#66 – The City and the Stars Review – Arthur C Clarke

The City and the StarsSummary | Review | Buy
While Arthur C. Clarke’s first novel, The City and the Stars, may not be as instantly memorable or critically celebrated as some of his later works, it does give us a tantalizing glimpse into the groundbreaking talent that he would eventually become. With its far future setting, intriguing mysteries and engaging main character, the book does an admirable job of portraying a world in which all of mankind’s needs are taken care of and an antipathy towards the exploration and discovery of new experiences has become almost pathologically ingrained in society. Originally written as a novella called Against the Fall of Night, Clarke decided to rewrite it entirely when it came time to produce a novel length version of the story, taking into account what he’d learned as a writer since its original publication. And although the narrative may drag a bit towards the end, the fascinating premise and Clarke’s deft ability to imagine a world in which humanity has seemingly reached its twilight years make this a still vital tale of one man’s attempt to break free of the isolationism and fear of the unknown that has gripped his race for millenia.

The City and the Stars Summary: Set a billion years in the future, the story begins in the last known city on Earth, Diaspar. Entirely enclosed from the outside world and run almost completely by a central computer that regulates every aspect of life, the city of Diaspar is populated by what is thought to be the entirety of the remnants of the human race. Having been cut off from the rest of the world for so long, no one can recall anyone ever leaving or entering the city. While legend has it that the city was built during a time in which malevolent invaders nearly destroyed the human race (but were content to make sure that they never left the planet again), the reality of the reason for their self-imprisonment is unclear. The city is so efficient at preserving civilization that it keeps a record of every human in the city in its memory banks and then revives them periodically to live out 1,000 year lifespans. The result is that every member of society has knowledge of the time spent during many of their previous lives. That is, except one.

Alvin is a “Unique” – different than all of the other residents of Diaspar in that he has no memory of any previous lives. Being the first truly unique consciousness that the central computer has created in years, he is also different in that he does not fear the outside world in the same way that his fellow citizens do. In fact, as he starts to reach adulthood, he actually gets the urge to find a way to leave the city and explore the outside world. Although his behavior is deemed strange by his friends and family, he finds a kindred soul in Khedron the Jester, a figure (we learn) who has been inserted into society every so often by the central computer in order to inject a little bit of uncertainty and chaos into an otherwise staid and stagnant system. With the help of Khedron, Alvin eventually discovers a way to leave the city via a dilapidated underground subway system that use to connect all of the cities of the world. Upon leaving the city, Alvin discovers a second city (or set of villages) surrounded by grasslands: The city of Lys. He soon learns that the residents of Lys have evolved to the point where they can communicate telepathically. And while they seem to live in relative peace and happiness, he is also shocked to learn that new members of Lys are born naturally, live normal life spans, and then die a true death.

The City and the Cars Review: While Clarke spends some time illuminating the differences between how these two human cities evolved and what that says about our society in general, he quickly changes gears to focus on the central mystery of the story – how Earth came to be a barren wasteland inhabited by two very different societies. Although Clarke loses some steam during this section as he tries to sort out the vast and complex history of humankind, the answers that are revealed are surprising and often profound.  For a novel that was written over 50 years ago, it holds up surprisingly well. And even if it may not be an outright classic when compared to such masterworks as Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey, it still merits inclusion among the greatest science fiction novels of all time by any author.

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#64 – Lucifer’s Hammer – Niven & Pournelle

Lucifer's HammerWow. I was not expecting to like this one nearly as much as I did. After unenthusiastically slogging my way through the writing duo’s other book on this list, the first-contact-with-alien-life snoozer The Mote in God’s Eye, I did not have high hopes for their take on the end of the world. Boy was I wrong. Read over a period of 5 days while on a vacation to Paris with my wife, Lucifer’s Hammer is a high concept page-turner about the catastrophic effects of a comet colliding with Earth and the unique challenges (both natural and man-made) that the survivors face as they attempt to rebuild civilization. Although it’s got a huge cast of characters and a whole lot of scientific expository information, it still manages to be both an awe-inspiring examination of the fragile nature of our planetary ecosystem and a tender tale of individual courage and ingenuity in the face of almost certain destruction.

