on 10 June 2013
To say that Iain M. Banks opted to forsake modern literary fiction merely to write epic space opera science fiction novels within his acclaimed "Culture" universe, would be making light of him as a writer and criticizing his rationale for abandoning mainstream literary fiction. In plain English, to borrow William Gibson's phrase, Banks felt science fiction had a much better "tool kit" to tell epic tales rooted in morality and philosophy than contemporary mainstream literary fiction. He didn't abandon mainstream literary fiction merely to write genre fiction that would displease many hard-nosed literary critics and writers who remain dismissive of science fiction and fantasy. Instead, he effortlessly combined the convention and style of literary mainstream fiction with the toolkit of science fiction, producing a memorable body of work that will be hailed and remembered as the finest literary space opera science fiction ever written, and demonstrating that, at the time of his death from inoperable cancer on 9 June 2013, he was still among the most important voices in contemporary Anglo-American literature irrespective of genre.
"Surface Detail", one of Banks's last "Culture" novels, is definitely among his best, memorable as a riveting epic tale of revenge and murder played out in the far reaches of Culture-dominated space, replete with ample digressions into faith, philosophy and politics. Banks gives readers a most riveting meditation on the natures of reality and individuality, cloaked in a fast-paced thriller-tinged space opera. Condemned as one of the Intagliated, as someone bearing a physical mark for a family transgression, a young woman, Lededje Y'breq, seeks revenge for her murder, committed by the man who has dominated her life, Joiler Veppers, who, through his vast fortune, literally owns much of their planet. She finds an unlikely ally in a deranged Culture battleship, finding herself heading toward an interstellar war in which she isn't sure which side the Culture represents. Meanwhile there is already a war in the digital realm of Hells, possessing the souls of the dead, that threatens to spread into the realm of the Real; a war that includes as one of its participants, an individual who plays a central role in several other Culture novels. Replete with titanic space battles and memorable hand-to-hand fighting within the digital realm, Banks demonstrates here the excellent literary possibilities inherent in science fiction, especially within space opera, and a tale that is literally literary light years ahead of virtually anything else published recently in space opera science fiction.
RIP Iain M. Banks. You will be missed by many and your words will continue touching the hearts and minds of countless readers, including the generations yet to come.
on 10 October 2010
If you're a fan of Iain Banks' science fiction, someone who's enjoyed the Culture novels in particular, but were a little disappointed by The Algebraist (too much exposition, a disappointing ending), Matter (too much fantasy, a disappointing ending) and Transition (too much alien sex, a disappointing ending), then all I can say is, don't worry - Surface Detail shows Banks back on top form. And it has a very satisfactory ending indeed.
It's a stand-alone novel, though a familiarity with Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons and Look to Windward will give you a deeper appreciation of the book. It's got all the qualities i enjoy in a Banks Culture novel - quirky ship Minds, a complicated plot, good characters, just enough violence and danger to keep you interested, and the usual sly humour. In fact, for all the seriousness of the subject, it's nice to see that Banks has his sense of outrageous fun back. And it's astonishing to think that after so many books he can still visualise such imaginative, fresh environments.
I think it could have been little tighter - there are pages of background exposition that might have fitted an appendix better, and Banks still writes long paragraphs of just one sentence - but these are minor niggles. I read it in a couple of days, couldn't put it down, and enjoyed it enormously. Thoroughly recommended.
on 4 January 2011
I won't comment too much on the story as there are detailed reviews below. Suffice to say that I'm a fan of Ian (M) Banks and enjoyed this as much as his other culture books.
As to the formatting issues, I'm not sure what others have experienced, but I found that after approx 75% of the way through the book some of the spaces between the story threads disappeared (not all). So with a result that you sometimes read from one thread into another without realising that the context had changed to a different part of the story. This is just the way that Ian Banks writes, and you do need these visual clues [gaps] to help you along. I've commented on this to both Amazon and Ian Banks's publishers so we'll see if anyone sorts it out. Not holding my breath though I encourage anyone who finds formatting errors to flag them up to all and sundry so hopefully quality will improve of Kindle versions.
