I'm a huge fan of Banks's Culture novels (see my roundup of reviews of each book and a post on my reflections on the series). I also enjoyed his non-Culture science fiction novel, The Algebraist, and his "mainstream" novel, The Wasp Factory. I really wanted to love Feersum Endjinn as much as these works, but despite heavy doses of Banksian brilliance, I can't say it quite measures up.
It's not that I didn't like it. The writing is often beautiful. The semi-phonetic chapters (whar u 1/2 2 reed fings spelt lik dis) are brilliant as much as they are initially frustrating (you do get used to it after awhile). The story - such as I was able to make out - is wild, original, and delightfully complex.
The novel unfolds in groups of four chapters, with each chapter following a particular character: a mysterious woman known as the Asura (a Sanskrit word for a kind of divine being or demon), a Count on his last lifetime (oh yeah, some people get seven lifetimes), a scientist trying to decipher mysterious messages (and also caught up in a conspiracy), and everybody's favorite, Bascule the Teller, who is on a quest to find his friend who is an ant (we read his semi-phonetic journal, which come to think to it, may just be how everyone writes in the far future). The book is actually even a bit weirder than I'm making it sound, but I like weird.
You can find helpful summaries of the plot in other reviews, such as this one, this one, and this one. I admit to dipping into the sometimes dubious wealth of online reviews to make sense of the novel. I'm not sure I would have made much sense of it otherwise, especially since Banks doesn't give the reader much to go on in the first half of the book.
My main criticism is that, as obvious as it is that Banks is doing something brilliant here, it's not always entirely clear what he's doing. Maybe it's just that I'm not clever enough to keep up, but this is not easy reading. I usually take 100 pages or so to get into a Banks novel, and Banks always expects a lot of faith from his readers that he's going to explain everything in the end (and blow your mind in the process). Feersum Endjinn took me a lot of work to get into, and there is a lot more explanation that you think you're going to get, but I can't decide if I'm satisfied. Maybe it's a strength of the book that I can't decide what I think about it.
The Philosophy Report
Philosophical themes of death and personal identity are present, but they're not dealt with in as much depth as you'll find in Banks's other work (see especially Surface Detail, one of my favorite Culture novels). Given that the plot is about humans in the far future who stay on Earth and remain distrustful of (some) technology, there's a lot about our relationship with technology. This becomes most apparent at the very end, where the distrust of artificial intelligence is seriously questioned (SPOILER ALERT: it turns out that the dastardly AIs were actually trying to save humanity, which I find to be a nice counterpoint to the AI phobia you see in Ex Machina and elsewhere).
Also, the humans who eschewed space travel are all threatened by the Encroachment, a cosmic cloud that threatens to block the sun. Should they have left? Unlike the Culture, this is no space opera, since the whole thing takes place on a far future Earth.
There's a seriously giant castle, with rooms measured in kilometers. There is this virtual reality realm where time moves much faster. It occurred to me that the semi-phonetic chapters may be meant to give the reader the experience of slowing down time - it took me about twice as long to read those chapters! What does this say about our sense of time in terms of experience and communication?
I may need to read this again to catch everything (or even most of it). It was hard to pause for philosophical reflection when I was putting so much effort into deciphering the plot, but maybe that was Banks's point: the universe itself is so hard to figure out, maybe we should just chill out and enjoy the ride!
See my Goodreads review.