Lucifer’s Hammer Summary: Opening with a series of vignettes about seemingly random people, the novel begins by setting the stage for the disaster as we follow the characters around Los Angeles in the days leading up to the comet strike. Some of the more prominent characters include Tim Hamner, a wealthy playboy and amateur astronomer who co-discovers the comet dubbed “Hamner-Brown,” Harvey Randall, a documentary television producer who is attempting to make series about the comet, and California senator Arthur Jellison, a pragmatic politician who succeeds in organizing a joint space mission between the US & Russia to study the comet. While the scientific community and the media have assured the population that the comet will miss the Earth by a wide margin, there are still people who see the comet as a portent of judgement upon mankind – including a fiery preacher named Henry Armitage.

When the comet does eventually hit, the chain reaction of events end up changing Earth in unimaginable ways. First, the comet breaks up into several smaller pieces, each striking the Earth at a different point. The comet parts that strike land trigger massive earthquakes and volcanoes, releases the pent up energy of a thousand fault lines. Those pieces of comet that hit the ocean cause giant tsunamis which sweep onto land and flood large parts of the landmasses of the world. In addition to tsunamis, the comet pieces end up vaporizing large quantities of water, which then goes up into the atmosphere and comes down in a torrent or rain that lasts for nearly a month after what is dubbed “Hammerfall.” In addition to natural disasters, mankind helps out with the destruction as well. In anticipation of a new “Ice Age” brought about by the dramatic shifts in weather, China decides to nuke Russia in order to prevent the eventual southern migration of its people in search of food and resources. Russia is able to retaliate and ends up destroying most of China in the process, but not before suffering massive losses as well. In summary, everything goes to Hell.

But as the book’s back cover says, the end is only the beginning. We soon realize that most of the people we’ve been following up til this point are part of the random mass of survivors of the cataclysm. After the first impacts of Hammerfall, the book cuts back and forth between their different stories as they try to avoid death at the hands of both mother nature and their fellow survivors. Since most the characters are based in California, we see those in LA try to get to higher ground in order to avoid the flooding and deluge. With almost the entire San Joaquin Valley underwater, that means making their way to the foothills of the Sierras. Each character has their own harrowing story of trying to find food and transportation in a world turned upside down. For the farmers already living in the foothills, the event causes them to create compounds or bunkers to help keep out the incoming masses and protect what little food, supplies, and equipment they have left. With limited resources and room for only those with “useful” skills, the matter of choosing who lives and dies is a consistent theme throughout the book. While some start thinking right away about what it will take to rebuild civilization, others are only concerned about making it through the winter.

Lucifer’s Hammer Review: What makes the book so effective, in my opinion, is how well it switches back and forth between the big-picture descriptions of the global impact of the comet strike and the small-scale battles of the survivors to just make it through each day with their dignity and humanity intact. By doing this, Niven & Pournelle are able to artfully convey the magnitude of the disaster and the futility of human preparations, while also commenting on humanity’s ability to persevere and continue on in the face of such an incredible catastrophe. While some characters comment on the fragility of civilization and the seeming insignificance of mankind in the grand scope of life, others make a concerted effort to help plan for a time when survival will give way to rebuilding (whether that means saving a threatened nuclear power plant or preserving a book on “how things work”). While some die trying to uphold the ideals and customs of a now-decimated world, others quickly revert to survival mode and savagery. In a lot of ways, the novel isn’t just about the external threats that we face as a society. It’s also about the threats we pose to each other when the laws and restrictions of civilization are wiped away and we are all left to fend for ourselves.

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#62 – To Your Scattered Bodies Go Review – Philip Jose Farmer

to your scattered bodies goSummary | Review | Buy
Of all the bizarre head-trips and out of this world scenarios that science fiction authors have subjected their characters to throughout history, few can compare to the awe-inspiring mystery and twisted brilliance of Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go. As the first book in Farmer’s Riverworld series, the book introduces us to a strange world in which all of earth’s inhabitants have been resurrected along the shores of a massive ongoing river. From prehistoric neanderthals all the way up to present age men (and women), the entirety of human seems to have been suddenly re-awoken at various points along the river by some unknown entity. Using a combination of actual historical figures and fictional characters from a variety of eras and cultures, Farmer is able to sustain a mixture of mystery, wonder and dread, as those who have been resurrected learn to adjust to their new surroundings and start asking questions about what, or who, is behind this mysterious “Riverworld.”

