Iain M. Banks' "Culture" references in Bungie's Halo

Consider Phlebas (new UK cover)
Illustrator Mark Salwowski.

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks was first published in 1987. The following is a description of the Vavatch Orbital (a mini-ringworld) taken from the book:

"Vavatch lay in space like a god's bracelet. The fourteen-million kilometre hoop glittered and sparkled, blue and gold against the jet black gulf of space beyond. As the Clear Air Turbulence warped in towards the Orbital, most of the Company watched their goal approach on the main screen in the mess. The aquamarine sea, which covered most of the surface of the artefact's ultradense base material, was spattered with white puffs of cloud, collected in huge storm systems or vast banks, some of which seemed to stretch right across the full thirty-five-thousand-kilometre breadth of the slowly turning Orbital.

Only on one side of that looped band of water was there any land visible, hard up against one sloped retaining wall of pure crystal. Although, from the distance they were watching, the sliver of land looked like a tiny brown thread lying on the edge of a great rolled-out bolt of vivid blue, that thread was anything up to two thousand kilometres across; there was no shortage of land on Vavatch."

In a later section of the book there is the following line:

"They were still flying over the Circlesea towards land when the Culture blew the whole Orbital into a fourteen-million-kilometre halo of light and dust..."

A screenshot taken from the Halo Macworld Expo NY movie showing the ring.

Excession (UK cover)

Excession by Iain M. Banks was first published in 1996. The following is a communication between two Culture Ship AIs taken from the book:

[tight beam, M32, tra. @n4.28.885.1008]
xROU Killing Time
    oGCV Steely Glint
I understand you are de facto military commander for this volume. Will you receive my mind-state?

[tight beam, M32, tra. @n4.28.885.1065]
  xGCV Steely Glint
      oROU Killing Time
  No. Your gesture - offer - is appreciated. However, we do have other plans for you. May I ask what led you to Pittance in the first place?

Compare this with the Halo Transmissions from Bungie's Halo page.

Excession (US cover)

Episkopos Pushkin <pushkin@disinfo.net> writes concerning the ship names used in the Halo Transmissions:

Those names are awfully reminiscent of a number of Iain M. Banks novels (the Culture ones - I don't know how many people have read them).

CCS Truth and Reconciliation
CCS Sacred Promise
SCS Pillar of Autumn
CAR Contrition

these all seem very similar to ones like:

GSV Wisdom Like Silence
GCU Gray Area
GSV Sweet and Full of Grace
ROU Attitude Adjuster
GSV Sleeper Service

are among the least strange...

(The acronyms stand for General Systems Vehicle, General Contact Unit and Rapid Offensive Unit, respectively, which may allow people to try a guess at the Bungie acronyms)

However, what strikes me the most beyond the simple similarity of the names is that the way the text is set is eerily similar to the way the text is set in Banks novels in conversations between AIs. I sincerely think that those Bungie guys have been reading a lot more than Ringworld over there.

Iain M. Banks' Culture has been mentioned on the Story page before. Back in Aug 8, 1996 David Coufal <dcoufal@MIT.EDU> wrote concerning a possible influence on the Marathon Story pointing out that the novels of sf writer Iain M. Banks were set in a universe known as The Culture; where civilization is run by thousands of ship-sized AIs known as Minds. These Minds are generally very sarcastic, and name their ships whimsicaly. Back then David asked - "does this remind you of any A.I.'s of your aquaintance?"

The full list of ship names in the Halo Transmissions are as follows:

CCS Purity of Spirit
CCS Truth and Reconciliation
CAR Penance
CPV Reverence
CPV Esteem
SCS Pillar of Autumn
CCS Sacred Promise
CAR Contrition

For a full canonical listing of every Ship mentioned in the Culture novels you should go to Robert Keogh's Culture Shock site - the unofficial Iain M Banks WWW Site. The ships page is at http://www.schmeul.com/text/ships.html.

Each Culture ship has a three letter descriptor before its name. The descriptors are as follows:

GCU = General Contact Unit
GOU = General Offensive Unit
GSV = General System Vehicle
LOU = Limited Offensive Unit
LSV = Limited System Vehicle
MSV = Medium Systems Vehicle
ROU = Rapid Offensive Unit

So what do the Halo ones stand for? :-)

Iain M Banks describes his Culture ships as follows:

Culture starships - that is all classes of ship above inter-planetary - are sentient; their Minds (sophisticated AIs working largely in hyperspace to take advantage of the higher lightspeed there) bear the same relation to the fabric of the ship as a human brain does to the human body; the Mind is the important bit, and the rest is a life-support and transport system. Humans and independent drones (the Culture's non-android individual AIs of roughly human-equivalent intelligence) are unnecessary for the running of the starships, and have a status somewhere between passengers, pets and parasites.

