30 November, 2015

Ubik by Phillip K Dick

1. Where the story convolutes the reader’s knowledge of what’s happening—the basic reality of the world—the structure stays pretty straightforward. It is interspersed with flashbacks and visions that tend to offer the reader more information, none of which really make sense. But making sense is not Dick’s point, here. He’s trying to remain mysterious and force the reader to have to make up their own mind about some of the basics of the reality of the world. For instance, who is dead, who is in half-life, and who is alive? This basic question is never answered. It’s safe to guess that some of the characters are half-life or dead, but who is actually alive is a much stickier subject. Anyways, the consistently straightforward structure of the story helps the reader make some sense out of the novel and serves as a solid base upon which the mystery can exist. Without this structural touchstone, the novel would be overly obtuse; but with this concession to sense-making in place, the novel’s central mystery is allowed to work.

2. Dick starts out with two major tensions: the disappearing psychics and the mission to the moon. The actual central tension in the novel—the questions concerning reality—wait a few chapters before being really written into the tale. They are foreshadowed when Runciter states, “I’m going to talk to my dead wife,” but they only take over the novel in the chapter after the bomb goes off on the moon—a few chapters into the book. This feint by Dick is a common speculative fiction tactic to allow a portion of the novel to focus on worldbuilding. I am typically annoyed by this because I feel like the author could have had the novel itself explain the world, without putting a short story at the start necessary to allowing the rest of the book to make what sense it does. Here it doesn’t annoy me as much, and I don’t really know why. On the one hand, it’s a tactic I dislike because it feels like the author is giving up on searching for ways to tell the story and build the world simultaneously. On the other hand, it sort of works here because the theme is questioning the reality of the built world, but at some level he has to build that world before it can be effectively questioned. So I think I found a place where this tactic that I typically don’t like is effective.

3. The writing is fine. Nothing spectacular, nothing terrible. It’s a uniform quality, which is impressive, but doesn’t really sound beautiful or disappoint. It’s good, and that’s about as far as I can go.

4. The theme here, as already hinted at, is the existential questioning of reality. This theme has filled so many books already that I don’t really want to go into it any further. The real interesting twist that Dick adds is Ubik, the eponymous product. It’s this magic cure-all that is called up by faith, at the end. But like the rest of reality, it changes over time, and it’s only the latest and greatest version that works effectively. Dick’s wife certainly believes Ubik is a metaphor for God, but to me it seems more of a personification of faith based on faith in technology and newness, not faith in God. This comes through the chapter openings more than the final willing of Joe. Joe’s final will for Ubik leaves no real question that at least on some level, Mrs. Dick is correct.

5. I think at some level, these existential-questioning-of-reality novels are all interesting, but none really stand out too far from the rest for me. Some of Dostoevsky’s works are notable, for sure. And I would place this up there near them. I think whichever of these novels a reader first reads that clicks with them will probably be their favorite. This one is worthy, for sure, and a fun read. Dick is able to confuse the reader far a number of chapters in the middle and yet still pull off his project, and that’s impressive.

23 November, 2015

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

Translated by Joel Martinsen.

0. Preamble: When I finished my notes for The Three-Body Problem, I was left with a couple of frustrations and criticisms: it told too much with inconsistent quality; that it started with a murder, or three, before the writing, world, or characters mattered to me was annoying; I was confused by the structure throughout; and I was left with the overarching question: is this just strange, or is it unsuccessful? I concluded that it was probably a little bit of both, but that “I don’t know how much of my confusion is from translational ambiguity, unknown differences in narrative traditions between Western and Chinese stories, or this tale itself being told poorly.” I had hoped that this second novel, with a different translator, would illuminate that question for me. I was also genuinely interested in the story—Liu crafted an interesting story, at least what of it I could tell through my confusion. So I got the second book right away and found it to be a much more pleasurable read. On to discussing The Dark Forest itself!

