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SURFACE DETAIL by Iain M. Banks Rebekah Send a noteboard - 02/10/2010 12:32:40 AM

Lededje is one of the Intagliated, her body tattooed as a permanent sign of her family’s shame. She belongs to Joiler Veppers, a man whose ambition and lust for wealth knows no bounds. After her latest escape attempt ends badly, Lededje is helped by the Culture. But even the Culture, with its seemingly-infinite resources, can only do so much. With aid from one of the Culture’s most powerful – and possibly crazy – ships, Lededje sets out to get her revenge.

Her struggle is not the only one within this book. In the Virtual World, a war has been raging for years. The battle over the continued existence of the Hells threatens to spill over into the Real, and the consequences would be far-reaching. As the stakes get higher, and matters spiral out of control, the fates of those involved in the war hang ever more in the balance – and the smallest decision can be explosive.

Surface Detail is a book with a very twisty plot, and this twistiness is compounded by many characters, some of whom exist in the Real and in the Virtual – and often in more than one incarnation in the digital world. And these strands of characters weave together to form a tight fabric of story with more than one surprise.

The book starts a bit slowly, as character by character we are introduced to the elements of the story. It’s slightly off-putting at first, as there seems to be little connection between each new figure. But eventually, paths converge and the book becomes rather exciting in the last third.

As usual, there is a lot of nifty technology (I confess, this is only the second Culture novel I’ve read, so I don’t know what is new or not!), neat things like tiny implants in the brain that grow to form a lace which records a life, and makes it possible to “backup” a person and recreate them after they die. And of course there are the ships with their glorious names: Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints and Total Internal Reflection (which I’m told is a physics-y pun) and more. The ships are marvellous, and clever, and really too cool for words.

What Banks is best at, I think, is ideas and questions: what would it be like if we could backup our lives and experiences, and live without fear of dying? What is the purpose of Hell? And what if we could fight our wars in the Virtual instead of the Real? How would these things change our morals, our decisions, how governments operate? There’s a lot to think about in this book.

The characters are mix of well-written and almost cliché: there’s the arrogant rich man who treats people as playthings and who has no conscience; the soldier loyal to his cause who knows no restraint; and the familiar witty ship computer. I say “almost cliché” because there are little twists to their personalities that make them feel more real. Lededje, however, is a fully-realised character, with traits that make sense with her past. And the vast majority of the other characters are vibrant, interesting, full of life.

For all of this, I didn’t enjoy the book. There were sections that were excellent and thrilling, but at other times something was not right. There were inconsistencies in tone, words that didn’t seem to fit the universe Banks has created for the Culture, and scenes that felt like they had no other purpose than to be a little shocking. And there was too much ... filler text. The book is long – over 600 pages – but could easily have been shorter. All too often I found my attention wandering when there was yet another description of an impressive ship, or a meandering back-history of this or that society. Finally, there were quite a few continuity errors, little slips that should have been caught by an editor. They were jarring, and made it feel like the production had been rushed, which is rather strange for such a gorgeous-looking book.

Despite my negatives, Surface Detail is definitely worth reading. There’s enough action for a non-scifi fan to be happy, and plenty of nerdy stuff for those who like that kind of thing. Lededje is a great character, and Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints’s avatar is a delight. There are some very clever ideas and the technology is fabulous. I think avid fans of The Culture will enjoy it, and that’s probably the point.


Surface Detail is published by Orbit, and is released on 7 October in the UK and 28 October in the US.
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Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read. - Groucho Marx
This message last edited by Rebekah on 09/10/2010 at 11:54:16 PM
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SURFACE DETAIL by Iain M. Banks - 02/10/2010 12:32:40 AM 4056 Views
That's a scary cover. - 02/10/2010 01:43:12 AM 644 Views
No! It is pretty! - 02/10/2010 10:28:05 AM 643 Views
Not saying its a BAD cover. - 02/10/2010 05:47:11 PM 651 Views
It sounds interesting - 02/10/2010 10:19:43 AM 961 Views
Re: It sounds interesting - 02/10/2010 10:27:39 AM 653 Views
Banks seems to be better when writing shorter - 02/10/2010 02:43:22 PM 691 Views
Ah, I probably should read some of the others, then. - 02/10/2010 04:52:09 PM 790 Views
All it really needs is a very thorough edit, I have decided. - 10/10/2010 12:25:38 AM 640 Views

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