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Surface Detail (Culture Novels)
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on 13 March 2011
How does he do it? Each time Banks creates something more than the last, whilst maintaining the highest quality of writing to be found in the genre of modern British SF. The virtual Hells concept is staggering, the characters typically believable and for Banks afficionados there is a delicious twist at the end. The wait to the next is painful.
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on 12 November 2014
Enjoyable novel by one of my favourite authors.
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on 6 July 2014
First class sf writing from a master of the art
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on 26 September 2011
Well, after the disastrous 'Matter' this is almost like some sort of return to form... except the things that bother me about Iain Banks books also bother me about this one.

Annoyingly, he puts his female characters on pedestals: they're always whiter than white, randy, middle class, intelligent, heroic and sassy. Crucially, they have no psychological flaws or hang-ups which adds to the boredom; they make tedious, cliched, gender observations about male behaviour as if to make up for the nerdy, Sc-Fi settings of the author. There's always a cartoon, male baddy and a bad-ass, rude avatar (or a Jeeves-like drone) and Star Wars -type space warfare.

The plots tend to lose their way mid-book. At first Surface Detail seemed to be concerned with the moral aspect of creating and sustaining virtual hells and the gory descriptions were fascinating. Interesting, I thought -and I expected the 4 separate stories, each with a different character, would come together to reveal how the Culture would tackle the problem. Instead we got numerous accounts of a virtual soldier shooting guns in virtual worlds and long descriptions of weaponry (Zzzzzz) and a political story about greed that did not seem very connected to the main 'hell' theme at all. Two of the characters were dispensed with suddenly as if the author realised they were going nowhere and he couldn't fit them in the plot anymore. This over-long book fizzles out in an unsatisfactory and rather obvious ending.

Come on, Iain, don't churn the books out on auto-pilot and GET AN EDITOR to chop stuff out, tighten the plot line and keep you on track.
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on 1 July 2016
Perfect, thank you. No Issues to report
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on 13 June 2011
Having manfully resisted buying this until the paperback came out I've now acquired and consumed the book and am in a position to pass comment. First the good news: Iain M Banks is back on form! His recent works have been slightly disappointing. "The Algebraist" was the start of the decline: he was far too fond of those dwellers. "Matter" rambled all over the place (and Banks needs to look up "Prince Regent" it doesn't mean what he thinks it means.) And "Transition" had major plot flaws - how do two people visit a planet sterilised by a gamma ray burst when only their minds travel and they require hosts at the destination?

"Surface Detail" is a good old Culture romp in the style of earlier books. The notional heroine is "Led", slave of a big bad businessman, and surface detail refers to her extensive genetically-coded-in tattooing. But other characters have such prominence, including pan-humans, drones, ships, and outright aliens (including one elephantine species clearly abducted from Larry Niven's Footfall) that it's not really the story of Led. It's many intertwined stories and although at the first and last it's about Led, in the middle it's not. There are of course Minds, including a border-line evil culture warship of the Abominator class, although he turns out to be a good guy at the end. Kind off. There's a most unlikely assassin, who has a name, we're assured, not that we ever learn it.

Much of the action takes place in virtual realities, which is probably a bad idea. It's difficult to get too engaged in the story when you know it's not real even for the characters, although as a plot device it does allow Banks to kill people off, then bring them back saying ha ha that was just a simulation. Of course he can only do that once or twice before the reader cottons on. Doesn't stop him trying it five or six times though.

Banks resists his usual two annoying tricks of using amnesia to keep the suspense going, and jumping the chronology of the narration around all over the place. It's a pretty linear story and most people know what they're about most of the time, although he couldn't resist a little SC mind-wiping skulduggery right at the end. That said, he doesn't wrap it all up at the end. All the plot lines don't come together and in addition to his usual epilogue there's a chapter just before the end when he summarises how events turn out for all the characters. You get the impression that's what he had left of his notes when his publisher said he had to stop writing now. Still, at least we find out how things panned out. Oh, and right at the end, the very last word of the book delivers a little surprise. A blast from the past as it were. (You'll need to know your Culture canon though.) He did it before in one of the other Culture books, but to say more would be revealing too much. Just prepare yourself for a little shock and perhaps a hint of things to come: some of us haven't forgotten that a certain Culture book was promised but never delivered.