The Culture's largest vessels - apart from certain art-works and a few Eccentrics - are the General Systems Vehicles of the Contact section. (Contact is the part of the Culture concerned with discovering, cataloguing, investigating, evaluating and - if thought prudent - interacting with other civilisations; its rationale and activities are covered elsewhere, in the stories.) The GSVs are fast and very large craft, measured in kilometres and inhabited by millions of people and machines. The idea behind them is that they represent the Culture, fully. All that the Culture knows, each GSV knows; anything that can be done anywhere in the Culture can be done within or by any GSV. In terms of both information and technology, they represent a last resort, and act like holographic fragments of the Culture itself, the whole contained within each part.

The full text can be found at http://www.schmeul.com/text/cultnote.html.

Against a Dark Background
(2nd edition UK cover)

Jon Chang <grind@interactive8.com> writes:

I'm currently reading "Against a Dark Background" by Iain M Banks and I came across this passage:

"The Lazy Guns had not had a happy history; they had turned up during the Interregnum following the Second War, seemingly products of Halo; the vast Thrial-polar Machine Intelligence artifact/habitat destroyed by whatever mysterious weapon had been fired from - and which appeared to have obliterated - the moons of the giant gas planet Phrastesis."

So Halo is a machine AI? So far it has been the only reference in the book.

Note: "Against a Dark Background" is a non-culture novel.

During the later half of 1999 Orbit Books (UK) in conjunction with Iain M. Banks ran a competition to name Culture ships for Iain's new Culture novel. In February 2000 the Orbit site has now published the winners and the ship names. I've took the liberty (as always) of reprinting Orbit's announcement below. Halo fans will no doubt recognise the name "Purity of Spirit" amongst the favorites.

Iain M. Banks has finished writing his new SF novel. It's a Culture novel, it's called LOOK TO WINDWARD, we're publishing it in August and it's fantastic.

A couple of months ago, we ran a competition to name a Culture ship, and Iain has now looked at all the entries (there were a lot!) and picked his favourites. Iain particularly liked the following:


Of these, Iain's top five were:


And of these, Iain's favourite was … REASONABLE DOUBT.

There were also two entries which Iain had already thought of (he keeps a big list!), and one that was very similar, so we've decided that it's only fair to count these as additional joint winners:


Congratulations to Ian Hopkins, Dragi Raos, Charlie Kay and Michael Maddux, who sent the winning entries.

In March 2000 an interesting post describing similarities between the Idrians in "Consider Phlebas" and the Covenant in Halo appeared on the halo.bungie.org forums. I've reprinted it below:

Re: Consider Phlebas Posted By: eva05
Date: 15 Mar 2000, 1:42 p.m.

In Response To: Consider Phlebas (Xian)

Consider Phlebas, in fact most of Banks sci-fi books, deal with truuly alien cultures vs. the CULTURE (which for all intense purposes can be considered humanity). I think the biggest links to the Halo universe, and this is all speculation of course, are the Idrians are religious fanatics fighting against the CULTURE which is based on a symbiotic relationship with technology. Minds, AIs, for the most part govern the CULTURE as well. The Idrians are brutally efficient and don't consider their enemies worthy of any pity...

Sort of rings very true when you think about the Covenant transmit some religious message to the terrans and then exterminate them.

There is also of course the ending where Banks illustrates in detail how murderous the Idrians can be when cut loose on their enemies or anyone who gets in their way. There is also the element of the planet having a "mind" of sorts...perhaps this will be the secret of Halo?

As for dark endings I'm rooting for Halo to be one game among thousands that has a dark ending. Maybe the good ending is you self destruct the ring and kill everything preventing the aliens finding sol-core. Or perhaps your character undergoes dramatic change into a darker less human character like Kurtz in "The Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad.

Certainly violence/torture should be an element if you're men are captured by Covenant soldiers and vice versa. Especially in guerilla warfare type ops. A good book for some insights into true special operations is "Twilight Warriors" by Martin C. Arostegui.


In April 2000 amazon.co.uk published the following synposis of Iain M. Banks' new culture novel "Look to Windward".

It was one of the less glorious incidents of the Idiran wars that led to the destruction of two suns and the billions of lives they supported. Now, 800 years later, the light from the first of those deaths has reached the Culture's Masaq' Orbital. A Chelgrian emissary is dispatched to the Culture.

Destruction of suns sounds very trih xeem like.

Robert Zimmermann <robzim@gmx.net> writes:

more news: http://www.studio-grey.com/halo/

has updated the site and now has the cover of the new Banks book (http://www.studio-grey.com/halo/windward.html) Look to Windward, which is supposed to have more Halo references.

Take a look at that book cover it's set on an orbital (mini ringworld) like Consider Phlebas.

