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Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
Cover Artist: Photo: Shutterstock
Review by Benjamin Wald
Orbit Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780316123402
Date: 28 October 2010 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

A new Ian M. Banks novel is always reason for rejoicing, and at over 600 pages Surface Detail has a lot to love. This freewheeling space opera features Banks' signature SF creation, the post-scarcity utopian civilization of the Culture. As I have come to expect from Banks, Surface Detail features inventive alien cultures, smooth and gripping prose, flashes of dry humor, wry social commentary, and magnificent SF vistas that span vast astronomical distances and complex societies. Unfortunately, as I have also come to expect from Banks, the novel feels overly long at points, with digressions and asides that serve mainly to draw out the story, and with main characters who are frustratingly peripheral to or passive in the central events of the story, and with an ending that feel rushed and somewhat unsatisfying despite the lengthy buildup. In other words, this novel has the same undeniable virtues and the same frustrating vices that most of Banks' recent work has featured, making this book a good bet for his fans and a nice introduction for new readers, but nothing that will convert those who have sampled Banks before and come away unsatisfied.

More by Iain M. Banks:
The Algebraist
Matter
Against a Dark Background
Transition
Surface Detail

The book is about Hell. Actually, it is about multiple hells; all of the various punishment afterlives that the advanced civilizations of the galaxy have set up to house the computer simulations of dead sinners in virtual torment. This practice is deplored by the Culture and many other advanced races, but is also practiced by many galactic civilizations of equivalent technological advancement. The pro-Hell and anti-Hell sides have been at loggerheads over the issue, and finally agreed to resolve the issue through a computer simulated war, where the computer simulated minds of the best soldiers of both sides would fight to the death across hundreds of simulated environments and theaters to resolve the issue once and for all. As it happens, not everyone is content to allow war to remain purely virtual, and the novel deals with the consequences of the conflict spilling over into reality.

The story also follows Lededje Y'breq, a young woman who has been marked as property from birth by an intricate set of genetically programmed tattoos that mark her inside and out. As the novel begins she is murdered by her owner Veppers, only to be resurrected aboard a Culture vessel light years away to her great surprise. She promptly seeks to return to her home planet to seek revenge against her murderer, the richest and most powerful man in her entire interstellar society. This story comes to overlap, in unpredictable ways, with the conflict over the Hells.

I am continually amazed by Banks' seemingly effortless ability to make the most bizarre and alien characters instantly relatable. Furthermore, even the walk-on characters are engaging and complex. There are numerous characters in the novel, some of whom are central to main plotline while others exist mostly to illustrate some feature of the wider situation or other. While the side stories provided by the latter are always written and engaging, they do occasionally come to feel excessively tangential, distracting from the main plot line. Likewise, some of the characters who are involved in the main story line seem to serve no essential purpose relative to the plot. This is a sprawling, loosely plotted novel. On the other hand, the multiple points of view allow Banks to show the situation from many different perspectives. For example, one storyline follows a couple who infiltrate their societies Hell in order to bring back a report of the cruelty and inhumanity it represents, only for the woman to become trapped in Hell. This storyline could have been cut without affecting the plot, but it brings home what is at stake in the conflict over the Hells, making the horrors inflicted by the pro-Hell side more viscerally real.

The main action of the novel unfolds in many ways despite, rather than because of, the actions of the protagonists. They are in many ways simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is because the actual events that take place over the course of the novel are in many ways not the point of the book. As with most of Banks' Culture novels, the main interest is in examining a particular ethical conundrum from multiple different angles. In this case, the cruelty that advanced societies inflict on their own citizens in the name of tradition and outdated religious ideas serves as a potent, if at times heavy handed, social allegory. There are also interesting resonances between the evil produced by blind adherence to tradition, on the one hand, and the way that this evil is aided and abetted by those who care nothing for tradition but instead seek power and wealth. While I thought these more philosophical themes were interesting, it was still a bit frustrating to find that all of the efforts and decisions of the characters I had followed for 600 pages ended up amounting to comparatively little. This problem is exacerbated by a rather dull and anticlimactic ending. Still, even if the ending failed to live up to the buildup, the buildup itself was so engrossing that it is hard to feel too distraught by this.

Banks is a major SF talent, and Surface Detail makes clear why. He continues to successfully mix sophisticated moral and political dilemmas with fascinating, sympathetic characterization, gripping prose, and large-scale space opera fun. While this novel shares the frustrating shortcomings of many of his earlier works, such as loose plotting and disappointing conclusion, these flaws are not enough to spoil the considerable charms of this novel.

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