Because I read about two-hundred books a year, I’m frequently in the position of having to come into a series at an intermediate point (note to publishers: not everyone likes series or serials). Under normal circumstances, this is not a problem. Although not entirely writing each book as a stand-alone, most authors take the time and trouble to structure the narrative so that newbies like myself can be given necessary background information as we go along. It’s also helpful to seniors like myself who often forget what happened in the last book we read in the series and need reminding as we start the next. The longer the gap between each new instalment, the more necessary the infodumps become.
The Orphaned Worlds by Michael Cobley (Orbit, 2012) Book II of Humanity’s Fire kicks off with six-and-a-half pages summarising “what has gone before”. I was filled with hope. The author and publisher had decided to help out everyone except those lucky enough to have inherited an eidetic memory. Except when it came to the text of the book itself, I didn’t find the summary of much use. I understood we were on a world called Darien and there were bad guys locked away in a hidden prison under the planet’s surface. So far so good. But the way in which this book begins completely failed to catch my attention. In part this arises from the author’s decisions about how the narrative is structured into separate chunks with different points of view and no apparent link between them. But my problems were enhanced by the prose style. I’m usually prepared to soldier on with the story if I find the prose accessible and interesting in its own right. Sadly, I found this turgid and indigestible. The result is that this book has become the first book of 2013 to be thrown away. I managed to get one-hundred-and-fifty or so pages through it, but just couldn’t take any more.
I see from this author’s website that all three books have been published in the UK and that he’s on to the next exciting book called Ancestral Machines. So if you enjoyed Seeds of Earth, the first in this trilogy, this is no doubt more of the same and The Ascendant Stars, the concluding volume, will be out in the US shortly. Otherwise, this is not a book I can recommend you pick up, let alone open.
Great North Road by Peter F Hamilton (Del Rey, 2012) is a remarkable work of fiction. It runs to 951 pages plus prefatory timeline and cast list. This makes it one of the longer books on the market. So before you even think of buying it, ask yourself whether you have the time and patience to read it through to the end. Even at my probably higher than average reading speed, I spread it over three days. This leads me to make a somewhat facile point. There’s a phenomenal amount of detailed work involved in writing a book this long. First you have to devise a plot with enough complexity to unwind in an unforced way but hold the reader’s interest. It must be peopled by reasonably credible characters and what they do must make sense in the context. Second, this is both a police procedural and an interplanetary dispute involving the themes of colonisation, cloning and life extension, with potential aliens waiting to strike. This requires the creation of future technology to make the medical breakthroughs, support law enforcement and develop the hardware to transport humanity to different planets “out there”. More importantly, there has to be a sufficient link between the homicide investigation in our future version of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the events happening elsewhere (and elsewhen), i.e. the identification of the murderer on Earth has to have a pay-off in interplanetary terms. In all these purely mechanical features, I can report a modest triumph. The investment of effort by the author has produced a stunningly coherent plot with the twin narrative arcs intertwining most effectively as we build up to the climax and the emotionally satisfying epilogue. Unfortunately, this demonstration of writing craft does not prevent the book from growing rather boring for all it tends into “alien monster” and space opera territory.
At this point, as a Geordie, I should disclose my interest in books that purport to show Newcastle and its culture. For the record, the Great North Road is the route taken by coaches out of London heading north. For a while the old A1 used to follow it but, as towns and cities were bypassed, few today will remember it. Making allowances for this novel being set in 2141 AD, it keeps the layout of the city substantially in line with current reality and, albeit somewhat repetitively, it replicates some of the speech rhythms and uses some of the more common endearments and expressions. This came as a slight surprise since I’m reading the ARC of the US edition. I’m not sure what American readers will make of some of the dialogue. Not that it needs subtitles, of course. It carefully avoids anything that might take us into the dialect (the little that remains of it today). But some of the speech pattern is captured and it might be a little “alien” to modern ears. To be honest, I’m not sure this is a success. I think southerners should stick to writing in a language they know.
