David Manns's Reviews > Surface Detail

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
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's review
Dec 30, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: science-fiction

Banks' series of Culture novels stands, in my humble opinion, alongside any of the great Space Opera sagas. And this is Soace Opera writ large, bursting with wit and invention and ideas. Banks manages to tell a story that covers a lot of ground, with interweaving plot strands and a large cast of characters but without the humourless po-facedness of much science fiction.

Banks' last Culture novel, Matter, was good, but for my money this one is better. For one thing there's more of the actual Culture in it, from the inventively named Ships to Special Circumstances and numerous other features familiar to anyone who's read previous books. But what he tackles here is a Big Idea, namely, what if, once total electronic transference of a consciousness becomes possible, you create virtual afterlives for those souls to experience. And what if several civilisations decided to create Hells to punish those deemed 'unworthy'.

There is a virtual war going on to decide the fate of those Hells but, with the anti-hell side starting to lose, the war threatens to spill over into the Real. Banks' descriptions of one of those Hells is stunning, bringing to life the unremitting horror of such a thing and the suffering of the souls trapped in it.

There are various plot strands at work here, from the uber-capitalist Veppers and his double-dealing, to the nefarious dealing of SC agents and the appallingly behaved, but hilariously funny warship avatar Demeisen. One thing is certain, Banks thinks capitalism is a bad thing and the venal, grasping Veppers embodies all that is wrong with that system. The Culture is by contrast some kind of ideal society, not without flaws, but one where people don't feel the need to step on others to get ahead.

With consummate skill, Banks bring all the various plot strands together to a satisfying conclusion and despite being 600 pages long, the book is an easy read. A veritable page-turner.

For newcomers to the Culture stories this is probably not the place to start. Try The Player of Games, or my personal favourite Excession before tackling the later books. You won't regret it.

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