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on 9 October 2010
Real people - real cultures - are never simple, and are not likeable all the time. Having created the Culture: one of the most blissfully competent and (possibly) altruistic interstellar societies in science fiction, Banks has worked hard in his books to present many different aspects of it, always interpreted through its interaction with the lesser, equal or more advanced races that it inevitably rubs up against in his vividly-imagined galactic community. We have had the Culture as combatant, as meddler, maker of lives and destroyer of dreams. It has acted as a god and also like a technically-obsessed and frighteningly uninhibited auntie. Now, in Surface Detail, he gives us yet another view of the Culture, and this time it's not a particularly comfortable one. We are shown an underlying harshness that Banks has always hinted at, and he reveals the Culture's self-interest and cynicism much more clearly than ever before. Those communist aliens seem particularly like us this time round and things don't appear to be so - well, so effortless for them. There is no Kabe Ischloer here to shake his head indulgently over the endearingly strange ways of Culture citizens. There are no self-aware chuckles from its apologists about how splendidly crazy its people are.

There is, however, a lot of blood, violence and a central, screaming vision of virtual reality turned to horrific purpose that should make us all stop and think. It certainly gave me the shivers.

The book is, for me, a great return to first class science fiction writing by Banks, although I was starting to worry a little at the beginning. The strong, driven women (tick), the strangely thick yet cunning and powerful evil overlord (tick), castles, plains and mesas (tick all three), lots of parallel storylines that you can't imagine will ever converge (tick)... so I had some doubts until about a third of the way into it, and then one of the most hilariously unpleasant yet fascinating characters he has ever created stepped in and transformed the entire tone of the novel in just a few pages. Imagine Malcolm Tucker coming to a galaxy near you, but with plasma chambers attached.

From then on, the story accelerates. The writing - already appreciably sharper and more purposeful than in Matter - grips you by the scruff of the neck and you are back in classic Banks territory, but with much more of a wry twist than usual.

The pacing of this long book is excellent and the ending much better handled than it was in Matter. The welcome lack of sentimentality and the refreshing absence of extended, self-referential musings reminded me more of Consider Phlebas and his other, earlier SF work. Some of those trademark discourses-within-sentences still worm their way into the narrative, but they work here, counter-balancing much crisper technical detail and some truly funny moments. The book had me laughing and wincing in all the right places and I personally loved some of the final ship-to-ship exchanges: snappy, witty, clever and better than anything Banks has done since Excession.

I would definitely recommend it.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 7 October 2010
It is perhaps appropriate for a book that centres around the battle for the afterlife to begin this review with a confession: this was my first encounter with Iain M Banks' Culture series of science fiction novels. At first, I worried that this put me at a significant disadvantage as for the first 100 or so pages, I spend most of the time being completely confused about what was going on. However, as the strands started to come together, it became apparent that this is partly Banks' style and indeed it's one he uses in his non-science fiction books too. Keep going, it does come together.

As in his non-sci fi works, Banks juggles stories and characters with dazzling effect. He takes a number of characters whose stories may or may not ultimately come together and switches between their stories. And just when you think one line of story is not going anywhere in particular, he twists it round and it all makes perfect sense. The confusion is compounded by the fact that he is covering both the `Real' and `virtual' worlds, and particularly in the virtual worlds, characters may take on different roles and identities. Sound confusing? Well, it is at first but it's also highly entertaining, not to mention clever.

To the uninitiated, the Culture is a fictional interstellar enlightened, socialist, and utopian society operating amongst other, less benevolent and lesser civilized civilizations. This is at least the eighth book to feature the Culture, which first started with Consider Phlebas (The Culture) featuring the Culture's religious war against the Idiran Empire. We are told that the events of Surface Detail occur a millennium and a half after this war.

Surface Detail begins when Lededje Y'breq, a tattooed slave (surface detail, you see?) is attempting to escape from her evil owner, the rich and powerful Veppers who has made his family fortune in virtual war games. He's like an evil cross between Bill Gates, Peter Stringfellow and Hugh Heffner.

Meanwhile, in another part of the galaxy, a war rages over the right for Hell to exist. At first the Culture is not directly involved in this war being fought out in a virtual environment with the antagonists agreeing to abide by the outcome in the Real, which strikes me as a very good way of settling disputes. But that will change as the virtual war spills over into the Real.