To Your Scattered Bodies Summary: While many characters move in and out of the story, the novel mainly revolves around Sir Richard Francis Bacon – a real life explorer, adventurer and ethnologist in the 19th century who was known for his travels in Asia and Africa. Having died on Earth, Bacon finds himself mysteriously resurrected, naked and hairless, in a strange land alongside hundreds of other people in the same situation. After getting his wits about him, he slowly begins to interact with some of his fellow companions, including Alice Liddell (the real-life inspiration for Alice in Wonderland), a stone-age man named Kaz, a science fiction writer named Peter, and even an Alien named Monat (who explains that he was a resident of earth at a time in Bacon’s future).  Together, they start to acclimate themselves to this strange world and learn how to survive . This includes the discovery of a giant stone table that periodically deposits food and other supplies to the travelers as necessary, as well as the discovery that the gum that is provided along with supplies is actually a powerful hallucinogenic drug which makes them crazy and sexually charged.

One night, a hooded figure (known only as The Mysterious Stranger) comes to Bacon and informs him that he is a member of the race of beings that brought them all to this world. Being against the sinister plot to resurrect humanity, the Stranger implores Burton to try and find the headwaters of the river in order to discover the true nature of the plot. Being the intrepid explorer and restless wanderer that he is, Burton sets off down the river with a group of locals. After a few weeks of traveling down the river (which is rumored to be endless), the group passes by a kingdom run by the Nazi Hermann Goering and is captured and enslaved. After leading a slave revolt against Goering and being reunited with Alice, Bacon discovers that an agent of the beings that control Riverworld has been living amongst them. Fearing for his safety, Burton sets off again to find the source of the river, using the “suicide express” to escape capture whenever necessary (killing himself allows him to be resurrected at another point along the river). When Burton is eventually resurrected in a Tower at the headwaters of the river, he is finally confronted with the true architects of Riverworld.

To Your Scattered Bodies Review: While most science fiction authors provide endless explanations of the worlds they create and the scientific underpinnings of everything in their universe, Farmer takes a much different approach to setting up his world. Part of the thrill and sense of wonder of To Our Scattered Bodies Go is the lack of explanation that we get for why this world exists and what the main characters are doing there. While the characters are interesting and their relationships and conflicts involving, the matter of why they have been brought to this seemingly alien world is the real that mystery that moves the plot along and keeps us guessing. And even if Farmer doesn’t give us a complete explanation of that central mystery (there are other books in the series), he at least keeps our attention throughout the novel and teases us just enough with clues and hints that we can’t help but follow Burton down the endless river is search of answers.

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February 9, 2010

#61 – Eon Review – Greg Bear

EonSummary | Review | Buy
Although the premise of Greg Bear’s Eon bears a striking resemblance to a handful of other science fiction novels in which a large alien object appears in the sky out of nowhere (such as Rendezvous with Rama), it ends up offering a much different take on the Big Dumb Object trope than some of its predecessors. Instead of the strange and wondrous object being of alien origin, the main characters soon discover that the large asteroid that suddenly appears in Earth’s orbit is in fact the product of human engineers from the future – and possibly even from an alternate timeline altogether.  While Bear’s Cold War-era tensions may seem dated and his explanations of theoretical physics may be over the head of anyone without a PhD from Caltech, the central mystery of the story is so compelling and the implications so astounding that the lack of character development and context really isn’t that big of a deal. If you like your science fiction to come with a heaping dose of BIG IDEAS, than this one is right up your alley.

Eon Summary: The book opens a few years after said asteroid is discovered orbiting Earth. Completely hollowed out inside and nearly identical to an asteroid named Juno that was discovered in the main asteroid belt, explorers discover seven vast chambers carved into the asteroid, each with its own unique wonders. As with every great discovery, Earth’s major powers (U.S. and the Soviet Union at the time) vie for control of its unknown resources and potential advantages. The fight for the “Stone” is a mirror of the tensions on Earth between the two major superpowers, each seeing it as a necessary trump card in their increasing power struggle. I’m sure this aspect of the book may have seemed relevant and topical in 1985 when the book was written. But with the cold-war now distant memory to most readers, the narrative impact of referencing that historical conflict is nearly gone.