1. The structure is more straightforward, but still strange. About halfway to three-fifths of the way in, the story seemingly ends. But with so much book left physically in my hands, the tension—though evaporated entirely from the words on the page—was still present thanks to the physical characteristics of the book. Without writing something like, “But human hope in assured victory was premature,” Liu communicated this through the context of the physicality of the book. This is a cool tactic. As the reader keeps reading and the new world builds more full, the tension grows. It raises a distinct feeling of wanting to shout at the screen, “Don’t go in there!”
—But it’s not all awesome. In terms of pacing, the tensionless time after Luo Ji wakes up goes on far, far too long. It really risked losing my interest. Which is a shame because: I feel that’s the only pacing problem in the book, I feel the mid-epilogue-gone-south tactic has a lot more potential than what Liu does with it, and because it takes up so much of the book with what quickly feels like a cheap trick. It begins to feel like a trick because of two reasons: he only uses it to create that one wonderful feeling in the reader, nothing more—I’m still left wondering what the Rift was and how this world is governmentally organized on any level other than the broadest strokes; and because he belabors the point for so long—which reminds me of his unfortunate heavy-handedness in the first book.
So the structure is strange. It does some cool things, but it also takes a risk that doesn’t quite work out fully. The rest of the structure of the book is successful, and without a translator’s note like the last one had, explaining how translated the structure is, I am still left wondering if my problems with most of the structure of the first book, and this central portion of the structure of the second book are due to differences in the narrative tradition, translational skills, or just poor writing.

2. On the other hand, he starts the book brilliantly. Instead of destroying something, he creates something—that graveyard conversation that invents cosmic sociology is told well from an interesting perspective and the rest of the book reflects on it well. The opening shows the power of beginning in a positive place. Sure the book had some negative aspects—it's filled with death and destruction—but by starting positive, I start the book with a positive outlook and that helps me remain positive throughout the book. Wonderful. Though it’s probably only so wonderful because so many books don’t start this way. If every book started this way, I’d be just as bored of it as I am of the opening murder tactic. [12/5/15: Oh hey! The opening has been put up online]

3. He still tells an awful lot, but I feel he is less ham-fisted here. He allows the reader a little more space, respects their intelligence more, and this creates a much more pleasurable read. I really enjoyed this book on a level I didn’t enjoy the first one. The first was a slog at times, but this was something I couldn’t wait to get back to reading. I was excited about it and thinking about it when I wasn’t reading. Some things I want to have explained more are brushed over, and some things that are explained are done so too fully, but that’s probably just personal preference. Throughout he foreshadows well, sets the stage for coming revelations well, and leaves enough hints that reflection is rewarding: I was guessing where things were headed and enjoyed that process because of his hints. So I would say the writing improves here, which is probably due to the translator. No offense to Ken Liu, but this book was more enjoyable to read. I’ll be interested to read the next one when it comes out next year, to see if Ken Liu modifies his translation to read more like this one does.

4. Where the first book focused on humans and how they would react to alien contact and aggression, this book’s theme continues that somewhat, but also focuses on Liu’s theory of galactic survivalism. The galaxy itself is the eponymous “dark forest”, a fearful place of shoot first and ask questions later. In other words, he's focusing on Luo Ji's theories of ET life and galactic survivalism, and these ideas are the central theme of the book: the name of the book, the opening scene, and the way that certain portions of the book’s plot focus on humans acting the same way and it’s a pretty depressing conclusion: survival requires lots and lots of murder. The theme is successfully illuminated through the spell, the probe, and the humans—especially the escapees. Because Liu has thought deeply about this and shows that in his writing, the theme really works well.

5. Like Iain M Banks’ The Player of Games, he has really long chapters here. And I appreciate this tactic simply for breaking away from the typical chapter structure of ending cliffhangers. This is a novel, why not let the story roll instead of trying to break it up into chunks?

6. In all, I really enjoyed this book. Where The Three-Body Problem was a dense puzzle, this is a sprawling adventure. Liu keeps tension in the book really well, except that overly long middle portion where he wanted to drop all tension. The writing fixed my major issue with the first book, the ham-fisting, but still wasn’t anything great. I look forward to the third book and will pick it up next year.

Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks

This one should be fairly short, and not terribly in depth, because I got sick right after reading this and spent a week in bed.

