This is the fifth book in the Culture series by Iain M Banks, and the fourth proper novel. There’s a novella tucked in there that is interesting but not really a full story. This once still has the classic touches of humor, wildness, hilarious naming conventions. The novels are generally a mix of Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish books (by which I mean he pretty much rips her off in a number of ways) and a very very very toned down Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. They’re funny, but not farcical.
The worst things Banks did to himself was make Player of Games so good that I’ve been chasing that dragon ever since. So while this one still has lots of good to it, I felt like it really dragged for me, and by the end, I was really ready for it to be over. Part of the issue is that large, large sections of this book are written in tight beam communication codes, so there’s a lot of nonsense extratext to sort through that “codes” the communications. It’s the equivalent on reading through a bunch of html pasted into a novel to show the ways in which certain beings communicate. It’s accurate and skillful, but truly awful to read through. It’s like when other novelists put flashbacks or dream sequences into large italics paragraphs.
The novel is best when Banks is playing around with the gigantic universe he’s created. For those not in the know, the universe involves giant MIND ships and a collective/human symbiotic model in which longevity and other human desires are traded for computing power. So when Banks is playing with the choices that allows people, the timespans that occur as a result, and the flipping around of gender and the like, it’s fun. But when the actual plot is happening, I kind of drifted, which is unfortunate for a 500 page novel.