I can definitely see why she gives it such praise. It’s a dense, nuanced story that explores the motivations for terrorism, throwing that into sharp contrast against what it means to love another, reciprocating entity. Even if that love becomes cancerously deep and pathological? Of course, the story is also a clear allegory for U.S. involvement in the Middle East (as indicated by the dedication) though it could just as easily refer to any “more advanced” culture dabbling in the interference of some perceived-as-less-advanced culture.
To that latter statement: Banks seems careful not to overly vilify the “Othered” group here. The Chelgrians are not monsters; they are not lawless nor are they barbaric. They are in fact a highly complex, very technologically advanced2 species with a millennia old cultural tradition that has recently been through some major turmoil. Just by chance they happen to encounter The Culture; and just by chance The Culture’s intervention throws the Chelgrian social order wildly out of balance. And in the aftermath of the precipitate Caste War, even The Culture comes forward with some apologetic hand-waving.
If anything, Banks goes out of his way to “properly” paint The Culture as wanton aggressors. The Chelgrians just happened to be the victims. And yet it’s not all of Chel that seeks revenge. Just a handful of militant zealots — apparently with the backing of some more sophisticated parties.
Where Banks takes this for an ending is shrewd and sly and a manifold of tragic. Oh, there’s a bright note at the end that attempts to resolve on a hopeful note. But mostly the denouement is a subtle jab that says: “In war, we are all childish.”
- For those nit-picking over the rating: it was close to 4-stars for me. If I could, I would have given it ★★★½. I found the story a little slow to start and Banks’ style a bit exaggerated. I’m not sure if the novel would have worked as well without the narrative being constructed the way it was but sometimes I found the prose got in the way of the story. (On the other hand, the behemothaur sections were perfect.) [↩]
- The Chelgrians are certainly sophisticated by 21st century Earth standards; they are a space-faring race, for crying out loud. [↩]