Bora Horza Gobuchul
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The novel is the first to appear featuring the Culture, an advanced humanoid civilization. Inhabitants of the Culture enjoy long life, enhanced capabilities, and access to unlimited technology and energy. However, as author Larry Niven has observed, stories about endlessly happy people tend to be boring. The Culture therefore is usually the backdrop to a drama involving a character from outside with deep inner conflicts. Bora Horza Gobuchul is such a character.
Horza, as he styles himself, is a Changer, a member of a small race of humanoids who can alter their appearance to impersonate any humanoid. Horza was one of a party of Changers allowed onto Schar's World, where a civilization destroyed itself 11,000 years previously, and which then became a Planet of the Dead, preserved as a monument to futility by the Dra'Azon, a race of Sublimed intelligences. Some of the Changers, including Horza's paramour, are still there.
As the novel opens, Horza is a spy and assassin for the Idirans, a non-human race at war with the Culture. Having been caught impersonating a member of a gerontocratic society, he is saved from an unpleasant execution by an Idiran raid, only to be tossed into space himself when the Idiran ship is attacked by the Culture. Picked up by a band of brigands in the ship Clear Air Turbulence, owned by the reckless Kraiklyn, he becomes a member of the band. He explains his appearance, and its subsequent change, to a drug that aged him artificially for his spying mission.
Horza has a mission to go to Schar's World and capture a Culture Mind (an artificial intelligence) lost there. The Dra'Azon will not allow others to land on the world. He decides to take over the brigands by impersonating Kraiklyn. After a disastrous failure in raiding, Kraiklyn takes his ship to Vavatch, an Orbital which is about to be destroyed, to grab whatever he can, and also play his favorite game, Damage.
After yet another misadventure, in which Horza crashes on an island populated by a group of undernourished followers of a religious fanatic freak, the Eaters, he stalks and kills Kraiklyn, having already assumed his appearance.
Escaping in the ship with the few remaining brigands and a late addition, the Culture agent Perosteck Balveda, Horza sends the ship to Schar's World. Balveda is a problem: she knows Horza and has the technological resources to penetrate his disguise. She does so en route to the Planet of the Dead, and he takes her prisoner.
The tension between Horza, who is humanoid but committed to the Idirans because he despises the Culture for its dependence on machines and apparent spiritual emptiness, and Balveda, who is equally committed to the Culture's right to exist but is deeply ambivalent about what it has to do to prosecute the war, is an important part of the novel. Arriving at Schar's World, they find the Changers dead, killed by Idirans who managed to land before they did. The artifact both parties seek is deep underground, in a set of tunnels housing a mobile war command center. Horza attempts to ally with the Idirans, but in the ensuing confusion and battle he is mortally wounded. Balveda escapes with the artifact and Horza in tow; she tries to save his life, but he dies before she can procure medical attention for him.