PrologueStars were barely visible through the tiny oval. The reader looked up from his novel, blinked. Checked his watch -- still hours to go. His wife sat slumped next to him, still asleep. Some people could sleep on planes. Some people couldn't."What are you reading?" asked the man on the reader's left.The reader checked himself before the sigh escaped him. He hated it when people talked to him on planes. Especially when he was trying to read. Especially when he was reading a book with a spaceship on the cover."Oh, just a sci-fi book," he muttered."What, like a Star War?" the man asked, his eyes now bright with attention. "My kids love that Clone Wars show."This time the reader wasn't quick enough to stop himself.OneThe man looked up from the small gray device in his hand. He rubbed his eyes, tired from spending the last several hours staring at a text readout on the object's dull display. He sighed. "At least there wasn't any glare. I could have read that in direct sunlight. Not that I have been outside today."His finger lingered over a small button on the right side of the device. Somehow he felt like clicking that button didn't offer the air of finality he wanted after such a sustained period of concentration. His mind wandered over what he'd just read. It had been, intermittently, a powerfully moving experience. It had also been a bit tedious from time to time, but in that it was like his life. "At least I had a comfortable chair. A... chair."He rose quickly, twisting around and nearly knocking over his small desk chair. "Made of metal. Good."He sighed, relieved.IVIt had been a good meeting, Joel thought. The group members had really seemed to enjoy China Miéville. Good. It had been nice to see them respond positively to a book he'd loved, especially after the mixed reaction to The Player of Games.That still seemed strange, Joel thought. "How could anyone not love that book? I could read 10 Culture books just to get more of the drones and talking spaceships!"Perdido Street Station seemed a better candidate for a divided audience, longer, more violent, and more a fantasy novel than sci-fi. But everyone had loved it. David Brin had a hard road ahead of him if he expected to top it. Even with the talking dolphins.Talking dolphins. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. Hugo Award. Nebula too. But after sentient cactai and slake-moths, intelligent marine life didn't seem as... novel.Joel scanned his bookshelves, quickly calculating. A month until the next meeting. Plenty of time to fit in a different book before moving on. His eye wandered to his sci-fi collection, which had been growing rapidly as of late, a good sign as any that It was behind him.He made a snap decision: why not read an entire book just for more drones and talking spaceships? He picked up Use of Weapons and studied the cover.Two"That was really quite an interesting novel," the man said later. The drone looked at him blankly, emanating an orange sheen the man had come to understand was the drone's way of communicating indifference."I quite enjoyed it. Iain M. Banks Culture universe is always fun to play around in. I love the fact that you never really know where the book is going. This one switches main characters halfway through while telling separate, linked stories across multiple time frames. A prologue and an epilogue that both take place after the end of the book. One of the story threads is even moving backward! Really, just on a simple narrative level, it was quite ambitious.""Meow," said the drone."Smartass.""Sometimes I could really do without these drones."IIIJoel drove in silence. For once, no audiobook was playing over his car's stereo. He hadn't even turned on the radio.The book club meeting had been a disaster. He should have known. Why was he expecting this time to be any better, after that Philip Roth fiasco, after trying to discuss the complexities of One Hundred Years of Solitude in a noisy pub with six people who hadn't finished the book, who were more interested in their fish and chips.But this time... why had he even bothered? James Joyce? Really? Who starts a new book club by reading Roth, then Marquez, then Joyce? But he knew: a sad pseudo-intellectual girl who couldn't stop talking about the single year of a graduate program in literature she'd managed to complete."STOP TALKING ABOUT YOUR PROGRAM!" Joel shouted to the empty Prius. "YOU DIDN'T EVEN FUCKING FINISH, AND IT WAS AT NORTHERN!"He hadn't wanted to join the group. The name had been warning enough: Serious Readers of Oak Park. He didn't want to read something serious. He wanted to read... but no. He couldn't allow himself to think of It. A man, his shirt torn, a small gun in his hand. Already, revulsion was coiling in his stomach. He cast the memories aside, and focused on his anger."I mean really, who just DECLARES that everyone will have to read Moby Dick for June? Can we not VOTE??"He pounded the steering wheel, which meant the car threatened to go into a spin when he reflexively slammed on the brake. In the middle of the road, and just feet from his bumper, illuminated in the beam of a single working headlight, stood a woman. She was dressed strangely, in a skin-tight black suit, wearing a collar trimmed with white fur. Even in the dim light, Joel could see that was holding a book, a trade paperback."Joel," she said. He could hear her clearly over the silence of his engine, which had shut itself off dutifully when the car came to a stop. "I have been looking for you. I understand you are a