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.
on 15 September 2014
It's hard to single out one of the Culture books (or indeed, the odd man out - "The Algebraist") as somehow better or worse than the others. All one can do is say "I like this more (or less) than the others." Working my way through the Culture novels I can only say this is a stunner. The usual array of gadgets and devices, a background of the War on Hell being fought in heaven, and a really nasty, utterly evil villain with some human (as in, on our planet, in reality) characteristics. My only objection is that (SPOILERS!) when he meets his end its over too quickly and not nearly painfully nor humiliatingly enough. Still worth waiting for, though. If you are into the Culture, you'll love this.
on 16 December 2010
This is certainly a better book than other recent Banks SF efforts such as The Algebraist and Matter, both of which were preposterously self-indulgent, flaccid and although entertaining in places, ultimately not really worth bothering with.
Surface Detail is a more disciplined book than either of those. It's plotted quite tightly and displays a wealth of imagination (always a Banks strength).
However, its failings are ones that apply to many Banks books.
Proper characterisation is almost completely absent, particularly with the female characters, all of whom feel exactly the same. Even pachydermoid aliens with double trunks are depicted generically, to such an extent that references to their trunks seem incongruous because you're visualising them as human.
Stock villains like Veppers are just tiresomely ersatz, and in no way amusing at all.
Stretches of the book feel like they were just banged out at top speed by Banks. This dashed-off quality gives one the impression that he feels that even though he's bored by what he's writing, anything will do because it's a Culture book and people will buy it anyway.
It gets to the point where he's veering disconcertingly close to Douglas Adams territory in places, which is a long, long way from the striking beauty, tension and mystique of the first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas.
But parts of Surface Detail are brilliant too. He's fantastic at futuristic combat, as always. Also, surprisingly, the section of this book dealing with an isolated monastic settlement is remarkably successful, particularly given Banks' atheistic bent.
Finally, he makes no attempt at all to explore the philosophical ramifications of his afterlife premise. He just states as a given that the stored personalities are sentient, and leaves it at that. This is unsatisfactory. I'm not looking for treatises on the nature of sentience and consciousness, but it would be nice to see some small acknowledgement that there are layers of complexity and mystery behind this notion of an artificial afterlife.
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.
The concept of member of the Culture civilisation, whether human or machine, being able to back themselves up, like computer hard drives, has been part of Iain Banks' Culture stories since the very beginning. In Surface Detail this idea is explored, explaining how it works in practice - so that the minds (and souls?) of the dead may be reborn (or revented, in Banks' vocabulary) or, indeed, how they might be transferred into simulated worlds or, even Hell.
I'm not sure that I'd previously picked up that the concept of Hell or hells was part of the Culture universe until now (although it won't surprise me, if and when I get around to re-reading them, that they had already been allowed for). It seems, however, that some civilisations on the fringes, or even in the Culture itself, believed that putting the fear of hell into its population was a "good thing", and, in the apparent absence of actual supernatural ones, that they had invented digital ones in which the minds/souls of the departed could be tortured in perpetuity. This fact forms the backdrop to, and indeed many of the scenes for, this novel, one which, fittingly perhaps, begins with a murder in a theatre.
This gives Banks the opportunity to explore the meaning of death in his universe, while also allowing him to make his views on Hell in our own world pretty clear too. (Repressive nonsense, I think, would sum his view up pretty succinctly.) A bit of a dig against the mid-western moral majority type, as well - if I correctly attribute that characterisation to a being from a race of small elephants with two trunks! I did find most of the early chapters of the book to be unremittingly grim, almost more horror than SciFi, but as he eventually puts the multiple plot lines into context everything became clearer, if not at any stage light. Of course Banks tells the story with his usual breathtaking imagination, and with glimmers of black humour. You'll love to meet the Abominator-class warship "Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints", although he/she/it does make you wonder whether a space civilisation could really be run, to the benefit of its pan-human population, by a collective of artificial intelligences some of whom are so gung-ho that they would embarrass the average nineteen year old graduate of a military academy.
