Having read all the other sci-fi novels by Banks, I'd originally been put off this one since it wasn't a Culture novel and was supposed to be written largely in a strange phonetics. I'm very glad I finally got around to reading it (after picking up several of his books cheap, second hand) because it's a beautifully crafted, complex piece that has clearly influenced the likes of 'the Matrix' massively and is still relevant today, despite being written over 12 years ago.
The setting of the story is utterly unparalleled in anything else i've heard off: a post singularity earth inhabited by the descendants of technology and strong A.I. refusonists who still utilise some of the handy benefits the pro-advancement (humans) presumably left for them. [tangent: though Banks has never referred in any way to a singularity as such, and generally alludes to a pretty slow pace of change of the societies in his books. Though this is justified because each culture (including the Culture itself) is stuck at it's current level of advancement for a reason: ethics in the case of the Culture, considering it irresponsible to just up and transcend, leaving the universe in a mess] The venue for most of the story is a an oddly scaled castle and bailey with floors 1 kilometre high (seemingly an OTT artwork created by those who left), now infested by normal sized people.
One such benefit being 7 lives (a somewhat arbitrary number, but it's traditional it seems); an implant scans the state of a person's brain at the moment of death and squirts the data off to mould the brain of a replacement body; your last death is not entirely final either, as your mind/soul is then left running in the Crypt where it has a further 7 'lives'.
The Crypt(osphere) is a giant, multi-level virtual reality, where the top-most environment is pretty much a copy of real world earth, with lower levels becoming increasingly bizarre and uninterruptible ('chaotic'). When you die in the Crypt (or wander too deep out of boredom) you are absorbed into the sea of all possible knowledge/experience of the lower levels. The Crypt is obviously the repository of countless millions of souls, therefore to maintain any kind of individual identity, you must be diverse/unique/smart. The souls attached to the crypt are not just human either; some animal minds seem to be linked up directly. A skilled Cryptographer (here meaning person who interfaces with the crypt, probably as a profession) can hack his way into an animals brain and control them, though the book is somewhat vague about the specifics, sometimes it seems they are in the real world and others in the simulated.
Banks imbues the Crypt with a vague, slightly mystical format, which contrast with current day ideas to a similar (though lesser) degree as William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ (the difference being that Gibson’s world is a direct extension of our own, mere decades down the line, while Banks’ is distantly removed and carefully set). Something he does nicely is the massive speed difference between ‘Crypt time’ and normal time. With your mind temporarily uploaded you experience time at about 10’000 times the normal rate, able to have a fairly sizable adventure in the blink of an eye, gain lifetimes of experiences in days, or, in the instance where a story strand’s main character (Gadfium) is nearly assassinated while having her mind duplicated to the Crypt, use the vital seconds while the killer is distracted killing a bystander to: do some background research, hack the controls of the building, do some extensive image processing and analysis on her real life counterpart’s vision and plot the exact muscle movements needed to disable the attacker effortlessly. A very cool escape scene there.
Banks often makes use of characters with different perception rates: human Culture members could chemically stimulate their brains to think/react very fast to kick arse in combat (as if in a different time frame), and more substantially, the Culture Minds were capable of giving human level intelligences entire lifetimes in microseconds (see the end of Look to Windward). This brave ‘relativistic’ time use is something I’ve not really come across much, and only in more recent novels: the ‘Conjoiners’ can think up to 10 times faster than normal due to nanotech crammed skulls (almost trivial really, in Alastair Reynolds’ Redemption Ark), then very recently in Accelerando (Charles Stross) where spawning agents to lives alternative lives is standard practice in the later half of the 21st century.
It turns out that the hardware running the crypt simulations is the Serehfa Fastness itself (the castle building) - it’s made of a self healing computronium. The physical structure of the Crypt has a large influence on the internal environment of the simulation world; Sessine (a main character that dies for the last time in his first chapter) has to actually dodge past big, writhing, tubey things before wondering off around the (unreal) globe. This is a real last millennium conception…but I’ll let Banks off.
The culmination of the plot is complex: it turns out that the unhackable, anonymous, amnesiac, known as Asura (an accurate name for her) is in fact an real world incarnation of an instance of Count Sessine that was left to run in the Crypt independently for years of real time, thus acquiring intimate knowledge of the Crypt and pretty much all significant goings on. She reveals to *everyone* that the chaos in the crypt that the humans have been ‘fighting’ off, presuming it to be viral corruption, is actually an ecosystem of A.I. (artificial life forms) that are not hostile by intent.
Buscule, who falls (often literally) though a long series of semi-fortunate fantasy-cyber-adventure, after being manipulated into investigation by the faked abduction of his new telepathic ant friend (actually a Culture-esc nanotech A.I.) by a large bird, turns out only to be needed to scale the oxygen depleted heights of the Fast Tower to open a door that Ergates (the ant/key) was frustratingly too feeble to open itself. This mundane outcome in itself is a charmingly ‘down to earth’ twist, contrasting the Ant’s extensive capabilities in manipulation (presumably working in the background continuously to get Bascule out of all kinds of scrapes with the opposing military, etc) with it’s basic physical failings. They both achieve their destiny, activating the tower’s secret lift system and equipment, allowing Asura, Gadfium and some assorted refugee Chimerics (human level intelligence animals) to ascend the 10 vertical miles to the secured controls for the Feersum Endjinn, the solution to life on Earth’s biggest threat…
…Oh! Had I not mentioned yet that all the upset is due to a ‘molecular cloud’ ‘Encroaching’ into the solar system, blocking out sunlight so badly it’s going to kill all life, if not the sun itself. This machine is clearly something with capabilities equivalent to a Culture ship, but Banks neatly goes into no details to specify this, using only the title of the book to attach to it’s capabilities, leaving this reader happily satisfied with the title finally being explained as the last event, and leaving the novel as a stand alone artefact, as timeless as sci-fi can ever hope to be.
Through the story, the ‘King’ had been waging a secret ‘war’ against the splinter Clan: Engineers, for their access to a wormhole hidden in the lower part of the ‘Fast Tower’. The dilemma is that at the time it seems like the only escape route from the doomed earth and the governmental folks are keen to get out while they can! However, being rejectionists of high technology (the ‘privileged’ in their society are the few reserved for the high flying life, free of the distasteful chore of having Crypt communication implants) they’d rather save they arses in the full flesh rather than use an optimised approach that would allow everyone to be transmitted safely as digital uploads. This is Banks once again really romping home the point that discrimination against digital copies of people or strong A.I.s is just as bad as the racism of old, and perhaps could lead to atrocities even worst that those of the past! This is a recurring theme in all of his sci-fi, with the hopeless world of Against a Dark Background being a stark warning of a hypothetical result of absolute rejection/suppression of A.I.
Finally, the ‘original’ version of Sessine (with no lives to spare) sacrifices his soul in a Jesus like gesture of enlightened selflessness to become one with the Crypt A.I. in the hopes of giving it conscious form, with no guarantees there will be anything recognisable of himself left to reflect upon this thereafter. I would like to liken myself to Sessine, in that I’d consider my main strengths of intellect to be strong ethical/moral/logical reason (i.e. wisdom). Pompous of me, I know, but it’s a bit of an ambition of mine to take the cream of my human experience to temper the near infinite capabilities of a transcendent mind. I anticipate my fond smile as I briefly recall my human existence, like someone else’s faded dream, happy that it is now barely a fraction of what I’ve become. But then that’s just like growing up anyway (except without being able to casually prove the Riemann Hypothesis in an idle moment, etc).