This is terrifically bad news for the galaxy, but great news for the reader as it brings into play the Culture war ship "Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints" and it's avatar Demeisen introducing that classic sci fi fall back of entertaining computers communicating with humans. It maybe a well-used trick, but it affords great opportunity for humour. And if you think that ship's title is good, how about the "Sense Amidst Madness, Wit Amidst Folly". I know that in the current economic climate cuts are likely in Defence spending here on Earth, but surely we can put something aside to re-name some of our Navy with these names!

There's double-crossing aplenty, action, revenge, love stories, virtual and real action, tech and humour and some terrific characters. But what sets this book apart is the quality of the writing and the depth of the author's imagination. Amongst all the mayhem, Banks raises some interesting questions about identity, death and the whole point of Hell.

Fans of the Culture series will need no encouragement to grab this latest installment. Sure, it can be confusing at times and Banks does rather leave some stories hanging (although he presents a little potted outcome of the characters at the end) but it's a wonderful trip and I for one will be eagerly diving into the earlier books.
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on 11 October 2011
Having read the entire Banks sci-fi catalogue and a smattering of his fiction, I haven't come across a novel of his which didn't have a deeply woven tapestry with subtle accents. His prior novel Inversions didn't impress me much as I found the feudal kingdom a bit tedious to tackle, and the posh lifestyle of the king somewhat dull, but I did find the darkness and humor to my liking yet still received 3/5 stars. Of a similar raring, Feersum Endjinn didn't have voluptuously complex characters or a grand epic-ness. Surface Detail (SD) takes negative aspects from both of these novels and shares the similar rating of 3/5 stars... which I thought I'd do for the release of SD.

Typical of Banksian SF is the plethora of characters strewn across the galactic plane, who have a unique plot line and are fated to be joined together in extreme circumstances in the last 10% of the novel. That sounds about right, doesn't it? Most characters in SD are somewhat flat: generically evil like Veppers, fairly morbid yet motivated Quietus agent Yime, the sarcastic and blood-thirsty AI of Demeisen and the sulky yet revengeful Lededje. The real highlights of the spread of aliens, humans and pan-humans are the hellish plights of Prin and Chay (escaped from hell and stuck in hell for perspective lifetimes, respectively) and the trials and mindset of the cute and conniving Culture-fan of the GFCN species, Bettlescroy. Two separate books could have been written about these characters alone!

Veppers annoyed me the most, undoubtedly. I've read enough of easily unlikable characters that I now know it's pretty simple to create such a beast (aggressive sexual acts ala The Algebraist or maniacal single-mindedness ala Dark Background). Veppers takes on both these traits as well as being filthy rich like King Quience of Inversions but also has an added distasteful trait of acting just like and amoral, spoiled king. This character has been made again and again by Banks and the current version of evil in the guise of Veppers is tried, tested and now getting quite dull.

As for the supposedly galaxy-spanning plot... well, not so much in SD. There's a brief scene on a Hub, horrific depictions of a virtual hell, uninspiring terrestrial life on a bland planet which Veppers resides and a vague description of a series of orbital factories abandoned by an extinct alien species which isn't explored to its fullest. Most of the novel is aboard a few Culture ships or alien vessels, where the plot is talked about and their intentions laid out in full. There were no large surprises behind the intentions of the major caste and the only excitement rally came about via the war-loving, sardonic AI named Demeisen. There are some frivolous and interesting scenes of exotic alien architecture (like the said Tsungarial Disk orbital factory and another derelict monstrosity).

Granted, there were a number of exotic ideas which held my interest and imagination even while at work or exercising, but most of the novel was just uninspiring and untried: the virtual hells should have been better explored to a greater degree but Banks limited it to a single hell, the NR level 8 species is of similar level as the Culture but was left wholly undetailed, and the broader greatness and sustaining quality of the Culture wasn't delved into.

If another Culture novel is written, I do hope Banks steers away from the `glitz and glamour' of Special Circumstances and sticks to grassroots Culture civilization, which is what is draws me back to his universe again and again.
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on 17 January 2011
I am a huge Banks fan (of his SF works rather than his other fiction) and eagerly looked forward to this novel when it came out. While it is an improvement on the fairly turgid and unengaging "Matter", and has an intriguing story and set of characters, I had to push to finish it and kept thinking that a bit more judicious editing would have improved its flow significantly.

The story itself centres around a woman, Lededje, who is 'intagliated' (tattooed) and enslaved to one of the galaxy's most powerful - and immoral - men, Joiler Veppers. The main thread of the book focuses on her death, rebirth and subsequent attempts to avenge herself on her former captor, however there are a number of other intertwined and separate stories dealing with a battle over the existence of virtual Hells, amongst other things, and the attempts of various pro- and anti-Hell factions to get their way.