1. The one that everybody talks about with this book is the structure. To describe it, there are two stories going on: the chapters progressing forwards in time and numerals progressing backwards in time. To give an example, by the end of the book with returned to the formative moments of the main character in the numerals, while the chapters have brought us to a conclusion of this part of his life. Banks also includes a prologue and epilogue outside of this structure, as well as infuses these structures with multiple flashbacks. This creates a fairly complicated thing, but I think banks mostly pulls it off. It's legible, but there are parts that lag. For instance, the portion at the observatory, where they find a game, and nothing else happens in that chapter. Boring. But mostly he holds it all together. It's an interesting idea done passably. I'd like to see it done with a little more skill. It just creates this to really weird pacing where super tense moments and mundane moments are placed in areas that create odd relations between them. And I think it could work, it just doesn't quite happen here. Almost. But not yet.

2. The writing does not improve either.
'Let me tell you a sort of story.'

'Must you?'

'No more than you must listen.'

'Yeah... okay, then. Anything to pass the time.'

'The story is this. It's a true story, by the way, not that that matters. There is a place where the existence or non-existence of souls is taken very seriously indeed. Many people, whole seminaries, colleges, universities, cities and even states devote almost all their time to the contemplation and disputation of this matter and related topics. About a thousand years ago, a wise philosopher-king who was considered the wisest man in the world announced that people spent too much time discussing these things, and could, if the matter was settled, apply their energies to more practical pursuits which would benefit everybody. So he would end the argument once and for all. He summoned the wisest men and women from every part of the world, and of every known persuasion, to discuss the matter. It took many years to assemble every single person who wished to take part, and the resulting debates, papers, tracts, books, intrigues and even fights and murders took even longer. The philosopher-king took himself off to the mountains to spend these years alone, emptying his mind of everything so that he would be able, he hoped, to come back once the process of argument was ended and pronounce the final decision. After many years they sent for the king, and when he felt ready he listened to everyone who thought they had something to say on the existence of souls. When they had all said their piece, the king went away to think. After a year, the king announced he had come to his decision. He said that the answer was not quite so simple as everybody had thought, and he would publish a book, in several volumes, to explain the answer. The king set up two publishing houses, and each published a great and mighty volume. One repeated the sentences, "Souls do exist. Souls do not exist," time after time, part after part, page after page, section after section, chapter after chapter, book after book. The other repeated the words, "Souls do not exist. Souls do exist," in the same fashion. In the language of the kingdom, I might add, each sentence had the same number of words, even the same number of letters. These were the only words to be found beyond the title page in all the thousands of pages in each volume. The king had made sure that the books began and finished printing at the same time, and were published at the same time, and that exactly the same number were published. Neither of the publishing houses had any perceivable superiority or seniority over the other. People searched the volumes for clues; they looked for a single repetition, buried deep in the volumes, where a sentence or even a letter had been missed out or altered, but they found none. They turned to the king himself, but he had taken a vow of silence, and bound up his writing hand. He would still nod or shake his head in reply to questions concerning the governing of his kingdom, but on the subject of the two volumes, and the existence or otherwise of souls, the king would give no sign. Furious disputes arose, many books were written; new cults began. Then a half-year after the two volumes had been published, two more appeared, and this time the house that had published the volume beginning, "Souls do not exist," published the volume which began, "Souls do exist." The other publisher followed suit, so that theirs now began, "Souls do not exist." This became the pattern. The king lived to be very old, and saw several dozen volumes published. When he was on his death bed, the court philosopher placed copies of the book on either side of him, hoping the king's head would fall to one side or the other at the moment of death, so indicating by the first sentence of the appropriate volume which conclusion he had really come to... but he died with his head straight on the pillow and with his eyes, under the eyelids, looking straight ahead. That was a thousand years ago,' Ky said. 'The books are published still; they have become an entire industry, an entire philosophy, a source of un-ending argument and -'

'Is there an ending to this story?' he asked, holding up one hand.

'No,' Ky smiled smugly. 'There is not. But that is just the point.'

He shook his head, got up and left the Crew Lounge.

