Ryan's Reviews > Surface Detail

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
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Nov 10, 11

bookshelves: fic-speculative
Read in December, 2010

This was my first Iain M. Banks novel, and I enjoyed the experience, though it didn't knock my socks off the way it seems to have for other readers. Fans of contemporary "hard" science fiction will find a lot familiar elements here: sentient AIs, extremely advanced physical technology, a swarming pan-galactic meta-civilization filled with biological and machine-based societies (or those that have gone from one to the other), and the uploading of consciousness into virtual realities or new bodies. However, Banks' stories feature The Culture, a highly advanced, benevolent society that has a way of guiding affairs in the galaxy, but not interfering with the self-determination other societies without good cause. The drama of his novels usually plays off the question of what the utopian Culture will do in ambiguous cases, since it can't become involved in an obvious way.

This time, the matter is "Hells", virtual realities into which the consciousnesses of the dead are uploaded, subjecting them to terrible torment for their crimes in "the Real". Naturally, the more progressive cultures and factions in the galaxy are firmly against the Hells, while more traditional ones wish to keep them. A war is in progress to decide the outcome, taking place mostly in VR, but with risk of spilling over into the Real. Banks tells the interlocking stories of several different characters caught up in various parts of this conflict, each with a stake of some sort.

I will say that the writing is smart and imaginative, with some interesting speculation and questions. I enjoyed the creative virtual reality battle sequences and the grotesque horror of a Hell. There are also a handful of amusing characters, such as the roguish AI that commands the Culture warship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, who reminded me more than a little of the Christopher Eccleston version of Doctor Who.

That said, I eventually lost interest in what was going on in the war or who was playing for which side (possibly while pretending to play for the other). Beyond some characters trapped in a Hell and a "conservative politician" figure, it never felt very personal to anyone. I thought Banks might have done something deeper with the idea of the "rights" of a consciousness trapped in virtual reality, unable to escape or die, and not relied as much on ham-fisted literalisms involving demons and pitchforks. Also, I feel that Banks does a better job with side characters than main characters; I found the protagonists in this story pretty bland.

All in all, I enjoyed Surface Detail well enough that I'll be seeking out some of Banks' other works in the near future. He's certainly a good SF writer and has a lot of intriguing ideas. That said, this wasn't quite as enthralling a work as all the glowing reviews had let me to hope.
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