While the premise has enormous potential and is in line with the space opera themes of Banks' previous novels, the various plot strands and individual characters' stories become difficult to follow and bog down the pace significantly. Even Banks himself seems to have 'lost the plot' a bit, having to provide a hurried summary of certain of the characters' fates as an epilogue, rather than integrate them fully into the story's conclusion.

In the end, I really didn't care what happened to the main characters (much less the minor ones) as too little time is spent developing them, their motivations or their histories beyond a somewhat cartoonish level. The most interesting character is the avatar of the Culture warship "Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints", whose humour and quick wit makes most of the other characters seem rather bland and under-developed. Joiler Veppers himself is also intriguing, if a little cliched, and provides a much more interesting contrast to the rather dull and earnest Lededje.

Surprisingly for Banks, the regular use of expletives (particularly "f**k") is an unwelcome new feature of his prose, which in the past has relied on clever word plays, astounding descriptions and wry humour. I'm no wowser and can appreciate the use of swearing in the right context - especially in the adult world of Banks' Culture universe - however here it is over-used and becomes a lazy mechanism to deliver humour, 'edginess' or 'realness' - I wasn't really sure which. After counting half a dozen occurrences on 2 pages, it became a distraction and an annoyance; again, better editing would have been of benefit.

"Surface Detail" certainly didn't grip me the way some of Bank's other works have (eg Consider Phlebas, Look to Windward), however it is readable if you stick with it and has enough of Banks' signature ideas and descriptions to pique your imagination and sense of humour. Perhaps he should now rest the Culture for a while so that it doesn't become stale and try to come up with something new.
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on 15 October 2010
This is a great addition to the Culture series of books - was very much looking forward to it, and enjoyed it an awful lot. I won't go into the detail of plot, characters etc. any more than saying that it was great, they were interesting, etc.

As a book, it deserves five stars. The hardcover version would have got this from me.

However, I read the Kindle version, and the Kindle version has been lazily put together, I'm guessing from an earlier manuscript version. It has missing or half completed paragraphs. Very frustrating.

It flows quite often from one sub-chapter to the next without a line break to let you know - you're reading the dialogue from one perspective, get confused after a few lines and a paragraph later realise that you've got to go back as it's actually another character's dialogue.

There are spelling / word usage mistakes - not hundreds, but definitely 30+, which sometimes you can skim past but a few had me furrowing my brow trying to think what Banks actually meant/wrote.

In short, I still enjoyed it, but am putting in a complaint to Amazon about their shoddy work.
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on 31 January 2012
As with so many of Banks's Culture novels, he teases out the implications of something touched upon in earler novels. This time it's the virtual Heavens mentioned briefly in Look to Windward. If there are virtual Heavens, there can also be virtual Hells...

So, there are the standard Banks tics: someone from a backward civilisation out for revenge, meddling aliens trying to arrange events to suit themselves, a Culture warship on a kill-'em-all trip, and Special Circumstances making sure everything turns out all right in the end. The problem is that while Banks is capable of vivid and humourous writing, as with the ship avatar Demeisen, he seems to have written himself into a cul-de-sac. Simply put, the Culture is so powerful and advanced there's never any sense the characters are in any real danger, so there's no real dramatic tension in this novel. In particular, once we're told that a single Culture capital ship can defeat a fleet of over 200 million low-tech ships, the reader thinks 'well, what can touch them if this is the case'?

Larry Niven hit a similar problem with his Known Space series: once we found out humans had been selectively bred to be the luckiest race in the Galaxy, it reduced any future novels he might write to a description of how this luck would save the day. I would venture to suggest that Banks has hit the same problem with the Culture's uber-tech and he night be better advised writing more novels along the lines of Against A Dark Background: dramatic, involving and with a real sense of danger.
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on 20 July 2011
I enjoyed this book but it might have been a lot better. The plot was interesting and engaging with some good twists along the way but it could easily have been shortened by a third without losing any of the impetus. There were too many characters with long and unnecessary descriptions of their back-stories and extended descriptive passages which only served to take the pace out of the narrative. I can't help feeling that the author was under pressure from the publishers to write a 'mega novel' based simply on word count. What a shame. It could have been so much better.
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VINE VOICEon 10 October 2010
Iain Banks is a consistently engaging and creative writer. Ok not all of his books live up to the quality of his best, but there is (almost) always something to enjoy in his writing. I have had the feeling over his last few books that his best work has been reserved for his, Sci Fi, Iain M Banks manifestation. He has sought never to repeat himself with books such as Inversions (fantasy) and the Algebraist (almost Asimovian) lying at different ends of his ouvre.

