Escape... so it should be no surprise that that is the second item listed above.

The Ringworld, an inhabited ring encircling a planet, is an artifact bigger than a planet. The Shipstar, an inhabited bowl partially enclosing a star, is an even bigger artifact. I have yet to read about the latter.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

From The Earth To The Sun

Jules Verne's Moon novels are two volumes that should have been one whereas his Hector Servadac is one volume that has been split into two. Human beings would not be able to survive either in a projectile fired from a cannon or on a part of the Earth struck by a comet.

The two Parts of Hector Servadac could appropriately have been entitled From The Earth To The Sun and Around The Solar System. The characters seem to spend nearly all of Part One thinking that they are still on Earth. Until it is explained, the change to their environment is uniquely strange.

The Moon novels spend too much time stating, in a documentary style, what was already known about the Moon and far too little time describing any new discoveries made by the astronauts. They seem to glimpse seas and clouds on the Far Side but do not discuss this before concluding that the Moon was, but no longer is, habitable.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Hector Servadac

Hector Servadac, one of Jules Verne's fifty four Extraordinary Voyages, was translated into English and published in two volumes as To The Sun and Off On A Comet but is now referred to as Off On A Comet. Thus, when I ordered Off On A Comet from the public library and received To The Sun and Off On A Comet in one volume entitled The Space Novels of Jules Verne, I thought that I was getting the novel that I had requested and another that I had not heard of whereas the one that I had not heard of is simply the first part of the work that I did want and Off On A Comet in a volume to itself would have been only the second half.

While agreeing that Hector Servadac is a deplorable title, I suggest that the original subtitle, "Voyages And Adventures Across The Solar World," might instead serve as an overall title that would both express the contents and convey the scope of this single novel.

Jules Verne's Series

OK. I got it wrong again. See here. Three Jules Verne novels form a trilogy:

From The Earth To The Moon
Around The Moon
The Purchase Of The North Pole

- two form a diptych:

To The Sun?
Off On A Comet
(Later: it transpires that these books are a single novel translated and published in two volumes.)

- two feature Captain Nemo:

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea
The Mysterious Island
and are connected by other characters to In Search Of The Castaways

- and I suspect that there are other connections between Verne's books of which I am as yet unaware.

Wells' two interplanetary novels follow Verne's and also in the same literary tradition are CS Lewis' Out Of The Silent Planet and Perelandra/Voyage To Venus. The third volume of Lewis' trilogy, That Hideous Strength, continues the tradition because, although it is set entirely on Earth, it places Earth in a Solar context and imparts information about life on the Moon. However, it is mainly a reply to Wells' The Shape Of Things To Come and Olaf Stapledon's Last And First Men because it addresses the question of the social role of science in the future of human civilization on Earth.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Moon, Sun, Comet

I said before that Jules Verne wrote three interplanetary novels but this was wrong. Off On A Comet has come to me from the public library in a double volume with its prequel, starring the same central character, To The Sun? -of which I had never heard.

Thus, it would be possible to publish in uniform editions six classic volumes of interplanetary fiction:

From The Earth To The Moon, Verne
Around The Moon, Verne

To The Sun?, Verne
Off On A Comet, Verne

The First Men In The Moon, Wells
The War Of The Worlds, Wells

I now have three by Verne to read with interest.

Monday, 3 March 2014


One familiar sf scenario is a decades-long interstellar voyage with passengers in suspended animation tended either by robots or by a rotating crew. In one of the chronologically confusing chapter-long flashbacks of Use of Weapons (London, 2013), Iain M Banks relocates his protagonist, Zakalwe, as a passenger and temporary crew member on such a voyage. This is another interesting change of scene but I am having trouble pulling the whole narrative together.

Another crew member tells Zakalwe a story. Because his people discussed the question of the soul so much, a philosopher king ordered a global debate after which he withdrew to think, then published two books, one endlessly repeating, "Souls do exist. Souls do not exist," the other endlessly repeating, "Souls do not exist. Souls do exist." (p. 356)

This might be considered either amusing or profound but I saw it as both wasteful and insulting to religious believers, philosophers and psychologists. Banks could better have spent those two pages summarizing the history of the subject, starting with people inferring a soul from the experience of apparently leaving the body while dreaming. I commend the Buddhist anatta teaching but am interested to hear reasoned expressions of other theories or beliefs.

Winning A War

In Use Of Weapons, it is a thing of beauty when Zakalwe takes charge of a war run by incompetents and turns it around. A province with a dozen important religious sites is about to fall. Defending the province will only get the sites damaged or destroyed whereas surrendering the province now means that they will be regained intact with much new treasure when the war is won.

Surrendering the province will also stretch the enemy's supply lines while the rains start behind them. Enemy commanders will know that the surrendered province is a trap but will be ordered in anyway, which will demoralize them. Also, by stopping the bombardment of roads, Zakalwe ensures that the roads will fill with refugees, slowing enemy troops further. But bombing some bridges and the enemies' oil refineries will make their commanders advance more cautiously even if, as believed, they have great reserves of fuel. In any case, Zakalwe distrusts his side's intelligence about enemy fuel and thinks that the enemy are equally uninformed.