'But just because something does not have an ending,' Ky shouted, 'doesn't mean it doesn't have a...' The man closed the elevator door, outside in the corridor; Ky rocked forward in the seat and watched the lift-level indicator ascend to the middle of the ship. '... conclusion,' Ky said, quietly.
It's passable, but not spectacular. There was one other good part:
He loved the plasma rifle. He was an artist with it; he could paint pictures of destruction, compose symphonies of demolition, write elegies of annihilation, using that weapon. He stood, thinking about it, while the wind moved dead leaves round his feet and the ancient stones faced into the wind. They hadn't made it off the planet. The capsule had been attacked by... something. He couldn't tell from the damage whether it had been a beam weapon or some sort of warhead going off nearby. Whatever it had been, it had disabled them. Clamped to the outside of the capsule, he'd been lucky to be on the side that shielded him from whatever had hit it. Had he been on the other side, facing the beam or the warhead, he'd be dead. They must have been hit by some crude effector weapon as well, because the plasma rifle seemed to have fused. It had been cradled between his suit and the capsule skin and couldn't have been affected by whatever wrecked the capsule itself, but the weapon had smoked and got hot, and when they'd finally landed - Beychae shaken but unhurt - and opened up the gun's inspection panels, it was to find a melted, still-warm mess inside.
The writing just doesn't really engage me, and that's a shame. The plot is mostly exciting, the structure is interesting, he's tackling topics of forgiveness and redemption, and yet the writing lets it all down by simply being unimaginative on the whole. This is very same-y throughout.

3. The theme here discusses redemption and forgiveness, but focuses on doing so from inside oneself. The main character is proud of some of his past actions, but intensely guilty of others—both sets in service to the same goal, and that's where his turmoil comes from.
The man stood on a tiny spur of clay and watched the roots of the huge tree as they were uncovered and washed bare by a gurgling wash of dun-coloured water. Rain swarmed through the air; the broad brown swell of rushing water tearing at the roots of the tree leapt with thrashing spray. The rain alone had brought visibility down to a couple of hundred metres and had long since soaked the man in the uniform to the skin. The uniform was meant to be grey, but the rain and the mud had turned it dark brown. It had been a fine, well-fitting uniform, but the rain and the mud had reduced it to a flopping rag. The tree tipped and fell, crashing back into the brown torrent and spraying mud over the man, who stepped back, and lifted his face to the dull grey sky, to let the incessant rain wash the mud from his skin. The great tree blocked the thundering stream of brown slurry and forced some of it over the clay spur, forcing the man further back, along a crude stone wall to a high lintel of ancient concrete, which stretched, cracked and uneven, up to a small ugly cottage squatting near the crown of the concrete hill. He stayed, watching the long brown bruise of the swollen river as it flowed over and ate into the little isthmus of clay; then the spur collapsed, the tree lost its anchorage on that side of the river, and was turned round and turned over and transported bodily on the back of the tumbling waters, heading into the sodden valley and the low hills beyond. The man looked at the crumbling bank on the other side of the flood, where the great tree's roots protruded from the earth like ripped cables, then he turned and walked heavily up towards the little cottage. He walked round it. The vast square concrete plinth, nearly a half-kilometre to a side, was still surrounded by water; brown waves washed its edges on every side. The towering hulks of ancient metal structures, long since fallen into disrepair, loomed through the haze of rain, squatting on the pitted and cracked surface of the concrete like forgotten pieces in some enormous game. The cottage - already made ridiculous by the expanse of concrete around it - looked somehow even more grotesque than the abandoned machines, just because of their proximity. The man looked all about as he walked round the building, but saw nothing that he wanted to see. He went into the cottage. The assassin flinched as he threw open the door. The chair she was tied to - a small wooden thing - was balanced precariously against a thick set of drawers, and when she jerked, its legs rasped on the stone floor and sent chair and girl sliding to the ground with a whack. She hit her head on the flagstones and cried out. He sighed. He walked over, boots squelching with each step, and dragged the chair upright, kicking a piece of broken mirror away as he did so. The woman was hanging slackly, but he knew she was faking.
He effectively treats with this topic: the main character remains in tension and these tensions do affect the story and his twin arcs deeply. And in the end he comes down on the side of forgiveness from others:
Sma turned, face almost bloodless, to look at the body of the man lying on the bed... while Skaffen-Amtiskaw worked on, engrossed in its struggle to make good.
Sma can't handle it, but the drone, he's busy trying to make the universe a better place, one medical procedure at a time. I think that in the context of the Culture, this is Banks saying the humans should use their geritocracy to better others more vigorously than they do. To us, it means we should be charitable and volunteer more to help and understand people, and forgive.

