As is always best in these things, I read the whole of this book today. I tend to think I judge books better when I don’t have gaps, because I am fairly easily distracted, and also coming to it on different days, in different frames of mind will give me different impressions. If I had my way, I’d read all my books in one sitting, but I suspect work would object to me not turning up because I’m still on the Piccadilly Line, engrossed. So compromises must be made.
Whether or not because of this, I think this is my favourite Culture novel so far. By a clear margin (current ranking thus being Look to Windward, then Player of Games, then Use of Weapons… then everything else, then Consider Phlebas, which I now probably intend to reread).
There are two main reasons for this, I think, and they sort of relate. The first is simply that there’s a character – Ziller – whom I absolutely adore. The second, that Banks is doing an alien species (two, if you’re willing to count the other ambassador as representative of his entire species) who isn’t a massive pile of exaggerated awfulness. And I know it doesn’t happen in every single Culture novel, but it is kind of a theme, at least in the ones I’ve read. The Azad… the Affront… it’s sort of what he does, no? And so it’s really nice to get a balanced view of another alien species, and from their perspective, and it just to work and be wonderful. So they actually feel like people, even when they’re fairly alien aliens, whose alien-ness has been well-explored. In the case of Ziller and his species, the Chelgrians, Banks has us thinking about the differences in a sentient species descended from predators (physiological, psychological and cultural). Not a huge amount, but enough definitely to be cool and enjoyable.
Primarily though, it’s just that Ziller is a glorious, sarcastic bastard. Especially when you contrast this with the polite smugness of the drones, having that one immensely snarky person just lifts everything else. And I don’t think I’ve really found any previously mentioned characters in Banks’ novel quite so engaging. They’ve been good and balanced and interesting and fun and sympathetic… but just not quite as immediately lovable.
By contrast, I’m beginning to realise that I hate every Culture drone.
Not in a bad way, if one can hate not in a bad way. Just… they’re all pretty insufferable, as people. And that’s good. It’s showing me a society that is full of intolerably smug characters (and in this case, a sarcastic git who can’t stand them either), which is completely plausible and makes the world-building even more realistic. But they are all intolerably smug wankers. I don’t know if it’s deliberate, though. I hope it is. I’d like to think he sat there and pondered what it would be like to be a drone in a society where everyone can do basically as they please, and humans are frivolous and short-lived in comparison, and there are super-AI Minds wandering about, and decided that the answer was “smug little pricks”. Because that would make me very happy. And generally, it feels like all the stuff Banks has done, he’s done with thought and care, so it would be a hell of a coincidence if it was just happenstance that every single one of the drones was an absolute cock*.
That said, I do always get the feeling that Banks wants us to be well-disposed towards his AIs, and it’s very hard to be well-disposed towards a bunch of tiny, flying, pretentious dicks. But maybe they’re there to balance out the generally sympathetic Minds? I don’t know. I suppose if we just had the Minds, the state of AI in the Culture would be both a lot more sympathetic and a lot more boring. And a lot less… human? Personality-ful. For all that the Minds have personalities, they feel much less like people a lot of the time than drones do, because they seem to be above a lot of the petty personality flaws. Drones… maybe they’re there for that. I’d be willing to buy that.
The story is not quite so twisty as some of Banks’ others, being the sort where you know what’ll happen at the end and you just want to find out how. But it’s a well written one, and funny in parts, and for all its predictability I do think it’s one of his best. It’s got a nice character focus (look at me being predictable), and also more of the insight into the Culture that you only get from non-Culture perspectives. It does also attempt to explore a theme (the aftermath of war, and how one lives with oneself) with some sensitivity and grace, and I only regret that I can’t actually remember enough of Consider Phlebas to appreciate it without rereading it. Which I will. But I remember disliking it intensely so it might take a while for me to get there.
Ultimately, it’s just a really excellent example of what Banks does, and what I’ve enthused about before. He writes well, even when you know what’s going to happen. He gives you great characters, some of whom you actually care about. He gives you properly alien aliens, and cool space travel, and ridiculous hedonistic space utopia. It’s what he does. But I think, thus far, this is the one where I think he’s done it best.
Also yeah, Ziller. Sarcastic bastard. Got to love him.
*Apparently what happens when I write a blog post on painkillers is I swear about robots more. I’m ok with this.