When the enemy Imperial Court and their high command meet, Zakalwe proposes dropping an otherwise defunct and useless spacecraft on them, pretending that it is the first in a series of new missiles, then offering to negotiate with the commoner's parliament while the enemy are riven by civil war.

One man turns everything round - but then is told that larger scale politics require his side to lose.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Artificial Intelligence Question In Use Of Weapons

An artificial intelligence addresses a human being:

"'Your brain is made up of matter...organized into information-handling, processing and storage units...'"
- Iain M Banks, Use Of Weapons (London, 2013), p. 279.

The AI lists three factors that have organized the matter of the brain in this way:

genetic inheritance;
experiences since before birth.

The AI asks:

"'An electronic computer is also made up of matter, but organized differently; what is there so magical about the huge, slow cells of the animal brain that they can claim themselves to be conscious...?'" (ibid.)

Nothing magical but we are in fact conscious. Otherwise, we would be unable to "claim" anything. Also, the term, "'...experiences...,'" entails consciousness.

"'...but would deny a more finely-grained device of equivalent power...a similar distinction?'" (ibid.)

Many devices made of organized matter are not conscious. However, if "'...of equivalent power...'" means "...that performs exactly the same functions...," then, yes, this electronic computer is conscious.

There is a verbal ambiguity here because previously the term "electronic computer" applied to artifacts that merely manipulated symbols without any knowledge of their meanings and therefore were not conscious. Thus, a biological organ that merely handled, processed and stored "information" could conceivably be an unconscious organic computer rather than a conscious brain. The information stored in a book or library is not conscious. An intelligent conscious being is any entity, organic or artificial, that is capable not merely of scanning and copying texts but of reading and understanding them. "Understanding," like "experience," entails consciousness.

Before asking its question, the AI had said:

"'Forget...about how machine brains are actually put together...'" (p. 278)

But how they are put together matters. Surely that determines whether or not they can be conscious? The phrase "'...machine brains...'" is ambiguous. If it means "machines that duplicate the functions of brains," then these machines are conscious whereas if it means "machines that simulate the functions of brains," then such machines are not conscious.

The AI continues:

"'...think about making a machine brain - an electronic computer - in the image of a human one.'" (ibid.)

Any artifact that is exactly modeled on a human brain so that it perfectly reproduces the functioning of such a brain will, by definition, be conscious in the way that a human brain is but will not be what used to be called "an electronic computer."

The AI suggests this process:

"'...start with a few cells, as the human embryo does'" (ibid.);
let these multiply and connect;
add new components;
make connections "'...identical...'" (ibid.) with those of the stages of human development;
in order exactly to duplicate human development, limit the speed of transmissions along the connections;
have "'...these neuron-like components...'" (ibid.) fire messages in response to signals received;
thus, exactly mimic the development of a human brain ("mimic" is ambiguous between simulation and duplication);
also mimic its output by sending signals similar to sound, touch and light as experienced inside the womb (surely this is further input, not "output"?);
simulate birth;
apply sensory stimulation so that the device thinks that it is "'...feeling, touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, and seeing everything your real human was...'" (p. 279).

At the end of this process, the AI suggests that the device can be given "'...just as much genuine sensory input, and of the same quality, as the human personality was experiencing at any given point.'" (ibid.)

Does "...the human any given point..." mean a particular person whose experiences will be directly transmitted into the device? I do not find this last point entirely clear but, in any case, if the device is genuinely an artificial brain that is literally experiencing sights, sounds etc, then of course it is conscious. But that is because the AI has described an exact duplication of human development. This still leaves open the question of the nature of those machine brains whose construction we were told to forget about in the first place.

Although, the AI refers at one point to "outputs," its description of the developing device is of an entity that is almost entirely passive in its reception of inputs. In this respect, it appears to duplicate the development of a human embryo and infant. However, I think that organisms became conscious not merely by receiving inputs but primarily by interacting with their environments. Thus:

organisms were naturally selected for sensitivity to environmental alterations;
organismic sensitivity quantitatively increased until it was qualitatively transformed into conscious sensation;
sensation was naturally selected because pleasure and pain have survival value.

By "sensation," I mean the most elementary stage of consciousness, the transition from being hot to feeling hot. This happens because an organism approaches life-giving heat and avoids dangerous heat so that action, not mere reception, is paramount. Since "sensation" entails consciousness, the phrase "conscious sensation" is redundant but I use it to differentiate sensation from sensitivity that has not yet become conscious. A sensitive recording device is not conscious but sensitive organisms became conscious.

The AI asks:

"'...where is the difference? The brain of each being works in exactly the same way as the other; they will respond to stimuli with a greater correspondence than one finds even between monozygotic twins; but how can one still choose to call one a conscious entity, and the other merely a machine?'" (ibid.)

