This novel takes place during a war between two huge space-faring civilizations, the Idirans and the Culture. It’s told from the point of view of Horza, a member of a highly-modified race that can shape their appearance to their choosing. He’s working for the Idirans, because even though he doesn’t subscribe to their religious fanaticism, he likes the Culture’s reliance on AI and technology even less.
His mission is to retrieve a Mind, the sentient AI core of a Culture ship, from its hiding place on Schar’s World. This is complicated by the fact that Schar’s World is protected by a race of superbeings that don’t want it disturbed by the ongoing war. It is also complicated because shortly after getting his orders, Horza’s ship comes under attack and he is left drifting in space.
The story takes a few strange turns as Horza eventually makes his way to Schar’s World. It lets us see a bit of the wider universe, and the types of people and technology that populate it. I also enjoyed seeing the interactions between Horza and his counterpart from the Culture. They are on different sides of the war and are at odds from the first moments of the book but they never dehumanize each other and end up with something resembling a grudging respect at the end. Horza as a character is fascinating since he is treated as something of a second class citizen among the Idirans, and he doesn’t believe in their religious crusade. Yet, he’s willing to give up everything to help them defeat the Culture.
From reading both Consider Phlebas and Surface Detail, I can say that at least in some cases you can read books in this series out of order without issues. It makes a nice change from some of the sprawling continuous epics that are on this reading list. It’s also fun to learn more about this universe and the Culture from different perspectives. I will definitely be adding the rest of this series to my growing pile of “books I want to read once I finish my challenge list”.
TL;DR: This book has shapechangers, laser battles, intrigue, and super powerful AIs. You will probably find something in here to like.
The Culture Series by Iain M. Banks
Rating: 4/5 stars
Verdict: Would recommend!
Next up: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde