I spent some time after I read this book trying to justfy whether the truly incredible and unforgettable conclusion to this novel made up for what I felt was a meandering, directionless beginning. It does. Ten times over.
As a science fiction novel it is an excellent work. For a man who hadn't previously written science fiction this is a truly a revelation.
The book opens in prison with a man drowning in the faeces and urine of his captors. It is claustrophobic and compelling as only drowning in human waste can be. From there it seems to lose its way, as the main protagonist moves from one unrelated and bewilderingly extensive action scene to the next. Characters are introduced in some detail, developed or left veiled in portentous mystery, only to be forgotten. I found myself asking, where is this going? What is happening?
And then somewhere, about half way through, almost indentifiable to a particular page, the world changes. The whole book, the chararcters, the description and the plot come abruptly to life. It is as though Banks has had an epiphany.
The narrative follows the actions of Horza, an enigmatic and withdrawn secret agent, as he attempts to capture a Culture Mind lost in forbidden territory.As Horza finally gets round to the task at hand the tension suddenly and dramatically mounts. Darkness falls and the subterranean base on the polar world in which this book is, for the last part at least, set vibrates with intensity and drama.
The final 200 pages or so are some of the most vivid and exciting I have read, leaving me with images and memories which I will not forget for a long, long time.
The novel is not necessarily provocative or philosophical. And no, you won't sit around gazing out the window at the stars wondering about life, the universe and everything.