Anyway, we start off following Sidney Hurst as he picks up the political hot potato of a murder involving the North family. This is a multigenerational family of clones that have come to dominate the world economy by developing an oil substitute on the planet called St Libra. Using “gate technology” the family is pumping some 60% of Earth’s needs as the book starts. The enduring problem for the detectives is their inability to identify which of the clones has been killed. Despite their best efforts, all they manage to do for the early part of the book is to identify where the body was dumped into the River Tyne using one of the fairly anonymous taxis as transport. However, it’s the murder method that sets alarm bells ringing. It matches a multiple homicide just over twenty years ago on on St Libra. At the time, a woman who was initially considered a survivor, was later convicted of the murder. Since the method is identical and the woman is still in prison, the file has to be reopened. She has always alleged that an alien was the killer. This has never seemed very likely because, apart from extensive vegetation, there’s no life on St Libra. Equally, there’s no obvious way an alien could have come to Earth for this killing. Indeed, since local gang members were actively involved in dumping the body, it seems even less likely an alien could have recruited them. The more probable explanation is some kind of corporate dispute between different factions in the North clan. Except. . .
So on a safety-first basis, our convicted murderer is given the chance to go back to St Libra on a search for evidence that there really are aliens in the jungle. At a stroke, we therefore have the potential for a rerun of Predator (1987) on St Libra and Predator 2 (1990) in Newcastle. Both films have the great virtue of relative brevity as the humans are whittled down to Arnold Schwarzenegger or Danny Glover. Unfortunately, after 200 pages, we’re still chasing taxis in Newcastle. Hardly the same level of economy to get us into the thick of the action. Indeed, I would go so far as to say this would have been a great novel at half the length. Even when we do get ourselves to St Libra and the sun begins to misbehave, the jungle encampment and forced withdrawal sequence is interminable. I stopped caring who the different characters were. The rather strange religion of some government officers is also an unnecessary complication. Although I understand the slightly paranoid stance of the Earth government, their doomsday approach is a nonstarter if this means affecting the substitute oil production on St Libra. Earth cannot so casually threaten to cut off 60% of its fuel supply. There’s also a strange disconnect between the unstoppable terraforming performed by the Zanth and the immediate problem. Although it does tie together in a somewhat ironic way as part of the climax, I’m still not quite sure whether the threat of the Zanth was actually resolved. There’s a hint on the last page that it is, but it would be nice to have a little more detail.
Overall, I rose to the challenge and read it all. I don’t think the test of my patience made me a better human being. I ended up feeling frustrated that I was being buried in a morass of potentially relevant information but without any certainty that it would all be important in any way. If you like a slow but steady read with a lot of political and economic background to flesh out the setting for the action, Great North Road is for you. If you prefer a page-turner thriller set in the future with guns blazing and crazed aliens leaping murderously out of the jungle, watch Predator again.
The artwork from the UK edition is by Steve Stone and rather beautiful.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
There are times when you think you’ve hit pay-dirt (an evocative term from the mining industry which signals the possibility the humble-looking earth you’re digging through contains ores in sufficient quantity so that, after extraction and refining, you’ll be able to afford that island in the Caribbean you’ve always promised yourself) yet proves to be just more dirt to move out of your way by hand. So it is with Up Jim River by Michael Flynn (Tor, 2010) The January Dancer II which starts off like an express train with wonderfully evocative language and a not-wholly-original quest, then slows to a walking pace, and soon gets bogged down in its own pretentiousness. This is such a shame because, with a little more wit and a savage pruning, this could have been excellent.
This is a sequel to The January Dancer with the action picking up some twenty years later (i.e. long enough for Bridget-ban’s daughter, Lucia Thompson aka Mearana, to have been born and grown up into a determined young lady). Mummy Hound has disappeared and the Kennel, spy agency to the stars, has officially declared her probably dead. Lucia refuses to accept the probability of death — Mummy spies are very hard to kill — and tracks down The Scarred Man aka Donovan aka The Fudir, one of the three people who were with Bridget-ban on the earlier mission (both Greystroke and Hugh offer assistance in this quest — I hope you’re keeping the numbers of people here straight). We now come to the core of what could have been fascinating.
I’m heavily burdened by memories of characters like Miro Hetzel and Magnus Ridolph from Jack Vance, Retief by Keith Laumer, and so on. These are men of action who roam the galaxy, righting wrongs and fighting incompetence wherever it raises its ugly head. More importantly, they do it with a swashbuckling smile and a marked reluctance to engage in violence unless it’s absolutely unavoidable. This preference for jaw-jaw over war-war was at odds with the mind-numbing stupidity of much space opera of the day but, when it came to gentle peregrination about the galaxy, there was no-one better to accompany you than a character created by Jack Vance. There would be moments of travelogue description, a wry nugget of previously unacknowledged history, and some derring-do when required — Vance was not averse to blowing up a moon if it would make an artistic point.
