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Surface Detail

(Culture #9)

4.23  ·  Rating details ·  25,381 ratings  ·  1,053 reviews
It begins in the realm of the Real, where matter still matters. It begins with a murder. It will not end until the Culture has gone to war with death itself. Lededje Y'breq is one of the Intagliated, her marked body bearing witness to a family shame, her life belonging to a man whose lust for power is without limit. Prepared to risk everything for her freedom, her release, ...more
Hardcover, 627 pages
Published October 28th 2010 by Orbit/Hachette Book Group (first published October 7th 2010)
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Thaddeus Rex Not at all important. This is the first Culture Book I read, and was completely enchanted. Perhaps I missed a few references more experienced Culture …moreNot at all important. This is the first Culture Book I read, and was completely enchanted. Perhaps I missed a few references more experienced Culture aficionados noticed, but I perceived no lack of perfection. The book is incredible and stood by itself quite nicely.(less)

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Average rating 4.23  · 
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Mario the lone bookwolf
Jan 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: banks-m-iain
Thought experiment time: Would a hardliner faith culture with high tech create a virtual hell to stay in power and make everyone afraid of getting inside that creepy, artificial purgatory if they misbehave?

This idea could be expanded, for instance with school excursions to hell to show the pupils what happens if one is nasty or for the permanent display of how hellish the sinners are suffering. Sending the one or other poor soul back to earth to tell about the cruelties may be a fine psychologic
Sep 24, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A war in hell, for the fate of hell?

What? Is this a Culture novel, one of huge Space Operatic dimensions, Ship Mega-Minds, nearly ascendant alien cultures and encroaching afterlifes?

Wait. Afterlife? Sure! Virtual hells made for elephantine aliens with enormous virtual wars to take up their attention so it doesn't have to spill over into the real.

It's civilized, don't you know?

Of course, you can't say that for the people being TORTURED FOR ETERNITY within them. *sigh*

This one happens to be my abs
Mar 28, 2018 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: People who appreciate a bit of sex and violence with their moral philosophy
I was surprised to find that this book presents an almost perfect example of a philosophical problem that's been bothering me recently, to the extent that I even wrote a short paper about it. Briefly, and without giving away any spoilers, the core thread in Surface Detail is about the ethics of inflicting pain, or what looks like pain, on simulated beings. The conceit is that many societies in the Iain Banks "Culture" universe have traditions of an afterlife which resembles our idea of Hell. The ...more
Aug 22, 2015 rated it really liked it
Iain M. Banks was taken away from us too soon. He was a genius of prose, structure, characterization and all kinds of SFnal ideas (by all accounts his mainstream fiction – published under the name of Iain Banks with no M – is also so great).

Reading Iain M. Banks is more challenging than most sci-fi authors though, his novel’s structure and plotline are often very complex, byzantine even; but the reader’s effort is always rewarded. With Surface Detail Banks takes about 70 pages to set up the pie
Jan 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: sff
How do I love thee, Culture universe? Let me count the ways by playing--

Culture bingo!

Awesome tech: check
For starters, we have the standard fare of neural laces, AIs, drug glands, etc etc, everything that makes the Culture a level 8 civ. Today's main course is a Bulbitian, an ancient ship and a talking singularity. For desert, have a virtual Hell. Oh my.

Cool aliens: sorta-check
A clear majority of pan-human players this time, but you gotta love the GFCF. Plus, the Pavuleans are like...elephants o
Jan 23, 2011 rated it liked it
Well, it was better than 'Matter'.

But to me at least, Banks flaws are really beginning to start to irritate.

Banks seems completely unwilling to let anything actually challenge his precious 'Culture'. The typical story arc is to develop some sort of nominally galaxy threatening challenge to the Culture, which, near the end of the book, he'll reveal to be pathetically overmatched by the most trivial exercise of Culture might which arrives to aid the protagonist in all of its omnipotent dues ex ma
Oct 14, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Banks is one of my all time favourites, but had put out some disappointments recently - Algebraist and Matter were just plain no good. Some of the straight fiction stuff had also been really below par, but he's put out Transitions and now this and I'm ready to say 'all is forgiven.' There are some cookie-cutter chapters, where you think that he's repeating scenes and characters and just varying the outlandish architecture/hunt-scene/cruel game/unusual dinner and pretending that it's something el ...more
Dec 13, 2015 rated it really liked it
First things first: does anyone else picture Demeisen as David Tennant? Gaunt, gangling, fast-talking, humorous, with a tendency to switch within moments from cheerful to scarily intense, and with a jaunty enthusiasm for sharing viewpoints that...uh...have a tendency to fall outside the usual moral constraints? Every time Demeisen talked, I heard David Tennant.

Now the actual plot. Surface Detail centers around the concept of afterlives, and hell--well, hells-- in particular. Many "civilized" cul
Jul 14, 2010 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Banks fans; fans of Space Opera
Shelves: sf-fantasy
If you’re not already a citizen – if only in dreams – of the Culture then Surface Detail is not your path to naturalization. This is not to say that this isn’t a worthy part of the Culture mythology – it is. I enjoyed reading it, meeting a few more of the Culture’s citizens and learning a bit more about how its nonhierarchic, anarcho-communist civilization works. But that may be why non-Culture aficionados shouldn’t start off with this book. It’s heavy with unexplained Culture jargon (e.g., Subl ...more
When one rates an audiobook, is one rating the quality of the underlying written work, the quality of the audio version, or both? I suppose I'll just clarify that my five-star rating applies to both in this case.

