Surface Detail by Iain M Banks. Book review

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks. Orbit (2011) ‘8.99

Reviewed by Jim Steel

The latest in the Culture series takes place around 2770AD. If you’re new to the series, don’t worry; this is a self-contained novel. It does take some getting used to, though. A viewpoint character is killed off at the end of the first chapter and the next viewpoint character is killed off at the end of the second chapter. An intriguing literary technique? Possibly ‘ but not in this novel. Since people can be downloaded into virtual realities after their deaths or even reincarnated in fresh bodies, death is not always fatal.

The third chapter starts off with some elephant-like aliens attempting to flee a virtual Hell and, at first, it seems that Banks has fumbled the ball in merely recreating a traditional Hieronymus Bosch-style environment for them. It later transpires that this is exactly the point as he skewers the hypocrisy in organised religion. There is a virtual war raging between civilisations that maintain virtual Hells and others (including the Culture) who are totally opposed to them. The virtual war goes live, of course, when one side feels that it is about to lose, and we are then treated to some very convincing space combat. The eccentric ships are amongst the most delicious characters.

The story winds its way through half-a-dozen characters, including Joiler Veppers, a text-book psychopath who is also the leading aristocrat in the Enablement, a much less flexible society than the Culture. It really doesn’t matter if all the strands don’t tie up as tidily as they might since Banks packs Surface Detail with dazzling writing and invention. At times his dark wit even reveals him to be a much bleaker version of Douglas Adams as he deftly satirizes our hubris. Highly recommended.

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks. Orbit (2011) ‘8.99

Reviewed by Jim Steel

The latest in the Culture series takes place around 2770AD. If you’re new to the series, don’t worry; this is a self-contained novel. It does take some getting used to, though. A viewpoint character is killed off at the end of the first chapter and the next viewpoint character is killed off at the end of the second chapter. An intriguing literary technique? Possibly ‘ but not in this novel. Since people can be downloaded into virtual realities after their deaths or even reincarnated in fresh bodies, death is not always fatal.

The third chapter starts off with some elephant-like aliens attempting to flee a virtual Hell and, at first, it seems that Banks has fumbled the ball in merely recreating a traditional Hieronymus Bosch-style environment for them. It later transpires that this is exactly the point as he skewers the hypocrisy in organised religion. There is a virtual war raging between civilisations that maintain virtual Hells and others (including the Culture) who are totally opposed to them. The virtual war goes live, of course, when one side feels that it is about to lose, and we are then treated to some very convincing space combat. The eccentric ships are amongst the most delicious characters.

The story winds its way through half-a-dozen characters, including Joiler Veppers, a text-book psychopath who is also the leading aristocrat in the Enablement, a much less flexible society than the Culture. It really doesn’t matter if all the strands don’t tie up as tidily as they might since Banks packs Surface Detail with dazzling writing and invention. At times his dark wit even reveals him to be a much bleaker version of Douglas Adams as he deftly satirizes our hubris. Highly recommended.