Look to Windward
(UK cover)

Interesting to note that the title of Iain M. Banks' new Culture novel Look to Windward is a line in T.S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land":


PHLEBAS the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
                  A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
                 Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

This verse was also used at the beginning of Consider Phlebas. As Thoth would say "circumstances are cyclical".

A line from T.S. Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men" appears in The Cortana Letters.

Thanks to Jon Chang of the DEHc-3 Halo site for the back cover text of the new Iain M Banks book "Look to Windward":

It was one of the less glorious incidents of a long-ago war. It led to the destruction of two suns and the billions of lives they supported. Now, 800 years later, the light from those first ancient deaths has reached the Culture's Orbital called Masaq'. For the Hub Mind, overseer of the massive bracelet world, its arrival is particularly poignant. But it still may be eclipsed by events from the cultures more recent past.

When the Chelgrian Ziller, a composer of galactic renown living in self-imposed exile on Masaq', learns that an emissary from his home is being sent to the orbital, he fears what he assumes to be the worst, that the Chelgrians want him to return.

But the composer is far from being the only thing on the Chelgrian emissary's mind. His mission has another purpose; one so secret he does not know it himself at first. Discovering its nature will take him on a journey into his past and the haunting memories of another terrible war whose legacy threatens to be much more than just an unfortunate diplomatic incident.

Look to Windward is Iain M Banks' most powerful novel to date and an extraordinary work of the imagination. Ferociously intelligent, wildly original and hugely enjoyable, it is a masterpiece of science fiction. Here's the back cover of the new Iain M Banks book:

In a commentary on Consider Phlebas, a fan Philip R. Banks wrote:

Indeed to understand the book and it's message one need merely reflect on the two snippets of text he [Iain M. Banks] quotes on the first pages of the book, before the index.
Idolatry is worse than carnage. The Koran, 2: 190.

Gentile or Jew,
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you. T.S.Elliot, 'The Waste Land', IV.

The first quote is somewhat obvious in his handling of the Idirans. The second is where I feel the true power of the book lies. Throughout the book there are under-currents of identity and how actions spell out your intentions far more than thoughts. Horza with his obsession about who he was and his feelings of lost identity. Fal'Ngeestra, not mentioned in the summary, who worries about the ethics of killing and the Culture as a whole, expressed through a variety of people and the epilogue, that worries about becoming like those they are fighting - the Idirans.

The T.S.Elliot quote clearly alludes to these under-currents. And it is in the process of examining these under-currents that the book acheives mastery among science fiction. Throughout the book we see Horza's view of the Culture and it's motives and by the end of the book we are so used to them that we have forgotten quite how skewed they are. Then in the epilogue we hear, biased somewhat to the Culture's view, a summary of the war and the reasons it occured.

It is in that epilogue that Consider Phlebas achieves it's third layer of plot and meaning. (The first being the story itself, the second layer being about Horza's questions of identity and the general questions about that being asked by many characters.) At this third level he discusses a problem of living in a pratical paradise - what do you do and why? What is the justification for living in paradise? Something that I haven't seen in many other works.

All in all I love this book, it's richness and depth of plot have kept me coming back to it. I have re-read it some twenty, or so, times and each time I find still more to it that I have missed on previous readings. It created a bold start to the Culture series of books.

The following piece appeared in the July 2000 issue of PC Gamer (UK):

But scenary thoughout the game promises to be more imaginative than standard Earth environments. One mission will take you to the moon, where we expect to see a low-gravity model creating amusing effects. Jason also hints towards more esotric moments, especially linked to the insides of the ring's settlements. The plan is for the intial stages of the game to play to expectations of science-fiction, albeit the most convincing sci-fi representation yet seen, before leading you into the heart of darkness. In terms of influences, rather than quoting movies, which they consider generally derivative of other art, they talk books, especially those of Iain Banks. Things could get very shadowy indeed.

The following piece appeared in a Computer Games Online preview of Halo by Benjamin E. Sones (14 July 2000):

Not that Ringworld

"Wait a minute," you might be thinking. Doesn't the premise of this game bear a striking resemblance to a certain series of books by sci-fi author Larry Niven? Designer and Bungie co-founder Jason Jones is uncomfortable with the notion that Halo might be some sort of Niven knockoff. "Ringworld's a great book, but the point is that we don't want people to think this is the game of Niven's Ringworld, simply because it takes place on a ring-shaped artificial world… you'd be surprised how often people assume this." Jones explains. "In Niven's books, the Ringworld completely encircles a star, and is thus hundreds of millions of miles in diameter, whereas Halo is just a satellite orbiting a gas giant and is considerably smaller. In fact, structurally it's more similar to the "orbitals" in Iain M. Banks' Culture novels."

In a Daily Radar interview with Jason Jones. one of the questions related to Halo's backstory and possible influence:

DR: True or false, Halo is a rip-off of Ian Banks' "Consider Phlebas?"