The U.S. and NATO allies are the first to occupy and explore the asteroid. With help from both Chinese and Russian scientists, they soon come across a series of shocking discoveries that have cataclysmic implications. Not only have all of the chambers been terraformed (with artificial gravity provided by the rotation of the asteroid), but the second and third chambers contain the remnants of abandoned futuristic human cities. After learning about the history and identity of the former inhabitants by accessing massive automated libraries, they come to realize that the creators of the Stone are actually humans from the future. In addition, they also make a horrifying discovery: the history books in the library talk of a large scale nuclear war in their past that decimates most of the Earth. Because most of the other historical events described in the book before the event match up, it soon becomes clear that “The Death” is imminent (with US/Russian tensions pointing the way). As a last ditch effort to try to avoid this fate, US officials summon a theoretical physicist named Patricia Luisa Vasquez to help decode the Stone’s riddles and hopefully provide a way to avoid Earth’s destruction.

As if the imminent destruction of the Earth isn’t enough, Bear throws an additional wrench into the machinery. The seventh chamber, it turns out, is larger on the inside than it is on the outside, extending beyond the end of the asteroid and apparently continuing on forever. Referred to as “The Way,” the corridor is basically an artificially created corridor that cuts across both space and time, with gates opening up into multiple different universes and time lines.  As the Russian invasion of the Stone begins (as well as the beginning stages of “The Death”), Patricia and a few other scientists are kidnapped by strange beings and taken further down the corridor where they become involved in a struggle much larger than they ever imagined.

Eon Review: The primary faults of the book are pretty transparent: Dated political tensions, cardboard characters, wooden dialog, and discussions of physics that only an expert would understand. That being said, the real star of the book is the powerful ideas that Bear introduces and forces us to comes to grips with. Whether it’s the existence of multiple universes that exist simultaneously with only minor differences or the basic paradox of how the knowledge of events in your future can affect the outcome of those events, Eon provides us with multiple riddles to juggle and mysteries to unravel. In the end, that’s enough for me. While it certainly isn’t a classic, it’s well worth a read for anyone who like to think big.

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#59 – The Reality Dysfunction – Peter F Hamilton

The Reality DysfunctionEvery so often I get sidetracked from my goal of reading and blogging about the top 100 science fiction novels of all time. It usually happens because I finish one of the books on my list – and like it so much that I have to read the rest of the books in the series, no matter how long it takes. The latest example of this curious phenomenon happened after reading Peter F. Hamilton’s epic tale of sentient planets, interstellar travel, doomsday machines, devil worshipers, and souls returned from the dead – The Reality Dysfunction. If it sounds crazy and ridiculous, that’s because it is. But it’s also one of the most gripping reads that I’ve come across on this list. And even clocking in at more than a thousand pages, I still finished the book wanting more. Thankfully there were two more books just as expansive and engrossing to tide me over.

Set mainly in and around the 27th century, The Reality Dysfunction starts by giving readers a condensed list of the major milestones of the past six centuries, including the degradation of Earth’s climate, the settling of the moon and other planets, discovery of the affinity gene (which allows for telepathic communication), first contact with three extraterrestrial races (the Kiint, Tyrathca, and Jiciro), and the invention of the ZTT drive which allows for instantaneous travel between points in space – among others. When we first dive into the story (or stories), we’re hit with a ton of different characters, conflicts and scenarios. There’s the planetary conflict between the world’s of Omuta and Garissa over mineral-rich asteroids. We witness the death (and birth) of a sentient starship known as a Voidhawk. We see a group of colonists from Earth arriving on a frontier world called Lalonde in search of a better life. We meet a brash, talented, and possible psychic young explorer named Joshua Calvert looking to make his fortune by exploring for treasure in the remains of an alien habitat. Oh yeah, and we meet the drop-dead gorgeous benevolent dictator of an sentient Edenist habitat called Tranquility. Still with me?

