This is the latest instalment in Iain Banks’s Culture series, and let me say, right off the bat, it doesn’t disappoint. The story is huge – epic, in fact – spanning stars, civilisations, and a cast of extraordinary proportions, each of whom is given enough attention to make them as large as life. As you might expect, the plot matches the setting perfectly; it is sprawling, complex and, like much of Banks’s work, is not so much about space battles fought between advanced cultures (though there is some of that), but a study of perhaps one basic question. In this case, the question is this: Just because your race can evolve, en masse, to a higher state of being – should it?
Yes, there’s a lot of techy stuff that sci-fi buffs (like me) will love, but if that’s not your bag then the story can carry itself without having to understand how AIs view virtual realities, and why a ship large enough to carry billions of people has to start slowing down days before it reaches orbit. In my mind, focussing on the story rather than the tech is the essence of good sic-fi.
Some of the body-modifications are a bit gruesome , but given the light humour that pervades the whole book, I don’t think it’s anything that’ll leave the reader scarred for life.
So for me, this is the best of the Culture novels I’ve read so far; perhaps it’s because there was less focus on the benevolent (interfering?) super civilisation after which the series is named. Or perhaps it was because it was a genuinely funny book that raised questions the human race may have to ask itself – a hundred thousand years from now.