In short, another brilliant book for aficionados of Iain M Bank's space opera. I'm straight on to Hydrogen Sonata, the most recent one. The joy of Kindle is being that you can download the next instalment just two minutes after the previous one without stopping to think that you might be devoting your mind to something more worthy.
on 9 September 2012
After the disaster that was 'Matter' (too long, overwrought and tedious, with a rushed and deeply unsatisfying ending), this is a welcome return to form. This has all the classic hallmarks of a Culture novel, and is by far the funniest (a number of times I found myself laughing out loud). Demeisen, the Abominator Class Picket Ship, is one of his best characters, and provides much of the novel's humour.
For me this was vintage Banks, witty, intelligent, deeply creative, on a par with some of his best Culture novels. I'm giving it 4 stars because it still didn't top Use of Weapons, but for me it came very close.
on 22 November 2010
This book makes me worry that Banks is running out of steam, which is a shame as I've read and enjoyed all his sci-fi. For most of the book I was thinking, "oh, yes, that's just like 'the Algebraist'/'Matter'/'Excession'," so much so that it was hard to engage with this story on its own terms. Obviously this won't bother anyone who's never read Banks' sci-fi before, so it may be a decent, if rather macabre, introduction for new readers. But as someone who's read the lot, I didn't find much that was very memorable.
Plusses and minuses for regular Banks readers below:
New and interesting:
- a bit more insight into interactions between different civilisational levels (if all that stuff with the Oct/Nariscene excited you in 'Matter', this might too)
- more on the ethics of digital afterlives (building on the Chelgrian Puen soulkeeper tech in 'Look to Windward')
- cute backstory link to Zakalwe of 'Use of Weapons' fame
- exceptionally gung-ho and offensive SC combat Mind with fun techno-tricks (like the ROU Killing Time, but more hardcore)
Old and tired:
- uber-heroine fighting valiantly to throw off family shame through firepower and general sassiness (seen it all before in 'Matter', 'Against a dark background' etc)
- evil corporate plutocrat with a sadistic bent ('the Algebraist' and most other '20th Century' scenario stories)
- awe-inspiring GSVs, orbitals and stuff, just generally floating about being wise and magnificent
- multiple interleaved plots which we know are all going to line up nicely by the end
- alarming plot developments that turn out to be... [gasp]... a training simulation
- bars full of quirky alien species getting high, especially when they're full of oddball ship avatars ('Matter' is the most obvious but this has been old hat since 'Star Wars')
- sudden appearance of clouds of more or less equiv-tech ships in a vain attempt to make space battles less one-sided. Said vessels are then, of course, overwhelmed by Culture know-how, planning or general cleverness. ('Excession', 'Matter')
New and ill-advised:
- gruesome digital hells populated by cute pocket-sized elephants (with feelings and the power of speech, unfortunately)
- new sub-branches of Contact that are supposed to deal with weird niches (like the aforementioned digital baby elephants) but sound like orders of monks in the catholic church.
- thankfully, no cod-mediaeval characters swinging swords about, unless I've forgotten one of the Zakalwe character's virtual battlegrounds (read 'Matter' to see how grating this can be, or 'Inversions' to see it work)
I'm sure there's enormous pressure on Banks to produce more Culture stories, but my personal feeling is that getting away from it has served him better, at least in the last few years. 'Look to Windward' was the last Culture book I really enjoyed (edust, anyone?), not counting 'Inversions' where its presence is so understated as to be almost invisible. 'Matter' and 'Surface detail' are really just recycling. Contrast that with the non-culture world of 'the Algebraist': Banks gave himself a bit more space and came up with things like Dwellers, aggressive mentoring, and more than I could have imagined for myself about the mechanics of gas-giant life. That's enough for me to forgive him for one-dimensional cliches like Salus Kehar and Taince. No such luck for Mr. Veppers, I'm afraid.