Another of Banks’s far-future Culture yarns (Inversions, 2000, etc.). In the Masaq’ Orbital artificial habitat (population about 50 billion; run by an artificial intelligence called the Hub) lives the composer, Ziller, a five-legged Chelgrian, and his friend, Kabe Ischloear, the huge, pyramidal Homomdan Ambassador. The two chat like Ivy League professors. A century ago Chel fought a dreadful civil war over its caste system; Ziller was so disgusted he left and never returned, but the Culture admits it fomented the war by political anticaste manipulations. Also in the recent past was the Culture’s war against the expansionist Idirans, won handily by the Culture. As a fighting spaceship, the Hub fought in that war and, to its everlasting anguish, was responsible for many deaths. Back on Chel, life has held no meaning for Major Quilan since he lost his beloved wife in the civil war. When approached by mysterious agents, he accepts a suicide mission to Masaq’ even though the details are withheld. Will Quilan merely attempt to persuade Ziller to return to Chel? Of course not, though readers know that whatever dire plot’s a-brewing cannot succeed, thanks to the godlike powers of the Hub. Matters will culminate as Ziller conducts his latest masterwork and, in a melancholy commemoration, the light of a nova caused by the Hub during the Idiran War reaches Masaq’.
By turns imposing, ingenious, whimsical, and wrenching, though too amorphous to fully satisfy.