So The Scarred Man could be a modern recreation of this time-honoured character as we set off to find the lost Mummy. Indeed, every word in the first twenty or thirty pages is Vancean and gives rise to such hope and expectation. . . Ah well, such are the dreams of frustrated old readers. Even the idea of the character is inherently interesting. For reasons not clear, the mind of this former spy has been fractured into separate personalities. To get anything done, there must either be a committee meeting and something approaching a democratic decision, or one mind must assume control, e.g. Brute to fight, Sleuth to investigate, and so on. At times, this lack of instinctive response leaves our hero literally paralysed as disputing personalities argue what should be done. While experiencing the equivalent of an epileptic fit is not inherently dangerous in ordinary life, it can be a distinct disadvantage to an ex-superspy trying to make a come-back. So unless Brute can take over in an emergency, this is an essentially vulnerable man attempting to shepherd an inexperienced young woman around the galaxy on what may be a fruitless search for her mother. On the way, they acquire a couple of helpers, meet up briefly with Hound Greystroke and Pup Hugh, and catch up with the absent-minded academic who’d been doing the initial research that had so fascinated Missing Mummy. This leaves them planet-hopping and later stuck up Jim River without a paddle. All this could have been delightful if there had been more inherently interesting action, or more comic interludes. As it is, the whole enterprise grows tiresome, not least because of all the ghastly reproduced accents and garbled languages that the various people speak. I could have coped with travelogue if it had all been in English but this gaelic (punning reference to galactic — yes, the humour is this desperate) is just so annoying, it swamps any enjoyment that might have come from the plot. Ah, yes, the plot. Frankly, it’s fairly obvious what they’re going to find at the end although the nuts and bolts of the final discovery are quite well thought out and the reason for Mummy’s failure to return is quite satisfying.
So Up Jim River has its moments but, like one of the characters they meet — a leader who’s held prisoner because no-one else wants to be the leader — you just end up thinking life’s too short to read every word in space opera books like this. Skipping gives you the story and allows you to escape the enveloping mind-numbing before it completely shuts down the brain.
Magnificent artwork from Sparth.
By way of introduction, I need to remind myself of the definition I use for space opera. When I was young, I read through an uncountable number of pages filled with “wow factor” fiction. That’s the technical term for essentially stupid things happening on a vast, not to say unimaginable, scale. It’s not due to chance that the opening words of Star Wars resonated with those of use who had grown up during the so-called Golden Age. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” Never mind the lack of any scientific explanation for what was happening. It was all Boy’s Own adventure fiction transferred to outer space where rampaging evil could be thwarted only by the gismos dreamt up by superscientists like Captain Future in their shiny laboratories or wunderkind throwing random stuff together in their bedrooms. This was all about “going out there” to confront foes unimaginable and still be home in time for tea. And therein lay the problem. When you’re placing your characters against a background of colliding galaxies and you only have fourteen hours to save the Earth, it’s difficult to come up with a plot that’s operatic enough to fill the stage and keep us occupied for however long it takes to read the book. Those of you old enough will remember there was a myth floating around the publishing houses that no author could write intelligent space opera. The moment people started actually thinking, this became serious SF and so no longer fun. To be space opera, like B movies, the work had to represent the lowest possible common denominator of old-style shoot-em-up Westerns transferred to outer space.
Then along came Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Hyperion by Dan Simmons, and so on. This is a much more ambitious approach to the notion of what should constitute contemporary space opera. The books still ignore the laws of physics and lack realism, but continue with the “wow factor”. They are imaginative but have an underlying political context and economic logic. More importantly, they also have a certain optimism. Whereas steampunk looks to the past with a nostaligic eye and shakes its head in sadness that we didn’t have proper Babbage Engines crunching numbers for us back in Victorian times, new Space Opera reaches for the stars and thinks about the possibility the human race can set aside its tribal differences and built an interstellar culture. For all enemies may lurk in the darkness, we’re never without hope. No matter what the difficulties, we strive to overcome them. It’s inspirational stuff.
