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Wheels of Blood
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.