JJ: Heh. False! That isn't to say that I don't love Banks--or Peter Hamilton, for that matter -- but we have our own ideas.

The following piece appeared in the August 2000 issue of PC Gamer (US):

"We're all huge sci-fi fans here," says Jones, "and with a few notable exceptions, Hollywood has forgotten how to make a real sci-fi film So a lot of our inspiration has come from literature."

Unlike cinema, which often blandly duplicates the success of former crowd-pleasers like Blade Runner, current sci-fi authors like Neal Stephenson (snow crash), Iain Banks (Consider Phlebas) and Peter Hamilton (The Neutronium Alchemist) provide the petrol that fuels the imagination of Halo's team. "In the way that Iain Banks is really hard sci-fi, we're trying to stay very realistic," says Jones. "Every thing in the game should be realistic and believable, which is something that Banks does really well."

We've all seen some of the amazing screenshots of Halo, but even Jones admits that "everyone stops paying attention to what a game looks like after a couple of hours of playing it," he says. So why is Halo going to be more filling than just a bowl of icing? Jones claims that the single player game, which many shooters have abandoned in recent months, is going to be as good as any game out there. "We think we have a story that is so good," he says "you could write a book about it and sell it as a sci-fi novel."

The UK branch of Amazon.com has posted a review of Iain M. Banks' upcoming Culture novel "Look to Windward". I've taken the liberty of reposting the text here:

When using that middle initial M., Iain Banks writes grand space opera combining galactic scope with twisty, tricky probes into the darkest secrets of human and other minds. Look to Windward revisits the utopian but ruthless interstellar Culture introduced in Consider Phlebas, exploring the complex aftermath of a rare Culture mistake--humanitarian tinkering with an unjust civilization that accidentally led to massive civil war and billions dead.

After a harrowing battle flashback, the scene shifts to one of the Culture's wonderfully landscaped, ring-shaped artificial worlds called Orbitals. A ghastly light is awaited in the sky from distant suns detonated in the war of Consider Phlebas eight centuries earlier; an occasion for sombre festivity, pyrotechnics, and a memorial symphony from exiled alien composer Ziller. Meanwhile another tortured member of Ziller's race--aggressors and victims in that more recent civil war--arrives on a mission whose dreadful nature emerges through fragments of slowly returning memory. Elsewhere, in the exuberantly imagined airsphere home of floating "behemothaurs" almost too huge to imagine, the clue to what's happening falls belatedly into inexperienced hands...

While scattering red herrings and building tension for his final burst of literal and moral fireworks, Banks shows us around the Orbital in sensuous, lyrical travelogues. Rich scenery, high living, low comedy and dangerous sports contrast with reflections on mortality and the lingering aftershock of both those wars, recalled by ravaged veterans. Look to Windward culminates with deft twists, inversions, parallels, and savage justice, as unexpected as we expect from this author. Recommended. --David Langford

Sounds the perfect novel to get your teeth into this summer. Look to Windward's publication date is 17 August, 2000.

The following interesting piece is taken from an interview with Iain M. Banks by Orbit Books:

How would you like to see your science fiction books filmed, if at all?

With a very, very, very big budget indeed. The one I'd most like to see done is Consider Phlebas; if they kept in the sequence where the megaship hits the giant tabular iceberg, the fist-fight under the giant hovercraft, the bit where the Clear Air Turbulence escapes from the GSV, and the final train wreck, I wouldn't even mind if they changed it to a happy ending!

Are there any movies in the pipeline?

Yes, but they're a long way up the pipeline and there's lots of places where they could leak out before they reach the end. Complicity has been optioned, so has The Player of Games, The Wasp Factory is still legally entangled, people have expressed in interest in making a film of Espedair Street and Against A Dark Background and The Bridge and Whit may become TV series. But don't hold your breath on any of those.

As mentioned on the Story Forum yesterday one of the scans (244K) from a new XBox magazine coming out this fall contains the following interesting piece:

In the mood
Why not prepare for Halo with some reading? The Halo concept and environment bear more than a passing resemblance to the sci-fi of Iain M. Banks. His novel Against a Dark Background, in particular, refers to a ring habitat called Halo during a period of intergalactic war. Highly recommended.

While this description best fits the Culture novel "Consider Phlebas" rather than "Against a Dark Background" it is interesting to note the following synposis of the non-Culture novel "Against a Dark Background":

"Sharrow was once the leader of a personality-attuned combat team in one of the sporadic little commercial wars in the civilisation based around the planet Golter. Now she is hunted by the Huhsz, a religious cult which believes that she is the last obstacle before the faith's apotheosis, and her only hope of escape is to find the last of the apocalyptically powerful Lazy Guns before the Huhsz find her."

A religious cult and their apotheosis. How interesting. :-)

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