As in his first novel, The Wasp Factory (1984), Banks here attempts in the realist mode to portray the corrosive state of contemporary Britain through its demoralizing effect on his characters; the rest of the book is science fiction. One could wonder, in this particular book, why the two genres appear together. Graham, a callow art student of 19, falls for a dark divorcee of 23, Sara, introduced by a gay friend, Slater. Pre-Raphaelite Sara (at once a damsel in distress and vaguely threatening) lives in a borrowed flat with a leather-clad masked biker, his sexual prowess symbolized by the Post Office Tower, hers by the Camden Canal (both neighborhood landmarks). She flirts platonically with poor Graham, saying she's psyching up to break with the biker, whom Graham never meets. Then there's Stephen Grout, a sort of repulsive yet semi-divine madman who, in convincingly drawn scenes, is fired by his construction boss, has a pointless interview at the unemployment office, and half-suffocates as he rushes along the sidewalk between "islands"--these being certain cars which "let" him breathe. (He believes he is an exile from very important galactic Wars, and wants to get back where he came from.) And last there's boredom: in a decrepit castle on Earth millenia hence, an aged couple, exiles themselves from "the Wars," play endless board games, while, in the castle basement, thousands of other exiles stand on chairs with their heads in holes in the ceiling, through which they enter the minds of humans living in the past (our present). When the old man tries it, he gets into the head of an Asian peasant woman instead of Stephen Grout's--thus the two worlds never link up, and Banks spurns his chance to tie these disparate plots together. The only connection happens in the midst of a regrettable surprise ending: hurtling towards the flat, the biker causes an accident disabling Grout. The biker, it turns out, is actually Slater (the supposedly gay friend), who has been for years sleeping with Sara--his sister. They have used Graham as a sort of sexual stimulant. So the elaborate plot turns out to have been an elaborate trick, and, along with poor Graham, the reader feels merely cheated in the end.