However his most enduring work has always been set in the Culture, a fiercely egalitarian galaxy-spanning civilsation of people and intelligent starships whose approach to the universe is best described as imperialistically liberal. It cannot help itself from seeking to spread its cosmos-view to other cultures and civilisations. Its tools in doing this are the outwardly benevolent diplomatic arm, Contact, and the darker and shadowier Special Circumstances.

The good news for lovers of M Banks' culture novels is that this is the best for quite some time, maybe not up there with the very best (Player of Games which I would rank among the greatest works of Sci -Fi ever) but certainly ahead of most (and ahead of nearly every other current Sci Fi writer.

The major new addition to the universe in this novel is a digital afterlife. Having developed beyond (in most cases) religious belief, space faring societies have created their own afterlives into which the personalities of the dead are uploaded. Over millenia different societies have linked their afterlives into one whole. But there is discord in heaven, or rather there are some societies which still feel that the threat of punishment is necessary to control their civilisations in life, and so have created hells. Other more enlightened cultures are affronted by this and so war has broken out in the afterlife which threatens to spill over into the real universe.

Playing out against this overarching storyline, Banks, as ever, gives the reader diverse intertwining threads, Lededje Y'Breq, tattooed slave to the despotic business man Veppers, who escapes to the Culture with thoughts of revenge against her former master, Veppers himself who is involved in a plot in which he sees commercial advancement but which will see consequences far beyond his relatively backward society, Yime Nsokyi an agent for an arm of the Culture charged with interacting with the dead, Vateiul, a digital warrior in the conflict in the afterlife. The existence of the hells also gives Banks the opportunity to indulge in the kind of sadistic horror writing he clearly enjoys.

As with the best Culture novels, the real stars of Surface Detail are the Culture's ships, ranging from small warships armed with exotically powerful weapons, through to vast General Systems Vehicles housing billions of people. All the ships have their own distinctive and frequently eccentric names ("Me, I'm Counting, "Sense Amidst Madness, Wit Amidst Folly"), and are controlled by enormously intelligent, and frequently equally eccentric artificial intelligences called minds. This book introduces a ship called "Falling Outside the normal moral constraints" which is amongst Banks' most thoroughly entertaining characters.

So why is Surface Detail so good?

1. It is an out and out hard SF novel. Banks forays into fantasy have been interesting, but he is at his best describing vast starships, massive space battles and inter civilisational politics.

2. The sheer sense of scale. This is not SF seeking to extrapolate from current science. This is the SF of outrageous size and ideas.

3. The sense of enjoyment of Bank's writing. He clearly loves writing this stuff and that sense of joy comes through in his writing.

4. The extravangantly labyrinthine politics, between different cultures, and most entertainingly within the Culture itself.

5. The firmly tongue in cheek nature of the writing, Banks is being ridculous and he plainly knows it. I might even go so far as to say this is the literary equivalent of a Muse album.

6.Behind the humour, Banks is also writing allegorically. He nails his liberal credentials firmly to his chest, and uses the book to critique our world and his own views.

That last point makes things sound a little po-faced. They aren't. Surface detail is a huge rollicking piece of entertainment and as such is thoroughly recommended.
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on 12 November 2010
I've read most of Banks' culture novels, but this one is definitely not the best. All the ingredients are there, but it all feels a little bit like your been there before. Of course, new things do happen and Banks wouldn't be Banks if he hadn't come up with some new inventive details, but on the whole it does give the impression of being just another Banks culture novel. Still worth the read though. I very much prefer Banks on a bad day to most other authors.
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on 22 June 2011
Like Matter before it, I'm sorry to say I found this book almost unreadable.

I started with the Culture novels at their very beginning, buying and reading Consider Phlebas (The Culture) when it first appeared in paperback. I enjoyed it immensely and it's still one of my favourite books. Likewise Use of Weapons (The Culture).

But gradually the Culture stories became more elaborate and ever more words were sacrificed to over-blown descriptions and entire chapters of unnecessary detail. The story became secondary to Banks' prose.

I guess I like my stories slightly more pithy and, though I don't mind extra detail I'd prefer it was in support of the story, rather than as an exercise in verbosity.
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