An unusual ‘Culture’ novel, and I wonder if some of the pleasures for the reader have been sacrificed to Banks’ ingenious if perhaps less satisfying structure.
We have the standard covert interplay between the vastly technologically superior, superlatively ‘civilised’ culture, and backwards societies still mired in greedy, patriarchal and militaristic abuses of human rights. But this time we see it from the perspective of people within the latter society who only have hints of the culture (hints, of course, that resonate far more strongly for those of us who have read other culture novels!).
Thus, in one sense if read alone it’s not SF at all (despite the differentiating ‘M.’ appearing in the author’s name). There’s only one (crucial) incident (OK, perhaps two) where the culture is forced to reveal itself, but, as the medieval-type narrator says, he just recounts, and doesn’t even begin to speculate. I wonder if someone who hadn’t read any other Banks would assume this was a fantasy novel, and that the good Doctor Vossill was actually a sorceress. I think Banks would enjoy this perception, putting the reader in the place of his old world characters.
There’s plenty of fooling with the narrator, with stories in stories (DeWar’s Hiliti and Sechroom, Perrund’s incomplete tragic personal history), and Oelph as eye-witness forced to speculate (or not) on incidents he can’t explain. Indeed, Banks highlights his teasing of the reader to put together the clues for themselves by interspersing (inverting, if you like) the two inter-related main stories with every second chapter being entitled ‘The Doctor’ or ‘The Bodyguard’. There is some pleasure in this, but I’m still unsure whether it’s too clever for its own good (or perhaps just for my own good). My favourite culture novel, The Use of Weapons, likewise leaves the reader to fill in gaps (in that case around an odd non-chronological structure), but I found the individual chapters there more compelling. The climax, too, in both books cleverly forces us to reconsider much that’s gone before. Very much a ‘win’ for the ladies, with poor old DeWar, as he’s been warned from the start, so busily trying to protect the ‘Protector’ that he loses sight of the bigger game. [Spoiler warning] And just how deep is our missionary-soldier Doctor working: somehow her friends all prosper to the happiest of endings while her foes all die (and often from the sort of poison one with her chemical skills could provide – including the sort applied to Lattens’ pacifier) and the realm moves upward to greater welfare and egalitarian government (very Confucian in outlook: get the king straightened out and everything else will come good). I’m not quite so sure why DeWar was so desperate to protect UrLeyn: was the idea for Hiliti and Sechroom to pick one backwater dictator each and see who could drag these peasants towards enlightenment first?
There are plenty of standard culture resonances here, hopefully facing the educated and relatively fabulously wealthy 1st world reader with his similar towering relation to those still essentially centuries behind in living standards and freedom in the 3rd world. How do we interact? What are our obligations? What is our best course? Banks doesn’t eulogise the noble savage either – his bleak picture of life in a medieval world cries out for rescue for the neglect, abuse and even torture of innocents.
So, pertinent themes, likeable characters, clever structure, powerfully surprising and plausible climax … but I wasn’t nearly as drawn in to this story as I am used to with Banks – I felt more distant than usual. Moreover I didn’t relish the writing style this time – perhaps because so much of it was done as the character Oelph – although the ‘Bodyguard’ narrative was generally even less gripping. Banks can be good, even great, but I feel this book is more a curiosity for the fans than something I recommend stand alone. Indeed, I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who hadn’t read some of his other books for fear that on this impression they’d miss out on some really excellent books.