special man, a man of discriminating taste."She held up the book. Even in the dim light, Joel could just make out the title. The Player of Games.The woman smiled. "Let's talk."ThreeDays later, and the man was still thinking about the book. He found it hard, in fact, to continue on with his reading of another interesting-sounding novel that was nevertheless utterly failing to grab his attention. "How can you make talking space dolphins dull?"While making dinner, he pondered the meaning of what he'd read, ignoring the insistent bleats from the two drones winding around his legs. There was that title: Use of Weapons. So many possible interpretations. There was the obvious answer, having to do with the different tools the protagonist ("Well, one of them..."), Zakalwe, used to accomplish the goals of his missions on behalf of the Culture. Then there was the way the Culture itself used Zakalwe, who had been recruited to the cause rather than born a citizen of the Machine-controlled utopian society, as a tool to impose its will upon the universe's "lesser" races.There were also subtler, perhaps more compelling interpretations as well. "Iain Banks really goes above and beyond what you would expect from the ghettoized stigma of the genre writer," the man mused. "It isn't just the thematic richness on display, but also the deft precision of his prose. Why, take the masterful twist ending, in which we learn AUGGGGH!"The man tripped over one of the squawking drones, the smaller one. It shone black and white in alternating blotches, indicating amusement.IIJoel stepped out of the sun and heat and into the full force blast of air conditioning. The weight of exams was finally off his shoulders. He had a full week before he had to head home and figure out what he was going to do with his summer. He needed something to read.He wanted the aisles, picking up titles from the display tables, looking for something long enough to last him several lazy, responsibility-free afternoons.Infinite Jest? No. Perhaps too long. Also, rather pretentious for a college student to be seen with that one, no? And anyway, he had a copy on his shelves at home, in the small bedroom where It had happened, all those years ago. Someday, maybe, he would go back and retrieve it. Not today, but still: no reason to spend the money.His eye fell upon a promising-looking paperback, perched on an endcap. The cartoon cover called out to him: The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier and Clay. He picked it up, glanced at the back. "Comics... sounds fun. Won the Pulitzer? Cool."His eyes wandered to the rest of the display. He gasped and stumbled backwards, dropping the book. "LITERARY/GENRE CROSSOVERS!" proclaimed the banner, but that wasn't what had filled him with fear. It was the small list of words below it: Fantasy, Horror, Graphic Novels, and... Sci-Fi."Sci-fi! No! No, it's too soon! I can't! I thought I could but..."Joel ran from the store, pushed out again into the sweltering Chicago sunshine.A clerk walked by, glared at the discarded book with annoyance."Customers," she grumbled. The roll of her eyes was almost audible.FourThe man settled into a warm bath, moving gingerly in deference to his sore muscles, his knee bruised where he had banged it against the kitchen cabinet. "Fucking drones." As he let the heat wash over him, leeching the ache from his joints, he considered the fact that, in his experience, it was the presence of drones -- and all the other trappings of the Culture -- that he was really looking for in an Iain M. Banks novel. Even after three books, there was still something undeniably amusing about super-intelligent machines that nevertheless had snippy, all-too-human personalities. It was also funny how they were constantly making fun of their flesh-and-blood counterparts in the Culture. Obviously the drones (and the Machine Mind overlords that control the Culture) didn't really need humans. They just... allowed them to stick around, because the Culture, what, found them amusing?Clearly, judging by a few brutal action sequences, it would take a single drone only a few minutes to disable even the best human fighter. "Knife missiles. Good thing that orange one doesn't have any knife missiles."IA silent hallway. Three doors, one closed. A man paced nervously, rubbing his temples. He started as the door nearest him began to open. A tired-looking woman emerged, closing the door silently behind her. "How is he doing?" the man asked."I don't know," the woman sighed. "He seems the same. He keeps muttering to himself and staring blankly into space. His mind just seems to be broken.""Let me go in," the man said. "I have to try."The woman looked at him with eyes empty of all but grief. "I don't know if it will do any good."Steeling himself, the man turned the shiny gold knob, letting himself into the room. It was dim, the only light entering through cracks at the edges of a heavily curtained window. The air stank of regret.The man looked down at his son, folded into a ball on the bed. He hadn't moved since they'd found him that way, clenched and shivering, a day before. Doctors had been called, but the roads were still impassable."Joel?" he whispered. "Joel, I'm here." Already, he was choking back a sob rising in his throat, threatening to escape. He sat down in a small chair by the bed, suddenly weary. "If only we knew what happened..." he muttered. "What were you doing that caused this?"Leaning forward to rest a palm against a small, clammy forehead, he felt his shoe brush against