All of which brings me to Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) (Orbit, 2012) Book 2 The Expanse. I confess to being unimpressed by the first half of Leviathan Wakes. Yes, it was nominated for the 2012 Hugo for Best Novel but I’ve never been afraid to disagree with the masses. I was, you will understand, still sufficiently interested to read this second volume and I’m glad I did. If ever you needed a book to hold up to the world and say, “This is new Space Opera!” Caliban’s War is it. Although the action is limited to our own solar system (sadly, no colliding galaxies in this one) the threat comes from “outside” and is building up rather nicely. The feature that makes the book so entertaining is the predictable infighting between the different human factions, the most aggressive believing they can control the threat to make super weapons. This has to be the ultimate head-in-the-sand approach to fighting an alien invasion. First study the composition of the alien and, when you vaguely understand it, weaponise it and use the results to start a war. Obviously, when the different factions have finished fighting each other, there won’t be many left to fight the aliens but that’s not such an important factor in this pissing contest. Needless to say, the voice of sanity trying to keep the testosterone levels under control is a supergranny who pulls the strings inside the UN, while the self-righteous Jim Holden is once again going the best of three falls to decide the winner in his fight to save everyone from themselves.
Although there are two slightly overlapping interludes when point-of-view switches between characters, it’s less jarring than in the first volume and, more generally, the prose reads with a pleasing fluency. So what we have is a genuinely exciting read with the appearance of an alien monster setting the UN and Mars at each other’s throats, while the Belters look on with interest and whoever released the monster waits for the benefits to accrue. I have the sense that Ty Franck has settled into the team and is improving in the craft a converting a gaming manual into a novel. For once I’m probably going with the flow and rate this as one of the best SF books so far this year. It’s certainly up there with the Culture novels by Iain Banks as being one of the leading space opera books of the last decade.
For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer.
Jacket artwork by Daniel Dociu.
This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.
The Six Directions of Space by Alastair Reynolds has been anthologised twice and was published as a hardback stand-alone by Subterranean Press (2008) quickly going through two printings. So the question naturally arises: what makes this story so good? The answer is one of these deceptively simple throw-aways. This is superior space opera. Ah ha! What does that mean? Well, the whole point of space opera is that it should be highly melodramatic and involve a major confrontation between large groups of people in outer space, i.e. it has epic pretensions. If at all possible, it should be a clash between civilisations. If that’s too much to ask for, there should be battles if not a full-scale war, hopefully with blasters blasting and the baddies wiped from the face of the universe. This, of course, was typical of many of the pulps and novels published in the middle part of the last century. Most of it was extraordinarily bad by today’s standards. So, if a modern author aims at this target, he or she must take great care to avoid the mistakes of the past. This can be done by adding a veneer of humour to proceedings, or it can simply be better written with a more “credible” plot. Obviously, all science fiction by definition requires a suspension of disbelief but readers nevertheless look for elements in the text which match our expectations of how people and aliens will behave in different circumstances.
This novella manages to hit three targets with the one shot. It’s space opera, it has a Big Dumb Object, i.e. humans come across a major alien artifact, explore it and then try to make it work, and it’s alternate history. In this case, the relevant human society discovers a major transportation system built by long-lost aliens. After some experimentation, they use the system to achieve a human diaspora among the stars. All this seems to be going well except there are worrying hints that there may be problems emerging. In this version of reality, the Earth has risen to power under the control of the Mongol armies. More than one-thousand years have passed since the death of Genghis Khan and an intensely militaristic culture has arisen. Interestingly, for all the development of superior technology including spaceships, key personnel still follow the tradition of riding horses whenever possible. Because of the tribal system, there’s also a general failure to share information. Factionalism means each tribe will maintain secrecy if they believe they can profit. In an attempt to infiltrate one such tribe, a top spy, who goes by the name of Yellow Dog, does the undercover thing. As planned, she’s arrested by a key player in the tribe holding the information she needs. After enduring torture, during which she carefully reveals cover identities, she finally admits her “real” identity and is recruited to pursue the investigation into what may be wrong with the transport system. The answer proves to be a completely fascinating idea as to one possible property of the wormholes that make the BDO such an effective transportation system over long distances. The problem is an interesting variation on the idea underpinning the presence of the Prophets in the Bajoran wormhole in Deep Space Nine.
