Surface Detail by Iain M Banks

Anthony G Williams

Jul 14, 2007
Surface Detail by Iain M Banks

The late Iain M Banks wrote nine novels in his SF Culture series (published 1987 to 2012), as well as three other, unrelated, SF stories and fifteen mainstream novels (as Iain Banks). Over the decades I have gradually worked my way through all of his SF books except for the last two Culturetomes and Feersum Endjinn (which I couldn't get into because much of it is in an invented dialect).

Surface Detail is the penultimate Culture novel, published in 2010. For the background I will repeat the summary I wrote a couple of years ago for my review of Matter, the previous volume in the series:

"…the Culture, a galactic humanoid utopia in which almost inconceivably advanced technology provides everything that is needed, immensely capable Artificial Intelligences sort out the mundane business of running civilisation (the most powerful, known as Minds, usually being established in vast spacecraft or space habitats with quirky names), and citizens are mostly free to do whatever they like – live forever, change gender or even species, travel the galaxy. There are various alien civilisations in close contact with the Culture and a lot of others that are not, plus human planetary settlements that don't enjoy the same benefits. Relationships with such peripheral groups are handled by an organisation called Contact, and they apply less diplomatic means when required by means of Special Circumstances, whose agents are kind of blend of James Bond and Jason Bourne with comprehensive bio-electronic enhancements."

As is the author's customary practice, the structure is complex with several different story threads set running, apparently completely unrelated. The first concerns the attempted escape by fabulously tattooed Lededje Y'breq from bondage to the powerful industrialist Joiler Veppers; their paths subsequently diverge to form separate threads for most of the rest of the story. Next up is Vatueil, a soldier involved in an endless series of battles in virtual environments as part of a mysterious war, being revived each time he is "killed". Then we meet Yime Nsokyi, an agent for Quietus, a Culture organisation which rivals Special Circumstances but is concerned with relationships with the dead – who are, more often than not, still "alive" in virtual worlds. Next we are introduced to another virtual world – a representation of a horrifying Hell to which virtual versions of those considered to be undeserving are sent after death. Two academics, Prin and Chay, have managed to make a virtual entry to the Hell in order to collect evidence to argue for it to be shut down. Finally there is the ancient, alien Tsungarial Disk, consisting of hundreds of millions of multi-purpose factories orbiting a star, which appears to be suffering an outbreak of uncontrolled replication. These multiple threads gradually converge into one coherent plot and the pace (mostly rather slow, as is usual with Banks) simultaneously accelerates to a climax involving the usual mayhem.

Other characters are of course the intelligent starships, without which no Culture novel would be complete. My favourite this time is Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, a warship associated with Special Circumstances, which while pretending to be an old Torturer class vessel, is actually (in its own words) "a borderline eccentric and very slightly psychotic Abominator-class picket ship"; a vastly more powerful vessel which reacts with infectious glee to any opportunity to demonstrate the level of destruction it is capable of.

It took me a while to get into this story and its 600+ pages look rather daunting, but the journey was well worth the time. Top-class entertainment laced with dry humour in the typical Banks style.

The final Culturenovel, The Hydrogen Sonata, is in my reading pile.

(This entry is cross-posted from my science-fiction & fantasy blog.)
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