What is the point of spelling out that two entities are identical and then asking what is the difference between them? The question still remains how are AI's in the Culture constructed and are they conscious? Of course, Banks writes their dialogues in such a way that they clearly pass the Turing test but these books are works of fiction. We have not yet encountered such entities in reality.

What does "'...merely a machine...'" mean? So far, machines have been mechanisms designed to perform functions without being conscious of them. In a motor vehicle, consciousness is provided by the driver, not by the engine, and, when a computer merely manipulates symbols, then consciousness is provided by programmers and users, not by the computer. If, however, some other "machines" can duplicate human consciousness, then they are conscious machines, not "mere" (unconscious) machines.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

From The Earth To The Moon

I cannot take either Jules Verne's prose style or his characters seriously. Both the narrator and the characters are very precise about the technology of the cannon but very imprecise about the lunar environment. They do address the obvious point that the cannon blast should crush the occupants of the projectile.

It seems that Ardan, Barbicane and Nicholl go to the Moon to die. They have no way to return to Earth. When told that there is conclusive evidence that the Moon has no atmosphere, Ardan can reply only that there is some contrary evidence which makes it possible that there is an atmosphere but he address neither the obvious distinction between an atmosphere and a breathable atmosphere nor any other environmental factor such as temperature.

The original idea was just to fire a cannon at the Moon, not to redesign the projectile as a vehicle. Near the end, they even treble the number of passengers and take all sorts of extras, including two dogs. Verne ducks the issue of the lunar environment by having the projectile go into lunar orbit and ends with the optimism of a Terrestrial observer who is sure that the astronauts will find a way out of their predicament. When the projectile has left Earth, the narrative point of view remains Terrestrial so that, strangely, we lose direct contact with the astronauts. The idea for interplanetary communication was to write large letters in a desert and to send regular supplies in further projectiles.

I am genuinely curious as to what happens in the sequel, Round The Moon. The two projected options were either that their orbit would decay and that they would land after all or, alternatively, that they would remain in perpetual orbit. The sequal title seems to preclude the former and my understanding is that they do not land but what does happen and do they find a way either to return to Earth or to survive indefinitely in space?

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Iain M Banks' Second Culture Novel

I did not expect the Empire to be overthrown by the end of the novel but it was certainly ripe for revolution. The Emperor asserts that the most stable societies are those ruled by the strong and the ruthless but events prove that brutal dictatorship and enforced poverty generate so much general discontent and internal conflict that, after what may be a long period of apparent impregnability, they can be toppled quite quickly. A civilization in which every citizen genuinely has an equal stake in the status quo is another matter.

In the Empire, males impregnate apices who impregnate females. Apices are dominant. How does this work? We are familiar with the idea of an Emperor controlling both an army and a harem. If we imagine the Emperor not as a male with many wives or concubines and soldiers but as an apex with many husbands, wives and soldiers, then we will have translated familiar relationships into this fictitious scenario.

The Emperor addresses a Culture citizen disparagingly as a male but, since the Culture has only two sexes, its citizens have no choice but to be either male or female - although they can change. The Emperor's attitude is typical of his blinkered society. Another high-ranking apex remarks that, unfortunately, most of the unemployed are loafers. So that is the cause of social and economic problems, is it?

Apparently, at least one of Banks' sf novels is not set in the Culture history. "Other Books by the Same Author" pages should be divided into:

by Iain Banks;
the Culture sf series by Iain M Banks;
other sf by Iain M Banks.

From what I have seen so far, each Culture novel features different characters and a different aspect of society in a different period. This alone makes it unlike any other long futuristic sf series, to my knowledge.

Iain M Banks' First Culture Novel

The point of Consider Phlebas seems to be the pointlessness of war:

an alien race is religiously imperialistic;
the usually peaceful Culture wages war against the imperialists;
the war is extremely destructive of lives and of technological wealth - a massive, artificial, orbiting habitat is evacuated and destroyed;
the viewpoint character is on what should clearly be seen as the wrong side;
characters who are supposed to be on the same side fight because of misunderstanding and rigid thought processes;
the war is unresolved by the end of the novel;
the second novel opens several centuries after the war and focuses on an entirely different aspect of the Culture.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Iain M Banks' First Two Culture Novels

A game plays a major role in the first novel and the second is all about gaming. Is it valid to make games so important in the stories without telling the reader any of the rules of these games? Despite not doing this, Banks does convey what it feels like to engage in gaming.

The Culture is a sustained presentation of a wealthy, high tech, easy-going, interstellar civilization whereas the Empire in the second novel is systematically more callous than any human society.

There is a fascinating ecology on the planet Echronedal:

oceans at the poles;
land around the equator;
a fire that moves permanently around the land;
organisms that have adapted to survive and thrive in these conditions;
an Empire that considers it appropriate to game in fire-proof castles on the surface.

I cannot help thinking that "hard sf" staples like hyperspace are really not sf but fantasy, especially when human beings from the Milky Way galaxy encounter in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud beautiful women with whom they can have sex.