So there you have my usual cryptic introduction to a story. If you want to find out what actually happens and why this does prove to be a clash between civilisations with blasters blasting, you had better lay your hands on a copy. It’s completely engrossing and, unfortunately, ends all too soon. The Six Directions of Space is the sort of idea other authors would have blown up into a full-length novel. Alastair Reynolds does only what’s necessary to set up the situation and leave on a note of hope. If you have not already done so, you should lay your hands on a copy.
The jacket artwork is by Tomislav Tikulin.
The Six Directions of Space first appeared in Galactic Empires edited by Gardner Dozois (Science Fiction Book Club, 2008), an anthology of six original novellas. It then appeared as a hardback stand-alone from Subterranean Press and finally reappeared in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection edited by the ubiquitous Gardner Dozois.
Throughout Chinese and Asian culture, you repeatedly encounter the idea of the need for balance. In Taoism, for example, the duality we term yin and yang envisages the world built on a series of complementary opposites. Within each system, a balance is achieved because the weight or power of each opposite is equal, i.e. it will never be possible for one to overcome the other. To that extent, they are simultaneously in binary opposition but also mutually dependent and, through that positive relationship, new generations are born. So, the metacycle might be life and death, with the subcycle of children being born from men and women. Within the group we think of as humanity, there’s a series of subsets representing good and evil, war and peace, love and hate, memory and forgetfulness, and so on. There are as many binaries as your imagination can create. Indeed, there comes a point when you have to admit the futility of cataloguing them since, as pairs, they are necessarily eradicable and ineradicable, and likely to remain so until Eschaton when everything ends and there’s a new beginning.
The Recollection by Gareth Powell (Solaris, 2011) plays with the idea of circularity and balance. Think of the universe as the view from your window. If a force inimical to life emerges, there will be a counterbalancing defensive force to preserve life. So, as a dispassionate observer, you could study the way in which the two forces ebb and flow. Some species may be lost, but others will be saved. To some extent, this will be random for who can predict where the rolling battle will next be played out across the immensity of space. But, as in everything else across the galaxies, there will always be new life emerging as old life passes away.
The subgenre we call space opera is acted out against a vast canvas, but these landscapes must always be peopled. The Recollection starts off on contemporary Earth with two brothers and a “guilty” wife in transition between them. In a different time and a superior technological society, we have another relationship in trouble. A woman is alone. Perhaps she betrayed her man or may be it was just a misunderstanding. The initial catalyst for the main action to start is the sudden appearance of gateways on Earth. The gulled brother is the first to fall through. Rather in the same way that Philip José Farmer played with gates in the World of Tiers, so these new devices are fixed-point teleportation devices between different planets. Some months later, the guilty brother and abandoned wife set off through another gate in search of the lost brother. In this narrative thread, it plays out a little like Sliders as our couple find themselves in different hostile environments. It’s a little routine and not very original. The motivation of the people they meet is also difficult to understand. It is, however, more scientifically credible than the television series because the reason why they never go back is an application of temporal relativity. If you violate the speed of light in moving from one planet to another, several hundred years may pass on the planet of departure even if you were to turn back through the gate immediately. They can never go back to the time they came from. They can only go forward, as if towards the centre of a maze.
In the other narrative thread, the destructive force (if such it really be given that it thinks of itself as The Recollection) heads towards that part of space now occupied by the humans. As always in these situations, the problem is how humanity should respond. The answer is all rather elegant with all the necessary components on display from the outset. It’s simply a case of the reader appreciating the significance of events.
Taken overall, The Recollection is a rather pleasing book striking a nice balance between the lives of individuals and the necessary mechanics of a space opera staging, i.e. you have to be prepared to accept some degree of coincidence and absurdity as the action unwinds. Although I think some of the flashback episodes are slightly too long in explaining exactly what went wrong in the relationships, Gareth Powell does succeed in making us care about these people. They feel real despite the enormity of the roles they are destined to play. The only slight fudge is as to how much of a villain Victor is but I was prepared to look the other way so that he can be redeemed and balance restored. This is worth reading if you enjoy space opera with a slightly gritty and occasionally noirish tone. There’s just enough on the plus side to make me interested to see what Gareth Powell comes up with next.
Sometimes the eye can be seduced and not understand the reality of what it sees. Indeed, perhaps that’s the real point of Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks. In our mundane world, people can wear different uniforms or be decorated with tattoos to suggest membership of one group yet, under the skin, they may be wolves dressed up as sheep, or vice versa. A novel based on this theme should come as a cautionary tale, encouraging the reader to look beyond the obvious to find the real beef (as Walter Mondale might say).
