Feersum Endjinn is a non-Culture Science fiction novel by Iain M. Banks (for those who don’t know, Mr. Banks has been diagnosed with a terminal illness: more information. A sad update: Iain Banks passed from this realm on June 9, 2013).
The action takes place on Earth, far into the future. Reincarnation is a common occurrence, facilitated by the uploading of mindstates into a massive computer network known as the data corpus or the cryptosphere (often shortened to crypt). An individual is allowed a certain number of real-life ‘reincarnations’ and then their mindstate is uploaded into the data corpus for another series of virtual reality lives before being absorbed into the data-stream. There are also artificial intelligences within the cryptosphere.
Long before the beginning of the novel, a large portion of humanity left the planet to seed the stars (The Diaspora). The remaining humans have lost the ability to understand advanced technologies; unfortunately, the solar system is drifting into an interstellar dust cloud (referred to as the Encroachment), which will weaken the amount of the sun’s energy reaching the Earth, resulting in an end to all life on the planet. There may be a device (possibly within a neglected space elevator) that will save the planet, but the knowledge of how to use it, or what it is, has been lost.
The story unfolds in four threads that eventually converge. Each chapter reveals the progress of four principal characters: an enigmatic woman, possibly an emissary from the crypt (an asura), who’s powers are gradually unveiled; Hortis Gadfium, a high-ranking scientist who is a member of a group trying to uncover a secret that may save the world; Alandre Sessine, a General who is about to discover a conspiracy of the heads of state, is assassinated several times (in real and virtual lives), and is searching for answers in the cryptosphere; and last, but not least, Bascule, a young teller, a job that depends on submersion within the crypt (I should also point out that Bascule is dyslexic: his sections are spelled phonetically, like the book’s title. Some might find these sections difficult/annoying, but I thoroughly enjoyed them).
Mr. Banks does an excellent job of imagining a virtual reality world and the immensity of a space elevator: his canvas in this novel is extensive. It’s hard science fiction, but doesn’t always feel like it. The characters are likeable and interesting (particularly Bascule), but they were not plumbed to any great depth: the novel is plot and concept driven. Banks does a wonderful job of creating a believable world and dancing the reader through it. If you’re not a science fiction fan, you might think it is interesting, but unspectacular; but, for a hard science fiction geek, it’s amazing.