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Better than Phlebas?
I found this one of Bank's most satisfying works. Intelligent, high-flung science mixed with very believable characters, and shot through with the kind of grim melencholy I only previosly found in Consider Phlebas. Despite this it's a tale of atonement, and this renders it far more convincing than if Bank's had sought to reedeem his characters. My only complaint is that while he paints physically convincing sentient aliens (chelgrians) thier mentalities and failings are all to human. Not really a negetaive aspect just frustration from me that his wonderfully drawn alien psyches had little show in this book save as plot devices. Still despite this I believe Banks still sets the standard for space opera.
This is Iain Banks back to his best. If you thought his last few books (Song of Stone, The Business, Inversions) indicated a waning of inspiration, then reading this book should provide grounds for optimism. We revisit the Culture once more. The pleasing thing about this is that the writing is as fresh as ever, despite the familiar setting that Banks has depicted so many times before.
Chelgrian Ziller is a composer living apart from his people on the Masaq' Orbital. He is famous and highly regarded throughout the Culture, a fact that rankles the higher castes of Chel, his estranged homeworld. Quilan, an emissary is despatched to the Orbital, charged with persuading Ziller to return to his own world. But it is made clear that the Chelgrians have concocted this mission to cover a more sinister purpose. Even the emissary himself is unaware of the plot; to evade the potential mindreading abilities of the Culture his memories of the purpose have been erased, and are allowed only to gradually leak back into his mind.
We see the story from different viewpoints through the eyes of different species. Plausible cases for the guilt of the Culture are given, reasons for the dark machinations of the Chelgrians, motivations for Quilan's willingness to be manipulated by his masters and to do their terrible bidding.
This time the Culture and its Minds are portrayed as more organic, fallible, less perfect of judgment than before. No longer are the Minds seen as perfect moral judges, as immortal as gods. Some of them have begun to doubt that the Culture is the best environment for the humans and AIs it contains; to some of them it seems increasingly that there no impetus for advancement because all its subjects are satiated with every desire. Hints about the Culture's future are given near the climax of the book, and it is clear that even the Culture must change with time.