Richard Bagshaw Reply to on 15 January 2014
|As a teenager, I fell in love with Iain M. Banks' Culture series. There is something compelling and uplifting about his idiosyncratic brand of swashbuckling space opera. The struggles of the human citizens and the benevolent, Godlike AI Minds of the Culture, a post-scarcity society, in a galaxy teaming with often unpleasant civilisations and alien species, allows Banks plenty of room to spin entertaining yarns. Yet in his commitment to solid characterisation, and touching on some weighty issues with real-world resonance, Banks prevents the enterprise from feeling too self-indulgent; offering depth as well as entertainment.
I would, in short, highly recommend all readers with a passing interest in sci-fi give the Culture series a read. Surface Detail, however, is perhaps not the best place to start. Whilst its plot stands alone, as do all of the Culture novels', it assumes a degree of prior knowledge about the universe that new readers may find offputting. Combined with a slow start and Banks' trademark multi-stranded, complex plotting, Surface Detail could prove a slog. A better introduction for interested readers would probably be Excession or Use of Weapons.
Established fans, however, will find Surface Detail comfortingly familiar. Droll and eccentric Minds are again at the forefront of the ensemble cast, including a brilliantly psychotic, bloodthirsty warship which must rank amongst the finest of Banks' creations. A thoroughly despicable, love-to-hate villain and his strong female antagonist again also feature prominently. And Banks does a superb job, as ever, of vividly imagining a political quagmire into which the Culture is drawn, and in which its altruism runs afoul of the law of unintended consequences. For all of the ultimate moral simplicity of Surface Detail's plot, Banks does not shy away from tragic flaws in his heroes, or ambiguity in their circumstances.
The novel's familiarity perhaps begs the question; what does Surface Detail add to the Culture canon? One cannot escape the feeling when reading the novel that perhaps Banks has already realised all of the big ideas this universe can accommodate. Long-time fans will recognise many elements of the plot, from the Culture citizens' anarchic hedonism and their AIs long-suffering indulgence, to the Minds' eccentric avatars and Special Circumstances' ruthless cool, that the book can feel redundant. What sets Surface Detail apart is the prominent role afforded virtual realities and their interaction with the 'Real'. In particular, the virtual Hells of fundamentalist civilisations are magnificently realised; and truly, shockingly ghastly in their horrific ingenuity. The novel is most successful when it thrusts its characters into these virtual worlds, and fully explores their possibilities. One of the most memorable and rewarding character arcs, for instance, is that of Chay. An academic on an undercovering factfinding mission to her civilisation's officially-nonexistent Hell, she becomes trapped there. In the novel's few weeks of real-time action, Chay loses her mind, lives a quiet life of monastic ascetism in an imagined mediaeval world, and is reborn as an Angel of Death. Her sorrow for the life she has left behind, and her endurance in the face of unimaginable suffering, offer Surface Detail's most touching moments. However, whilst interesting and beautifully-realised, this is territory which has been ably covered by other SF writers, and Banks has little new to add.
Looking beyond Surface Detail's intricate plotting and lively, engaging prose, some structural flaws also become apparent. The human characters are eclipsed by the Minds not only in their relevance to the plot - beside these supremely intelligent, powerful machines, mere mortals have little heft - but also personality. The Quietus agent Nsokyi in particular feels underwritten, and her plot strand ultimately proves to be of little relevance to the denouement. Many of Banks' creations, too, feel superfluous; there are perhaps a few exotic alien species and ancient artefacts too many. This is not a short book, and better editing could have produced a leaner, faster-paced novel without sacrificing any of its depth.
With that said, a solid effort from Banks is more intriguing, thought-provoking and downright enjoyable than many writers at their best. As such, Surface Detail is well worth a read, but fans may find it a slightly by-the-numbers addition to the Culture series.