Surface Detail is the latest of the Culture Novels from Iain M. Banks. The wait for this one was worth it. I think I'm ready to say that Use of Weapons has finally been supplanted as the best of the Culture books.

I'll write a proper review of Surface Detail, the book, after I've read the
Nov 04, 2011 rated it liked it
I'm a big Banks fan in both of his incarnations. He's one of the giants for me, of SF and plain fiction in general. As with all the Culture novels he has the outstanding Culture 'mythos' backdrop to the story and like all his books he mixes original ideas with a range of characters that evoke sympathy and dislike in the reader, sometimes in the same character. This book has a brilliant central idea (do read this to find out what it is) and several threads to the plot-line. Now this where a lot o ...more
May 27, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
*This is a spoiler-free review.*

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks is the ninth book in his Culture series and the twelfth science fiction novel that he wrote. Each book in the series can be read as a standalone, but that being said; I would not recommend starting here.
(If you are interested in jumping into the Culture I would suggest starting with The Player of Games or Consider Phlebas.)

Surface Detail is also the second to last book that Banks wrote under this name before he died of cancer i
Dec 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Surface Detail is the 9th volume in Iain Banks Culture series, and while Matter remains my favorite in the series, Surface Detail was a great reading experience. It is a discussion of the role of hell in society and the legitimacy of the rule of force.

In the far-future where mind recording and "revention," essentially technical reincarnation, are ubiquitous, many societies still believe that threatening the citizenry with eternal torture is the only way to "keep order." Initially, the concept o
Jul 16, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed, 2012-rev
There seems to be an epidemic of weak editing these days. Surface Detail is sadly not immune, either on the typographical (words and punctuation missing or misplaced) or stylistic (poor word choice, lack of clarity) front. It's not a major impediment, but it's disappointing.

Iain M. Banks' Culture books tend to exceptionally well-written, but also be dry, distant, and complex. Surface Detail is no exception. Characters with long, difficult names abound, and there are several plots and sub-plots,
Megan Baxter
Jan 09, 2016 rated it liked it
I am taking a break from Iain M. Banks, I have decided. To be precise, I decided this about halfway through this book, when the meandering plot and lots of torture (not approval of torture, but lots of it) were taking their toll. I stand by that. I was initially thinking of it as a permanent break, but the end of Surface Detail somehow convinced me that while I might need a break, perhaps even of a year or two, I may come back and finish off the Culture novels at some point.

Note: The rest of th
INTRODUCTION: Iain M. Banks' early Culture books, "Use of Weapons", "Consider Phlebas" and "The Player of Games" as well as the standalone "Against a Dark Background" are among my top sff books of all time, with "Use of Weapons" (which I hope to review by year-end) still at #1 after 18 years since my first read and many re-reads in the meantime.

Last year's Transition was my number 1 sff novel of the year and this year Surface Detail will be most likely #1 sff of the year. Actually as structure g
With the ability to create any kind of Virtual Reality imaginable, some civilisations have created Hell. Each respective society would punish those they deemed to deserve with virtual eternal torment, but no less real to the mind experiencing it.

I found this an incredibly imaginative way of dealing with the idea of death and the afterlife without making the story supernatural. It’s almost even believable. It’s quite easy to imagine the justifications presented for creating a virtual Hell to puni
Dec 27, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Wow! The first three quarters of this book are so stunning in the sheer scale of their creativity while managing to move the plot along at a more than acceptable pace. My head swam every time I put the book down, and most of the time I was only putting it down in order to allow my tiny brain to catch up with the depth, the detail, and the creative heights that this book reaches, and also to absorb and reflect on the consequences of some of the concepts and customs he introduces.

The characters ar
Nov 21, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's His Party and You're Invited...

As in "Matter," the last Culture installment, Banks waxes at length in "Surface Detail." Happily, SD is more interesting than its predecessor, and features more tidbits about the Culture - that industrious, indefatigable, galaxy-spanning civilization that has always been the most interesting character in a series that is essentially a collection of character pieces. The plot and writing and characters are competent at best, and tedious at their worst. Really,
Oct 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Banks has outdone himself in what might be the best Culture novel, in a series which never fails to deliver. In typical Banks fashion, he masterfully weaves disparate story threads into a whole, building into a magnificent crescendo of galactic intrigue and confrontation.