4. After The Player of Games was so good, I really had high hopes for this novel. But it wasn't what it was trying to be. It could've been so much more. I think in terms of pacing, this is a clear step backwards and it feels like the interesting structure was more than Banks could handle. The writing doesn't progress at all. However, the story was interesting. By this point in the world building, I was curious about the ins and outs of Special Circumstances, and this really illuminated that for me satisfactorily. But that's just fan service. As a literary artifact, this is an interesting failure. It's interesting, nobody can deny that. But it just doesn't pull off what it attempts consistently enough.

08 November, 2015

The Player of Games by Iain M Banks

1. This novel successfully does so much: it’s a great space opera, and great science fiction. The novel doesn’t stray too far from space opera itself:
Space opera was typically defined [at a panel from this year’s worldcon] as exploring human emotions appropriate for opera, the story and writing serving to foster a sense of wonder, a large physical scale, a broad time period, and adventure and drama.
This one nails the emotions, the physical scale, the adventure and drama, but lacks a broad time period—it is a broad time period for the main character, but not in terms of the Culture or the empire they’re dealing with in this novel. It also seems to have some of the wonder, but not as much as the last novel’s descriptions. An example of Banks’ wondrous writing here:
It was not unusual to find distinct equatorial bulges on once fast-spinning planets, and Echronedal's was comparatively slight, though sufficient to produce a single unbroken continental ribbon of land lying roughly between the planet's tropics, the rest of the globe lying beneath two great oceans, ice-capped at the poles. What was unique, in the experience of the Culture as well as the Empire, was to discover a wave of fire forever moving round the planet on the continental landmass.

Taking about half a standard year to complete its circumnavigation, the fire swept over the land, its fringes brushing the shores of the two oceans, its wave-front a near-straight line, its flames consuming the growth of the plants which had flourished in the ashes of the previous blaze. The whole land-based ecosystem had evolved around this never-ending conflagration; some plants could only sprout from beneath the still-warm cinders, their seeds jolted into development by the passing heat; other plants blossomed just before the fire arrived, bursting into rapid growth just before the flames found them, and using the fire-front's thermals to transport their seeds into the upper atmosphere, to fall back again, somewhere, on to the ash. The land-animals of Echronedal fell into three categories; some kept constantly on the move, maintaining the same steady walking pace as the fire, some swam round its oceanic boundaries, while other species burrowed into the ground, hid in caves, or survived through a variety of mechanisms in lakes or rivers.

Birds circled the world like a jetstream of feathers.

The blaze remained little more than a large, continuous bush-fire for eleven revolutions. On the twelfth, it changed.
This is good wondrous writing, but I want more of it: more unusual descriptions of unusual places that manage to be legible. This novel is not just great space opera, it’s also great science fiction and fiction. The main character, Gergeh, changes fundamentally throughout the novel, but does so in a believable, honest way. This attempts literature and, in so doing, becomes that rare breed of science fiction that is a clear step above the rest.

2. Banks’ sentence structures are wonderfully varied. He clearly ups his writing game here. Let me give an example:
So, instead of the usual tension surrounding the final game, there was an atmosphere more like that of an exhibition match. Only the two contestants were treating it as a real contest.

Gurgeh was immediately impressed by Nicosar's play. The Emperor didn't stop rising in Gurgeh's estimation; the more he studied the apex's play the more he realised just how powerful and complete an opponent he was facing. He would need to be more than lucky to beat Nicosar; he would need to be somebody else. From the beginning he tried to concentrate on not being trounced rather than actually defeating the Emperor.

Nicosar played cautiously most of the time; then, suddenly, he'd strike out with some brilliant flowing series of moves that looked at first as though they'd been made by some gifted madman, before revealing themselves as the masterstrokes they were; perfect answers to the impossible questions they themselves posed.

