This is the first novel in The Culture series, and the first novel published under Iain M. Banks (as opposed to his regular fiction, which is published without the middle initial). I’ve heard from multiple sources that the place to start in the series is with the second novel, The Player of Games, because this one is considered a weaker entry in the series. I guess each novel is set in the same universe but has a different cast of characters, so they can be read out of order. I decided against doing this because it just feels wrong somehow, and I figured I’d rather just get it out of the way. I’ve read a couple of his novels now, and know I like his style, so I’ll go on to read The Player of Games regardless of my opinion on this one.
Thankfully, it’s not an issue, because I was pleasantly surprised by this. My expectations were quite low going in, to be fair, which always helps. This wasn’t amazing by any means, but I did enjoy it, and it left me excited to read further. The universe is quite interesting, and his humour and love for the grotesque are definitely well present here. The plot in this was all over the place, though, and I was mainly left with the feeling that he really wanted to write about space battles and explosions. The characters and plot turns often felt like nothing more than tools to facilitate that. A large portion of this book could have been skipped without any effect on the plot or character development. But even with its flaws, it’s easy to see that there’s so much potential here for the rest of the series.
There are two warring faction in this universe. The first is the Culture, a hedonistic society consisting of a mix of humanoids, aliens and cognitive computers. Their advanced computers manage the society’s economy, so the people are left to their own desires, to pursue their hobbies and passions as they see fit without having to do work they don’t enjoy. There wasn’t too much of a glimpse inside the Culture in this book, but I imagine the rest of the series deals with the advantages and problems that such a society could bring. The other faction is the Idirans, a militaristic and highly religious race. Their aggressive expansion in the universe is the cause of the Idiran-Culture War.
Many other races have been pulled into both sides of the war. The main character in this book is Horza, a Changer that can slowly transform his body, from outward appearance to the muscle structure and bones, over the course of days. Changers also have full control over how their body functions, feeling pain and producing sweat for example, and can administer poison through their spittle and nails. I’m not sure if they’re a throw-away race for this novel or not, but they were pretty interesting. Horza has been hired by the Idirans to retrieve a Culture Mind, one of their super-intelligent sentient computers. I heard an interview where Banks described the plot as a group of pirates travelling to a far-off land to retrieve a buried treasure, which is really what it boils down to.
It’s interesting that he wrote this from the viewpoint of an outside character, neither Culture nor Idiran, and then went on to apparently write the rest of the series from the Culture’s side. I feel like coming back to this novel, after having read the others, would really feel out of place. It seems most people feel this is a bad place to start, since it gives a false impression of the series. It may in terms of quality, I don’t know as I haven’t read on yet, but I think as an introduction to the universe it works quite well. The setting, the races, the politics, and the technology are full of really interesting ideas, so I’ll be looking to see if that creativity makes its way into the plot in the next of the series.