So we open up for business with the outside of the package. The jacket and endpaper designs by Lauren Panepinto are actually exploiting one of those mathematical things that we’ve adopted as art. Those who have the right computing power start off their machines with a Mandelbrot Set and then stand back with a critical eye as the equations propagate into infinite fractal patterns. Then it’s just a matter of waiting and, with the reflexes of a trained hunter, the trap is sprung just as the right visual effect walks into view. In this case, the eyes have it and, for the benefit of those who like a bigger image, I’ve posted one of the wallpaper versions from the Orbit site.
This is not a distraction from the book itself because, like much of the fiction by both the standard and the M-enhanced versions of Iain Banks, the book is very much about both the need to look beneath the surface of reality and the rich patterns that form the tapestry of life, or death, for that matter (pun intended). Looking back through time, there’s always been a stick and carrot approach to controlling people while on Earth. You have a great place everyone could go to when they die. The price of entry is to do whatever keeps the priests happy. But, if these poor supplicants step off the straight and narrow path devised by their priests, there’s a place of terrible punishment waiting. Well, in primitive times, this kind of threat system works rather well. As we grow a little more sophisticated, the potential for manipulation becomes more obvious and this can inspire us to a more cynical view. If we choose, we can look for evidence of what might be real.
Now the SFnal idea: everyone knows about the possibilities of virtualisation — a system that allows us to create a virtual rather than an actual version of reality. Modern technology is limited, but let’s suppose we can develop immersive systems where a user’s awareness of their surroundings is limited or excluded, leaving all the senses perceiving the virtual as real. With massive processing power, we could create entire artificial environments that users could experience as if physically there. So here comes the justification for the title. Without a helpful label floating somewhere in the mind’s eye saying “simulation”, there might be no way in which to see beyond the virtual surface to the real. It all comes down to the metaphysical paradox explored by many philosophers, writers and film-makers. How do we know we exist? We could just be dreaming this life, or death, for that matter (still punning).
Perhaps entire civilisations might decide to create virtual hells and, on death, personalities that had offended local behavioural norms could literally be transferred into a purgatory. This then changes the balance of power within the civilisation. When there was no evidence to show a heaven and hell existed, religion would slowly wither as rationality replaced faith. But suppose you could actually organise visits to the virtual hell. It would be a really dramatic, not to say traumatic, experience for the living to be presented with a short experience of what it could be like for them if they are disobedient.
So now we have a major ethical debate across star systems and the civilised universe. The pro- and anti-Hell camps square off but, with no obvious way of resolving such emotional issues in a real way, perhaps they might agree some kind of contest. Not quite along the same lines as a chess match to decide the winner, but champions could be nominated. They could fight it out over a predetermined period of time in virtual space.
Yet what would happen if one side felt they were losing in this virtual conflict. Might they attempt to hack back into the real world to find some advantage to tip the final scales in their favour?
So we set off on another Culture novel and, from an early point, we meet one of the best and most engaging villains I’ve experienced in quite a long time. Veppers is a complete delight. He’s the key stimulus forcing the other characters, both real and artificial, to react. We can say approving things about Leddedje, an “owned” human, magnificently tattooed to demonstrate her status. Veppers murders her in the first chapter — unbeknown to him, she’s rescued by Culture technology. Or the wonderfully enthusiastic Demeisen, avatar of the appropriately-named ship, Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, who revels in the chance to relive the excitement of being able to fire off all his weaponry in anger. But they are all slightly pallid shadows in pursuit of Veppers who, for various reasons that become clear as the plot unwinds, is at the centre of the debate about the virtual hells.
This is Iain Banks at his very best with a sly and engaging fable in which we can rehearse old arguments about superstition and its role in society, while enjoying full-blown space opera with AI ships blasting enemies without caring too much about the casualty rate in the various species that might be operating said enemy ships. For once, this is science fiction with a real sense of humour. While not laugh-out-loud, it certainly brings smiles of appreciation as wit positively crackles across the many worlds, both real and imagined. Whereas the last two Culture novels, Matter and Hydrogen Sonata, were a bit dowdy, this is a bright and hugely enjoyable romp through all the major SF space opera tropes. It’s definitely worth seeking out and reading.
This is a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.