Gurgeh did his best to anticipate these devastating fusions of guile and power, and to find replies to them once they'd begun, but by the time the minor games were over, thirty days or so before the fire was due, Nicosar had a considerable advantage in pieces and cards to carry over to the first of the three great boards. Gurgeh suspected his only chance was to hold out as best he could on the first two boards and hope that he might pull something back on the final one.
As the above passage indicates, Banks is not afraid of long, complex sentences. What I like best about the writing is how Banks allows complexity in his sentences—he allows interesting sentences. But he still keeps it all legible and doesn’t rely solely upon structural sentence complexity: he’s also not afraid of short, declarative sentences. It’s a good balance that allows those long, complex structures to be savored, while keeping them from overwhelming the writing.

3. However, the voice still lets it down: beautiful passages are too few and far between to leave me pleased with the writing itself. Mostly, the whole improves, in terms of the writing, but he doesn’t yet achieve a consistent beauty and experimentation to allow the novel to speak on a consistently literary plane. In other words, he brings the whole quality of his writing up on average, but that just means it’s more samey: the peaks are no higher, and he still doesn’t allow a consistent poetic beauty to invest the word choices. The two lengthy portions that I have already quoted show that Banks’ word choices are a weakness. Let me quote three of the better-written portions for contrast:
'Don't be so pompous,' she told him. Her short brown hair moved in the same wind which blew the tops from the falling waves and sent the resulting spray curling back out to sea. She stooped to where some pieces of a shattered missile lay half buried in the dune, picked them up, blew sand grains off the shining surfaces, and turned the components over in her hands.


'All reality is a game. Physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance; the same description may be applied to the best, most elegant and both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying games. By being unknowable, by resulting from events which, at the sub-atomic level, cannot be fully predicted, the future remains malleable, and retains the possibility of change, the hope of coming to prevail; victory, to use an unfashionable word. In this, the future is a game; time is one of the rules. Generally, all the best mechanistic games - those which can be played in any sense "perfectly", such as grid, Prallian scope, 'nkraytle, chess, Farnic dimensions - can be traced to civilisations lacking a relativistic view of the universe (let alone the reality). They are also, I might add, invariably pre-machine sentience societies.

'The very first-rank games acknowledge the element of chance, even if they rightly restrict raw luck. To attempt to construct a game on any other lines, no matter how complicated and subtle the rules are, and regardless of the scale and differentiation of the playing volume and the variety of the powers and attributes of the pieces, is inevitably to shackle oneself to a conspectus which is not merely socially but techno-philosophically lagging several ages behind our own. As a historical exercise it might have some value. As a work of the intellect, it's just a waste of time. If you want to make something old-fashioned, why not build a wooden sailing boat, or a steam engine? They're just as complicated and demanding as a mechanistic game, and you'll keep fit at the same time.'


'These stars,' Worthil said - the green-coloured stars, at least a couple of thousand suns, flashed once - 'are under the control of what one can only describe as an empire. Now…' The drone turned to look at him. The little machine lay in space like some impossibly large ship, stars in front of it as well as behind it. 'It is unusual for us to discover an imperial power-system in space. As a rule, such archaic forms of authority wither long before the relevant species drags itself off the home planet, let alone cracks the lightspeed problem, which of course one has to do, to rule effectively over any worthwhile volume.

'Every now and again, however, Contact disturbs some particular ball of rock and discovers something nasty underneath. On every occasion, there is a specific and singular reason, some special circumstance which allows the general rule to go by the board. In the case of the conglomerate you see before you - apart from the obvious factors, such as the fact that we didn't get out there until fairly recently, and the lack of any other powerful influence in the Lesser Cloud - that special circumstance is a game.'
In these three portions, the word choices are adequate. Nothing spectacular, but stepping out from that pedestrian level Banks relies on throughout the rest—as shown in the other examples of writing quoted. It seems like he took a step back here: I remember the first Culture novel having better word choices than this. I’m hoping the next Culture novel will show improvement in word choices.