something heavy that had fallen, unnoticed, under the bed. He bent and picked it up. A book. A big book. He turned it around and peered at the cover, which featured a bare-chested hero holding a laser gun. "Battlefield Ear..."The man felt a strong jerk on his forearm. He almost dropped the book right into the lap of his son, who was now sitting up in the bed, ramrod straight, clutching his father's wrist so tightly his fingers were bone white."Don't! Don't!" the boy cried.FiveReally, he thought, all of the Culture novels had been variations on a theme: the merits of interventionist politics. What right do we have to intervene in the affairs of another culture? If we see wrong being done, must we correct it? Is it our place to say which side is even in the wrong? We like to think of ourselves as the good guys, but the answer is rarely as easy as the world would like us to think. Probably that was why Iain M. Banks' novels were fascinating but hardly ever as fun as he wanted them to be. These are dark books, with weighty themes.But, the action sequences. But, the wholly creative worlds and worldview. But, the mouthy robots.Yes. But. But, how many more variations on a theme could there be? The man sighed. Lost in his thoughts, he didn't notice the small drone, still radiating black and white, flashing toward him, twin multi-bladed knife missiles extended.Epilogue"Wow, are we landing already?" Closing his book, the reader glanced at his wife, attempting to stretch her limbs in the cramped confines of her seat. After folding his tray table, he slid the novel into the seat pocket in front of him, scratched absently through his shirt at the raised scars that covered his back. "Yep, you were out like a light the entire trip."As the plane touched down, the cabin filled with activity, the sounds of passengers yanking their carry-on bags from under seats, turning on their cell phones to reconnect with the world on the ground.There was no activity in the seat to the reader's left. Even as the couple squeezed past him to retrieve their bags, the man remained motionless, his head lolling, his chin pressed to his chest. The woman regarded him quizzicaly as they moved down the aisle."Man, that guy must have taken something strong," he said. "He didn't budge. His seat belt was still on!""I noticed," the reader said. "Oh, I almost forgot -- here's your pillow. I... borrowed it while you were sleeping.""Oh, were you able to nap at all?""Nope. It was nice and quiet. I decided I'd finish my book instead."The reader smiled. Full of StarsPrologueAdam Palmer wandered the aisles of the bookstore. Or more accurately, what had once been a bookstore -- the shelves, where shelves had not been removed, replaced by gaping holes of gouged plaster, held only a meager supply, the tattered remnants of an "everything must go!" sale that had long gone. Adam, already discouraged after fighting through a teetering wall made up of dented copies of America By Heart and A Shore Thing, held out little hope for finding much better at his ultimate destination: the barran wasteland that had once been Sci-Fi/Fantasy.It was, indeed, not a pretty sight. He'd thought himself prepared; still, he stumbled as he rounded the Horror shelves, where a battered copy of a Dean Koontz Frankenstein novel lay, forlorn and forgotten. The shelves were in ruins. Asimov, Clarke, Brin, even Bova -- the first section was entirely bare. In the distance, he could make out crushed boxes that had once held various installments of The Wheel of Time; though lacking true substance, those empty, yet weighty volumes had been consumed by hungry readers seeking sustenance. Curiously, a whole shelf of Goodkind sat pristine and untouched, save for a single missing copy, clutched in the bony hand of a withering corpse. Curiously, there was no stench of decay. The books seemed to be calling to him, their bright covers promising... Adam turned quickly away.He rounded another corner and gasped. How could this be? There, in the tie-in section, an entire row of torn, but still readable Star Wars books. His joy quickly dissolved as he scanned the spines: A Truce at Bakura? Shadows of the Empire? Children of the Jedi. He grimaced. Not much. But it might be enough to last him to the next shuttered Borders. It was just a few miles... A soft laugh behind him. Adam jumped and whirled around, heart hammering, still holding something with a cover so creased he could barely make out the name: Kevin J. Anderson. There was a woman standing just a few feet away, dressed in a strange, skin-tight black suit, wearing a collar trimmed with white fur. She was holding a single thick novel, a trade paperback. "se of Weap" was all Adam could make out."Adam Palmer?" the woman said."Yes?""I have been looking for you. I understand you are a special man, a man of discriminating taste."Adam smirked. "Maybe. What's the point, these days? Unless you want to get an e-reader. Or... order online.""It is true," she agreed. "Still, I think I have something you'll be interested in. Where I come from, we have a... different way of doing things. But you'll have to trust me."She turned and began walking away. Adam caught another glimpse of the book in her hands. "A Culture Novel." Intrigued, he began to follow."Wait."The woman had stopped suddenly, turned."You'll need to leave that here," she said, taking the Star Wars book from Adam's hands. He gripped it for a moment, surrendered. "You won't be needing it."She smiled. "Let's see if we can't find you a proper science-fiction book."