Definitely Banks, but I didn’t enjoy this culture novel as much as either Player of Games or the excellent Use of Weapons. Is it because, reading it after these, I wasn’t as surprised by the originality of the ideas? There is still some great stuff here, with Fal ‘Ngeestra’s musings, the Predator/Warhammer 40 000 ultra-marine Idiran race, potently exotic locations, and some typically striking action. The first few chapters are crackers – almost humorously packed: Horza barely has time to draw breath as he’s frantically thrown between frying pan and fire. The initial ironically sympathetic interactions between him and his culture nemesis promise much. Then we step back in time for some philosophy and a little more exploration of the fascinating ultimate humanist utopia of the culture through the eyes of a gifted teenager off on an island paradise. All the ingredients are here (including Banks’ undeniably impressive wide historical setting) and I was relishing the prospect of the rest of the book – but by Vavatch he was losing me, and I should have followed my initial temptation to bail after the ridiculous carnage of the escape from The Ends of Invention: the whole Schar’s World narrative was laboured and increasingly silly.
Sure, I can see that there’s something insightful in having such a ‘morally ambiguous hero’ – many uglier civilian deaths have been caused by sincere soldiers – but I just couldn’t get by the stupidity of it all. C’mon, Horza has been sold to us as an elite spy/assassin: what on earth was he doing going back to the one ship the culture could trace him to when there are literally a million others leaving the orbital? Sure it was a wild ride off the GSV, but a really unnecessary one by a supposedly intelligent agent. And speaking of supposedly intelligent and resourceful agents, what does Balveda actually do from the moment she’s abducted? There are myriad moments when Horza is distracted or preoccupied – or in disarray! – but Balveda is a docile lamb the whole time. Why? And why on earth did they keep Xoxarle alive – after this terrifying monster constantly tried to maim or kill them? The motive of saving him for something worse than death just doesn’t cut it.
Maybe Banks is doing something deliberate here – presenting something of the madness of warfare that sees desperate sacrifices made for lost causes or intelligence mistakes – but it just felt really inconsistent to me.
So, sure, if this was the first Culture book I’d read maybe the dazzling scale, skilful action and intriguing history/philosophy would have overcome the irritation of the last third of the book – but it’s not, so I find it hard to recommend it without some serious pruning. Too much of it’s just cold, dark and senseless.