4. The real strength of the novel, and the real part where Banks progresses as a writer, is in the pacing. His pacing is perfect. Banks ignores downtime, brushing in broad strokes to inform the reader both why he’s not dealing with it, and what happened of note. For instance, most of the trip to the Empire of Azat is brushed over: Banks covers these two years quickly and focuses on Gergeh, the main character, coming to grips with his task of the game Azat, which is not “downtime”, but the continuation of the plot of the book—Banks doesn’t delve into lengthy descriptions of the travel, tech, or spaceship, but focuses on what is important to his plot and character. Let me briefly catalog the parts and their relative lengths to explain why I believe Banks’ pacing is so good:
• He begins with a lengthy portion explaining who Gergeh is, and what the culture is like at this point. In order to do this he explains and gives examples of what Gergeh cares about. Through this portion, Gergeh changes into what the Culture needs him to be. This first part takes up 31.85% of the novel’s length.
• He then travels to the empire of Azat. This is a short trip, distilling who the new Gergeh is and his insane focus on the game Azat. This is a quick section, 5.87% of the novel’s length.
• Then Gergeh is on Eä, introducing the empire and playing his first few games. Here he changes first into an admirer of the Empire, then an enemy of it through his experiences. Banks spends 37.61% of the book here.
• Then Gergeh travels to the fire planet, Echronedal, and plays his last few games. Here Gergeh changes from an enemy to a superior of the Empire, and struggles with his realization of that. This takes up 22.57% of the novel’s length.
• The closing part is fairly short, 2.65% of the length, dealing with the aftermath of the final Azat game, Gergeh’s return to his home, and Banks tying up all the loose threads that drove the first part of the novel. Here Gergeh tries to reintegrate into the Culture after all of the changes he has gone through.
This structure successfully portions off the novel and paces it perfectly. Within this broader framework, Banks takes more time with important parts, usually breaking them up to an initial scene, then a reflective scene later on to drive home the import. He also keeps the whole thing moving very well: every plot and thread adds to the overall. In the first Culture novel, Banks spent a lot of time on things that didn’t end up mattering to the overall plot—those aspects added to the world-building alone, not the character or overarching plot. Here, that problem is gone. Completely gone. I am quite impressed with how well the story is told and paced. He learned from the first novel and really progressed as a writer. This is captivating to read because it’s told so well.

5. In combination with this wonderful pacing is Banks’ focus. The first novel sent the protagonist off on random, inconsequential adventures that served the story only in so far as they flushed out the world uselessly. But here Banks stays on-task and creates a wonderful story where everything matters to the overarching plot or to the characters. Other than the introductions at the start of the first four parts, and the closing words from that same narrator, there is really no mis-step. Everything matters to the characters and story. Every portion serves to build Gergeh or the import of the plot. This focus is wonderful. After the first novel, I kept reading this book and wondering when the other shoe would fall. It never did. The focus is spot on.

6. The theme of this novel is the effect of outside forces on a person. Gergeh begins vaguely dissatisfied and uncomfortable in life, lacking any real motivations. As he gains a motivation from the context of his world and personal experiences, a dramatic adventure, he quickly finds that his motivation perverts into inappropriateness and has to reset himself to find his true motivation again—this grand, dramatic adventure gives him meaning in life and keeps him sane. Throughout it all, he is being deceived consistently and wholly. He often realizes this and breaks through a veil, but doesn’t suspect that his new truth is just another veil. But the fact of being deceived doesn’t matter, it’s what he does with what’s given to him and done to him that matters. The theme is this sense that humans need to step outside of their personal comfort zones at times to fully live life, go on a grand adventure and allow it to change them, but they need to be careful that the changes those uncomfortable experiences impose on them are properly integrated into their whole being. Otherwise it will really screw somebody up. This complex, good theme feels honest to my day-to-day life.

7. Overall, this is a good book and a good read. As a novel on it’s own, it's good: it shows off great storytelling and attempts to communicate something about humanity and our understanding of ourselves. It seems to almost achieve this literature attempt, but the writing quality lets it down from that plane, even though the writing is better here than in the first Culture novel. This book does not need any other Culture story or knowledge to be understood—it is standalone. The focus and the pacing are clear strengths here, while the sentence structures are wonderful. Consider Phlebas doesn’t even compare to this: this is a good story well-told, that was a mess. I was very surprised by how good this one was, based on how bad that one was.