I've just finished another sci-fi loaner from a colleague. This one is "Look to Windward" by Ian Banks, the first book I've read from that author. It's a good book... not a masterpiece, nor the most exciting story ever, but really solid sci-fi, with interesting characters, observations, and stories.
I think that with a bit of effort, you could come up with a decent grid that could briefly describe any sci-fi work (book, show, or series). Such as:
* Are there aliens?
* Is faster-than-light travel possible?
* Is backwards time-travel possible?
* Are there multiple universes?
... and so on. In this case, in contrast to many other sci-fi books I've recently read, there ARE many aliens, and faster-than-light travel is definitely possible.
The technical background of the book actually reminds me a lot of the Star Trek universe, although the feel is certainly different. The main civilization in this story, the Culture, feels like a slightly more adolescent version of the Federation. It's a sprawling galactic civilization, nominally dedicated to principles like freedom and peacefulness. The Culture comprises several species, but seems based around Earth humans. They spend much of their time and energy exploring or just kicking it, but also can fight wars against implacable foes when they need.
Similarly, faster-than-light travel is possible in both worlds. Here, it is actually a critical part of the plot, in a more literal sense than you might think. The book is bracketed by the Twin Novae. In the background to the story, the Culture fought a war against another alien species ages ago. As part of that battle, they detonated two stars. The war has been over for a long time, but the light from those exploding stars is finally reaching a particular residence called the Masaq' Hub, and the story deals with the events between the time the first and the second star's light arrives.
The Culture started out seeming like the Federation, but the more I read about the book, the more it seemed to be obviously, painfully, an analogy for the United States. The Culture is brash, cocky, good-hearted, rich. It disclaims any desire for empire, but feels compelled to meddle in other civilizations' affairs, projecting its own values onto theirs. It desperately wants to be liked; when anyone indicates that they like the Culture a little, the Culture will eagerly do anything to make them love them even more; when someone hates the Culture, they'll try to do what they can to make them friends. The Culture proclaims its guilt for bad actions it has taken, while in reality it will do anything to support its way of life. The vast majority of Culture citizens spend their lives pursuing pleasure, purposefully oblivious to the political and military actions of their government.
Pretty indicting, huh? Then I checked the copyright page - published in 2000. Before 9/11, before Afghanistan, before Iraq II. I gulped. Banks seemed uncomfortably prescient. Or, as usual, I may just be reading too much into my fiction.
The alien species in the book are interesting. On a macro level, we learn that, while each is different, most follow a standard trajectory. They start out primitive, and spend their early existence in an Age of Scarcity; even after attaining technical knowledge to travel between stars or communicate with other aliens, they are limited by their resources. At some point, species overcome this, and join the ranks of the Involved. Involved species are in control of their own destiny, communicate with other Involveds around the galaxy, and pursue their own values and goals. Some Involved are peaceful, others warlike, many inscrutable.
Over time, new species join the ranks of the Involved, while others drop off. Some destroy themselves in wars, either civil or standard. Others become listless. Many, though, Sublime. Sublimation feels like a variation on Vinge's Singularity, although it seems more social than technological. A species that Sublimes instantly disappears, with every member of the race vanishing; they leave behind their artifacts, but they themselves are gone. Presumably they have quit this physical universe and gone somewhere else.
One of the prominent races in this book, the Chelgrians, provide the only exception to this pattern. The Chelgrians only partially sublimed. Those who left became the Chelgrian-Puem, and, unlike all other Sublimed species, they communicate back to those left in the world. Furthermore, the Chelgrians, a religious race, decide to fashion a Heaven for themselves; based on their existing beliefs, the Chelgrian-Puem create an afterlife for themselves, and for all other Chelgrians, and so create a place for souls to go after they die.
All of this, of course, is considered unsporting by the other Involved, who are generally fascinated and slightly repelled by the idea.
Incidentally, not only organic life can Sublime. Artificial intelligences play a large role in the book; although they are created by intelligent species, they generally become independent, taking on some of the personality of their creators while surpassing their abilities. Over time, most AIs eventually Sublime as well. This sort of equality exists throughout the book; two of the major characters, Hub's Avatar and E. H. Tersono, are both machines, and both are strongly independently minded and quirky characters.
Most other races only get passing mentions. Kabe, a Homondan, is a great character, sort of a Horatio to Ziller's Hamlet, but his species doesn't seem too unusual. On the other hand, the dirigible behemothaurs are fascinating. A slight side-story deals with a scholar named Uegen Zelpe who studies these things. They are enormous, incredibly long-lived intelligences, who float around a planet and think in terms of millennia. Uagen may have been one of my favorite characters, although his endearing nervousness may have gotten annoying if he was around more.
The writing is solid for the most part. Banks occasionally experiments with some interesting technique; in one of my favorite parts, he eschews all narrative and exposition, and does a chapter purely in dialog. Not even "... he said" direction, just the spoken words themselves. By then, you've gotten to know the characters well enough to completely track with what's happening, and it's an especially satisfying way to advance the story.
I haven't even gotten into the plot yet. It's decent, but honestly isn't the main point here; for most of the book, I wondered when the excitement would start. Most of the book focuses on laying out these really interesting characters, species, history, and mores, and the work towards the end feels rewarding but not necessarily essential.
All in all, this was a fine book. I can't claim that it was the best sci-fi I've read in the past year, but it has a lot of competition, and was certainly good enough that I'll want to check out other stuff by Banks in the future.