I was a bit worried about this one, as the description of the virtual Hells made me wonder if we were going to be embedded in a world where the boundaries between the Real and Virtual would be blurred out of all recognition. Fortunately not. This outing in the universe of The Culture is more widescreen than the previous one, ‘Matter’; and I prefer it that way. What is the point in having a ubiquitous, galaxy-spanning culture like the Culture, and then looking too closely at one small corner of it?
I actually did feel that I was hearing Banks’ own voice in a couple of the characters; indeed, I’m almost sure I’ve been drinking with the ‘Me, I’m counting’ or someone very much like it on a number of occasions where I’ve mixed with Scots. Otherwise, this book is notable for the portrayal of Joiler Veppers, the venal, self-centred industrialist; I compared and contrasted him with the managers in one of Banks’ non-SF books,. “The Business”, where the eponymous business was run by hard-nosed but decent human beings. “Fair” is not a word you’d apply to Veppers. I had some difficulty with my visualisation of the Pavuleans as intelligent, technologically and socially-advanced quadrupeds, and I suspect that, given the way Banks quickly lapses into fairly pedestrian descriptions of their life, society and artefacts, he had that trouble too. On the other hand, characterisation throughout the novel is very good, and I had quite good mental pictures of the major and many of the minor characters too.
But the whole story is very big on the issues that arise out of the way that the Culture has made death a temporary inconvenience for many of its citizens. That it is not an unmitigated boon is one of the key messages of the book.
Finally: when I first bought the book, I glanced at the last page to check the page count, and the last word gave what looked like a great big plot surprise away! Having now read the book, it’s not such a shocking surprise as I expected, in that it only involves a peripheral character. I was expecting more from that plot twist, though not getting it didn’t spoil my enjoyment. (Despite the fact that I got my own prediction of the twist wrong…)