But all of that is just a setup for the real conflict to emerge. Due to a chance encounter between a variety of forces on the frontier world of Lalonde, a dimensional rift is created (The Reality Dysfunction) between our universe and one that seems to contain the souls of humans who have died. Finally able to cross from ‘the Beyond’ back into our world, the souls are able to possess the bodies of living people that they come into contact with. Each possessing soul then tries to “open” up other bodies to the billions of lost souls trapped in this terrible netherworld, creating a snowball effect as more and more people on Lalonde (and eventually other planets) start to succumb to possession. And in addition to the aggressive expansion and violence of the possessed, the entirety of humanity is also dealing with the knowledge that there actually is an afterlife and that it’s not a very nice place. Suffice it to say that as the threat of possession starts spreading through the galaxy (and affecting the characters we’ve started to get to know) – all hell starts to break loose!

Of all the incredible flights of imagination and well-research scientific extrapolation in Hamilton’s space opera, the thing I was most impressed with was his ability to make me enjoy and care about so many different characters and conflicts at the same time. Usually with novels that weave so many different threads together you have a few story lines that you like and others you don’t. With The Reality Dysfunction, I found myself enjoying and looking forward to almost every different one. To be able to maintain interest in each story while still organically developing the overall story and how it touches each character takes an incredible amount of skill. And to maintain a Hard Sci-Fi level of scientific accuracy while still keeping the story fast-paced and entertaining way is equally as amazing.

No matter how crazy the premise sounds or how wary you are to dive into a thousand page book with so many disparate threads, I urge you to give it a shot. If it can get me to abandon my list for a month and plow through two equally as impressive sequels, I’m sure it’ll have the same effect on you.

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#57 – The Sirens of Titan Review – Kurt Vonnegut

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As I mentioned before in my review of Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan is probably my favorite novel that Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote. If this were my list (and I may make one someday), I would surely have this book a lot higher up, maybe even in the top 5. But since this isn’t just about my favorite books, I’ll have to settle for giving it a glowing review in the #57 spot. This book contains all of the various elements that are usually associated with Vonnegut: dark humor, wry observations, a sad-sack protagonist who is swept up in an adventure of galactic importance, discussions of free will and destiny, and nothing less than the revealing of the ultimate purpose of the entire human race. With a description like that you’d think the book was a thousand word treatise on philosophy (or something equally as boring). Instead, what we get is a brightly colored carnival ride through time, space and the solar system in which we meet a host of characters whose seemingly insignificant actions end up having an effect on the course of human civilization.

Sirens of Titan Summary: As far as Vonnegut main characters go, Malachi Constant is a bit more upwardly mobile than most. As the richest man in the 22nd century, Malachi has lived a playboy’s life due to being born into wealth and then having tremendous good fortune to turn that money into even more money. But like most wealthy gadabouts in literature, he hasn’t really done anything meaningful with his life outside of make and spend a lot of money. That soon changes when he is invited to witness the reappearance of one Winston Niles Rumfoord, a wealthy inter-planetary space explorer who came into contact with a strange phenomenon known as the chrono-synclastic infundibulum – causing him (and his dog Kazak) to appear and disappear at regular intervals on a variety of planets, including Earth. Besides being stretched as thin as a wavelength across the vastness of space, Rumfoord is also able to view the past, present and future – making him an oracle of sorts (albeit a mischievous one). While it’s not immediately apparent, Rumfoord has a very peculiar plan for Malachi which includes, in part, in being a major figure in his newly formed “Church of the God of the Utterly Indifferent”.

To give a full account of the events that follow would be an almost impossible task and would rob the book of it’s unique charm and novelty. Let’s just say that it includes a stop on Mars (where an invasion of Earth is being planned), a brief period on Mercury (where kite-like creatures known as Harmoniums live on soundwaves), a number of trips to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn and the only place in the universe that Rumfoord can exist as a solid form, and even a brief description of the Vonnegut staple Tralfamadore, a planet whose residents (and one messenger in particular) are responsible for the entire course of human history.

Sirens of Titan Review: Where some might see Vonnegut’s ultimate revelation of civilization’s purpose as an absurdist slap in the face to those who want to believe in humanity’s central place in the cosmos, I tend to think of the final reveal as less important to the true aim of the book, which is to poke fun at all of the things we take too seriously in our lives – whether it’s religion, money, patriotism, beauty, or even love to some extent. Vonnegut is the eternal court jester of Science Fiction, poking fun at everyone and everything in ways that not only serve to make us laugh, but also to ponder why the things we hold sacred are even sacred at all. Although searching for meaning and order in the universe is a hobby as old as time, the rituals and stories that we come up with to make sense of it all can be as detrimental to our personal well being and spiritual evolution as the emptiness and meaninglessness that they serve to mask. Vonnegut isn’t telling us that our lives have no meaning. Instead he is trying to warn us to be skeptical about the things that we assign meaning to and the conclusions that we draw from the meanings we give them.

