Iain Banks is a prolific writer who loves to deal in large-scale settings of madly inventive nature. In this work of science fiction, the story is set in a world in which two warring factions tunnel through the remains of the society of their extremely advanced forefathers.
The story is split into five parts, which are advanced in turn. In no particular order, these are told from the point of view of:
- a despot
- a politician
- an aristocrat
- a dyslexic young outsider
- a brand new woman of indeterminant origin
There are two things I admire about the worlds that Banks invents. The first is the effortless way in which he introduces new worlds through descriptive text that neither interrupts the story nor leaves prevents the imagination from seizing the place. The second is the consistency of the rules of these weird worlds.
It's a matter of course, for instance, that in the story's world you can be reborn a given number of times, and that you can arrange things so that you can carry certain relationships and possessions over from previous lives. But when you've been reborn a certain number of times, that's it, you're as gone as you are after your only death in our world.
Unlike some authors (myself included, I suspect), Banks is capable of making worlds that simply exist; things don't exist simply to move the story along, nor do they exist to show off the author's cleverness. They just are. And yet they're not window-dressing. It's not until the end of this one, for instance, that we learn the significance of the great tower that looms over the story.
As for the story itself, there are a number of rich scenes that stayed with me long after I was done with this book, and that's a sign that something was working. But what didn't work for me was the five-way split in the story's vantage point. I think, in fact, that it might have been carried off with only three of the stories (and possibly two).
I don't recommend this as one of Banks's best. See, for instance Against a Dark Background or The Wasp Factory.