“Road of Skulls” is hardly a story, barely a vignette – seems like a riff on Waiting for Godot without the existential angst. The last couple of paragraphs are clever, bit they made it feel more like a prologue to a novel than a standalone story.
“A Gift from the Culture” is about someone having left the Culture to live on a normal planet, and then getting blackmailed to do something only a Culture person could do. It had a lot of potential – how a relationship might work with such a disparity of backgrounds, how someone from the Culture might respond to being blackmailed… but in the end it did not live up to any expectations.
There’s another vignette in “Odd Attachment,” where a first contact scenario is played out from the point of view of the vegetative alien, who would rather being thinking about his lady love, actually. Amusing enough, but not exactly mind-blowing.
The story that had the most impact on me was probably “Descendant,” entirely focussed on one man, his thoughts and his interactions with his spacesuit as he trudges around a barren little world trying to find the one settlement on it, after being blown out of the sky. Melancholy in a readable way.
I found “Cleaning Up” a bit frustrating, because while it had a fun premise – alien gifts start appearing on the earth, how does the West deal with it when the Soviet is still a threat, etc – the characters were so unpleasant as to be almost unreadable.
The absolute lowlight for me was “Piece.” Less a story and more an anti-religion diatribe. The author is recounting two experiences of having been the oh-so-intelligent and smug atheist intellectual confronted by two religious nuts, over the span of 15 years; one an old man, a Christian who dislikes science, the second an otherwise intelligent Muslim man (this is the perspective the reader is presented with) who objects to The Satanic Verses. The conclusion may be trying to suggest that it’s not quite as obvious as the protagonist is suggesting, but it does nothing to redeem the story.
The second last story is the novella “The State of the Art,” another piece about the Culture. Here, the Culture comes into contact with – wait for it – Earth, in 1977. The focus of the story is on Sma and her experience of Earth, as well as her interactions with some of her fellow Contact personnel and the ship Arbitary. While it was interesting enough to consider how the Culture might view Earth, especially perhaps at that time – Apartheid going strong, genocide in Cambodia, war in Ethiopia, etc – in the end it once again felt more like an excise for a rant about everything that is wrong with the world, wrapped up in a story that only just better than average. If I sound bitter, it’s because I am – I expected way more from Banks. Maybe I was setting the bar too high; maybe the short form just doesn’t work for him.
The last story is “Scratch,” and I didn’t really read it for the same reason that I haven’t read the last twenty or so pages of Joyce’s Ulysses (well, also I just didn’t get up to it): stream of consciousness does absolutely nothing for me, and when it’s several people’s worth of consciousness, even less.
So there you go. Disappointed.
So… I read this ages ago, and while I talked about it on Galactic Suburbia (well, rambled incoherently, probably) I just haven’t got around to writing about it properly. The longer I left it, the harder it was to come to it. Until we get to now, when my pile of books that I want to review is growing rapidly, so obviously the thing to do is to go back to the beginning and get this one done.
I’m sure I had lots of interesting things to say, but I have of course forgotten many of them in the intervening months (it was November that I read it). What I haven’t forgotten is how much I liked it – and before Sean or someone teases me about being Reynolds-obsessed, I wasn’t a huge fan of his last novel, Terminal World, so let’s just accept that I can indeed be objective and move on.
The novel opens with the death of a family matriarch, an event which spins all sorts of interesting consequences especially for one grandson, Geoffrey, and for his sister Sunday as well. They are led by various cryptic clues to caches hidden by their grandmother over an extended period of time – which eventually lead them to discover a secret which will change their family, their family’s business, and the way humanity views its future.
Geoffrey is an intriguing protagonist. He is the black sheep of the family, evincing little interest in the family business – essentially freighting stuff around the solar system – and generally annoying his more committed cousins. His interests instead lie with elephants, conserving them and getting to understand them better. This is such an off-beat love for a science fiction novel that I was immediately delighted, I have to say. His elephantine interests do end up having some bearing on the plot, but not as much as I might have expected; it’s mostly just what he’s into. I also really liked that the family is African; Tanzanian, to be precise. This is just something that is – Africa as a whole has come through into the 22nd century doing fairly well, and taken its place as a developed continent, leading the way in some areas.
This is near-future Earth (by Reynolds standards) – the 22nd century. It’s post-global climate crisis, which wasn’t quite as bad as it might have been but still quite traumatic thankyouverymuch, and there are some moves underway to improve the ecosystem. Much of the solar system is inhabited, to one degree or another – Mars and the Moon quite substantially, understandably thinning out as you move away from the Sun. The economy is going fairly well in most places; politics doesn’t get a huge amount of pagespace. There is new and interesting technology in terms of communication, and transport, and living underwater. This all sounds fairly familiar – either from our world or from standard science fiction – and a nice enough place to live, and it is… until you start realising how insidious the Mechanism is. The Mechanism would have Orwell spinning in his grave. It knows where you are and everyone else is at any given time, it knows what you are feeling, and if you are feeling aggressive it is able to stop you before you act on that aggression. It is CCTV and Google knowing your search history and ID cards taken to a scary degree. And what is perhaps most scary is that Reynolds does not give it a central place in his narrative. It is simply there. It’s accepted as a part of society by most of humanity – not a good part or a bad part, usually, but a necessary part, an obvious part. And if you buck against it – well, you’re a problem.
Overall… interesting, well-rounded characters; well-paced action; nicely developed society with pleasing as well as ominous aspects; and it’s the first in a trilogy. I am really looking forward to the next two.