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August 12, 2010

#56 – The Player of Games – Iain M Banks

Player of Games

I had never heard of Ian M. Banks before starting this novel – which isn’t really saying much because I’m woefully out of touch with the new crop of modern Sci-fi superstars. But with two separate books of his on my top 100 list, I knew that he had to be doing something right. After finishing The Player of Games, I think I understand what that ‘something‘ is. Banks’ writing style is imaginative and playful, while still maintaining a biting edge of sarcasm and wit. His universe is populated by characters (both human and machine) who are fiercely independent and unique, while still being connected emotionally to the society that helped create them. And his exploration of the benefits and drawbacks of the anarchist utopia known simply as “The Culture” is endlessly fascinating. If you’re looking for an exciting and intellectually stimulating story with a sense of humor and something to say, The Player of Games is a good place to start.

Set in the same universe that Banks sets a lot of his stories (I learned), the book tells the story of the greatest game player in the Culture, one Jernau Morat Gurgeh. The novel begins on the Chiark Orbital, an artificial ring-shaped world that rotates through space in order to simulate gravity and provide an atmosphere. The population of Chiark (and the Culture in general) is made up of a mix of humans, sentient machines, and other alien species – each of which share equal status in society. In a post-scarcity society in which almost all of its citizen’s material needs and wants are taken care of, intellectual pursuits such as art, music, poetry, and games flourish. But while games may be a popular past time in the Culture, and successful game players admired and respected, the fiercely egalitarian nature of the society means that the stakes of these games aren’t particularly high. Because there is so little to lose on the outcome of each game, there is also so little to win. Since money is non-existent and fame is hollow, Gurgeh starts to feel despondent. He not only wants to win every game, he wants it to mean something too. And through a series of unfortunate events, Gurgeh gets his wish.

Things start to unravel when Gurgeh accepts unfair help from a drone robot named Mawhrin-Skel in a game that Gurgeh has the potential to win in a spectacular fashion never before seen in the Culture. Although Gurgeh fails, the drone uses a recording of his deceit to blackmail Gurgeh into helping it get readmitted to the secret service wing of the Culture, called Special Circumstances. While Gurgeh is weighing his options and dreading the humiliation that the drone’s revelations could inflict on him, he gets a strange visit from a representative of the same organization who offers him the chance to take part in a very unique game. The only catch? He will have to travel over two years to the Empire of Azad where he will be playing a game so long, complicated, and involved, that the winner is crowned the ruler of the Empire. Fascinated by the potential challenge and wary of the blackmail threat, Gurgeh agrees to participate.

During the journey, we learn that the Culture has a strange relationship with the Empire of Azad. Although the Empire is powerful and far-reaching, they have yet to reach the technological prowess of the Culture. They are still very much a society in which there are haves and have-nots, with a rigid social structure and caste system not unlike our own. While Gurgeh is being sent to play the game as some sort of cultural ambassador, we get the sense that this is also a chance for the Culture to study the Empire from afar – to get a sense of whether they pose a legitimate threat or not. And as Gurgeh begins to compete in the game and actually starts winning (against players who have trained their entire life), the seems of political intrigue and strife among the Empire’s elite begin to show.

As an avid game player myself (board games mostly, not video games), I thoroughly enjoyed the white knuckled competition and combat aspects of the book. And while Banks doesn’t actually reveal exactly how the game is played, he gives enough details and flourishes to keep you invested in the dance and drama of two minds going at each other to determine who is superior. Astute readers will likely see many metaphorical parallels between the game and our own society’s obsession with competition and rankings, whether between individuals or nations – and that’s fine. But this is also a novel that can be enjoyed as a meditation on the nature of power, politics and leadership, as well as how societies are often structured to reflect their unique values and beliefs. But no matter your view on what the prefect social structure is, I’m sure you’ll find something to enjoy in Banks’ quirky universe.

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