The story shines with an intricate plot, featuring vast, multi-nested virtual realities, and a cast of amazingly well developed characters, which of course include some of the wonderfully advanced, witty, sentient ship AIs (Mind
Kevin Kelsey
Jul 29, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2016
Good not great. The first Culture novel that I didn't absolutely love all the way through. Very inventive concepts represented here, but the plot threads don't come together as smoothly as they usually do in a Banks novel. The first half is fantastic, but the pacing gets a little slow in the second half as the narrative focuses almost entirely on side events and leaves the main story – the one I was most interested in anyway – to dwindle until the conclusion. Great little hook at the end to top ...more
May 11, 2011 rated it really liked it
I did not read this book; when I first opened the package, I gently wadded up clusters of ten or so pages, careful not to damage them too much; pulled out my paraphernalia kit, and one by one heated the clumps on a spoon, injecting them directly into my bloodstream.

As always, the effect of the drug only kicks in after about 100 pages of hits; it's less the body adjusting to the magic substance, and more the fact that the first 100 pages are created somewhat defensively, always a little bit rough
May 10, 2011 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Confirmed and experienced fans
Recommended to Alan by: Previous work
Iain M. Banks has earned more than a little slack from us over the years with his prodigious and amazing output. Surface Detail calls some of that back in. The book takes its time getting started. Its multiple opening chapters seem like little more than vignettes. But Banks' ability, the trust that he has earned over those decades, should keep you reading, as he begins weaving these disparate tales together.

Surface Detail turns out to be something like a pleasant, prolonged stroll through unfami
Jun 30, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: sci-fi
I don't know... I think Banks may have finally reached the limit of engaging stories he can tell in the Culture universe, without perhaps going for more small scale intrigues rather than galaxy shaking events. This is by no means a full review, but I'll jot down a few thoughts and impressions.

Banks displays his usual skill with words, but in the end the whole thing was a bit... boring I guess. I really didn't care that much about any of the characters, the things they were doing didn't really se
Nov 18, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Another excellent installment in what's probably my favorite ongoing SF series. Banks plays with themes of life, death, illusion and virtual reality, in a number of permutations and twists that's dizzying right from the beginning. There's more sheer old-fashioned sense of wonder in this book than you can shake a stick at. Some of the story lines are painfully intimate, others relate to the galaxy-wide politics of the "In-Play" civilizations, one of which is the post-scarcity Mind-run Culture we' ...more
Feb 04, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Surface Detail is a 5-star interesting story with a 3-star ending. It suffers from a degree of the lack of follow-through inflicting other Culture novels. However, most of the major themes did come together in the end, so it wasn't bad. Heck, the first half was so captivating and invigorating, full of interesting situations and characters to love and hate, I even went on record as hopeful for a top 5 SF novel. But, alas, no. ...more
Jul 11, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sci-fi
Fantastic concept of hell and the war of heaven vs hell. But, several pointless major characters that have nothing to do with the convoluted plot developments at all left me scratching my heads at the end. I guess just like Banks’s other books : cool concept, weak characters, relatively disappointing result 🤔.

3 Star.
Elf M.
Oct 30, 2011 rated it liked it
Surface Detail is Iain M. Banks latest Culture novel, and... that's about it.

No, really. If you've read a Culture novel, you know what you're in for: a series of novelletish vignettes featuring a vast cast of characters, from all different types, two of which (the corporate sociopath and the political sociopath) will crop up, be lectured to by some nominal "good" protagonist, and eventually fall from grace and probably be killed in some gruesome manner.

If Banks applies himself at all in Sur
I developed a love/hate relationship with this particular Ian Banks book. As usual, Bank’s books span a galaxy, with big ideas crossing big ships, and even bigger events. It started out fairly strong, introducing the host of characters that would take the reader into the middle part of the book, where it just seemed to bog down in cumbersome descriptions of why the Culutre doesn’t like virtual Hell and why they were fighting those who felt it was their right to have virtual Hells and a few perso ...more
Mar 16, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science-fiction
Feeling ill and wanted an easy read. Not too easy these days if you are not a Potter or a Twilight fan... Iain M. Banks has always provided a fine dark vision sparkling with irreverence and a sort of tongue in cheek view of his own creations.

Needless to say, "Surface Detail" provides the sort of fractal complexity coupled with topological intricacy that one has come to expect. Not sure that the plot matters too much as long as it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Its the "surface details" th
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Science Fiction A...: * Book #9- Surface Detail 3 37 Apr 25, 2016 08:19AM  
Reading chronologically 5 45 Jul 31, 2013 06:59PM  
Torture In The Works Of Iain Banks 19 181 Apr 15, 2013 07:42PM  
Iain Banks / Iain...: Surface Detail 5 49 Feb 15, 2013 04:36AM  

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Iain M. Banks is a pseudonym of Iain Banks which he used to publish his Science Fiction.

Banks's father was an officer in the Admiralty and his mother was once a professional ice skater. Iain Banks was educated at the University of Stirling where he studied English Literature, Philosophy and Psychology. He moved to London and lived in the south of England until 1988 when he returned to Scotland, li

Other books in the series

Culture (10 books)
  • Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1)
  • The Player of Games (Culture, #2)
  • Use of Weapons (Culture, #3)
  • The State of the Art (Culture, #4)
  • Excession (Culture, #5)
  • Inversions (Culture, #6)
  • Look to Windward (Culture, #7)
  • Matter (Culture, #8)
  • The Hydrogen Sonata (Culture #10)

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