I don't always like Banks' books, but this one is the top rank in my opinion. I think some of his SF novels - Excession and the Algebraist for example - have a flaw in the centre, which undermines their impact. This one seems to be sound (I can't say wholesome) right through. Though admittedly I didn't grasp every nuance of the plot - the motives of the non-fallen bamboolean or whatever it was called remain opaque to me. But if one or more cultures are said to be superhumanly devious in strategy, it falls upon the writer to portray an appropriately devious strategy unfolding. As far as I can tell on one listen, this succeeds, with a story complex enough to rather confound me, but comprehensible enough to give each scene emotional impact.
The underlying premise of this story is one mentioned in previous Culture novels but not deeply explored - that at high levels of technology it will be possible to record a person's mental state, and then re-vent that person into a new body, or to run their personality within a simulated virtual realm. This could be done to give people a second life after death, or for strategic reasons.
Some people by the way, in our real world I mean, have argued that we can all look forward to blissful afterlives, courtesy of our descendants, who will rescue us in this way at the very end of history. For real.
I hadn't previously considered the issue raised in this book, which is that technologically advanced societies can be gripped by unpleasant religious convictions (not mentioning any names) and might rather use such technology to punish the undeserving by running eternal simulated hells in which billions of souls experience unmitigated suffering. Great, another thing to worry about: 'the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns', instigated by the Sarah Palin of the 299th century. But never fear - the truly civilised would never countenance torture, and goodies always win wars, don't they?
It is not a spoiler to say that various philosophical issues and interesting circumstances raised by the duplication of minds are explored in this novel, nor that the obscenity of hell, and the drive to put a stop to it as quickly as possible, gives the plotty shenanigans their emotional propulsion. I was out walking, listening to a particularly harrowing scene, and I found I had my fingers crossed so hard it actually hurt. As if that would help.
There are at least two issues that this book made me think about, which I would like to write more about: one is the idea of hell itself, and what it has meant to me in my life. Another is the difference between conservative and progressive SF. But I have written enough here I guess. I might do supplemental posts another time.
Oh, but there is one thing I want to talk about, because this gave me pause before I started this novel. It is, as one of my lj feminist friends said, 'a bit rapey'. There is, you understand, a lot of grim stuff, which I personally had to struggle through. It did not give me a feeling of revulsion, like some of Banks previous works have; it did not make me feel creeped out. But it was nasty, as it was intended to be. People have to judge for themselves if they want to endure those passages. I personally think it was amply worth it.