So, anyway, the real measure of a book is how re-readable it is. Would I read it twice? Some books you finish the last page and immediately start again on page one, thinking: now I understand what's happening I'll enjoy it even more.

Surface Detail isn't quite in that league, but one day it will reach the top of my stack again.
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on 31 October 2010
Iain Banks' Culture novels are almost always good and this one is no exception. That may be because almost all of them mainly portray the edge of the Culture and not its daily life, which would possibly make very boring reading, being as utopian as it is. This one is about a girl from a society who, although technologically fairly sophisticated, follows the practise of indebted slavery, where unpaid debts may lead to a person and their offspring being personal slaves of another person for some generations. The girl is killed in an escape attempt but is revived by a Culture device which had been implanted in her. Her death, revival and quest for revenge are played out upon the backdrop of the the same technology that saved her being used by many civilisations to store the virtual personalities of their dead in virtual heavens and hells and the war that is virtually fought between the latter two virtual entities over the right of the hells to exist.

There are many sub-plots within this book, some of which Banks uses to flesh out his virtual civilisations and one which has a very fine twist right at the end of the book (The reader would have had to have read a previous Culuture novel or do some Googling to spot this, though). If there is one thing that did leave me wishing for more was that these sub-stories would have been fleshed out more at the end, as two of them seem to be missing something which is only partially filled out in an epilogue at the end.

Like some of Banks' later books, this one has what seems to the reader initially a plot to undermine the Culture end with the futility of such endeavours being laughably pointed out to them in a very humiliating way by the Culture's hilariously named fantastic spaceships. For me personally, I always relish the chance to come upon a new spaceship in Bank's novels.

Banks also seems to be trying to fit some of our twenty first century technology into this novel such as virtual worlds, which is something he hasn't done in past novels. The above mentioned virtual heavens and hells do leave one wondering about many of the characters who died in previous novels. He also seems to have used the main character's society as a tool to take a nice swipe at capitalist society in general and make a very pointed comment about religion in particular. I can imagine more conservative or religious readers being offended by this, but I personally found it gratifying.

Iain Banks remains one of my favourite writers, and I can recommend this book to any fan of the Culture.
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on 4 December 2010
'Surface Detail' is the latest 'Culture'-novel from Iain M Banks. If you haven't read any novel in the Culture-cycle, this is probably not for you - start by reading 'Player of Games', 'Excession' or 'Consider Phlebas' for a better introduction to the Culture-universe.

Banks' strength is his flow of interesting and sometimes mindboggling ideas - in 'Surface Detail' we are presented with (the ususal) hyper-intelligent spaceships, a girl with fractal-tatooes inside and out of her body, a space-station which stretches around the sun, simulated realities indistinguishable from reality, and so on. Usually the plot and characters are relatively simple, and the story revolves around a bunch of characters which give us different perspectives. The problem in this novel is the simulated realities. Hyper-advanced civilisations that can download personalities as programs inside simulated worlds, ok. And the downloaded versions can even be given physical bodies again bringing them back to life. But then we are told that some of these civilisations practice the creation of "hells" - simulated hells (and heavens) - where individuals are punished after life. But in reality it is not the individuals themselves, just a copy (but a perfect copy) of their personalities. Actually, this is a little too silly. Why bother creating hells for copies of personalities, especially made by advanced super-intelligent species?

Anyway, the story in 'Surface Detail' is about those hells, and the fact that some civilisations (like the Culture) want them to be shut down, while others demand them to continue. This conflict takes place in part in the simulated worlds, with virtual armies clashing in the hells. And in part in reality ("The Real"), in politics and in physical attacks on the computers ("substrates") housing the hells.

The bad guy is a little bit too bad to be believable, and the protagonist is quiote uninteresting. The most interesting character is the Culture warship "Outside the normal moral constraints", and its' slightly psychopathic avatar Demeisen. The plot is, despite some silliness, captivating enough to read through. But I think Banks writes too long, some descriptions and actions become tedious and predictable and at least I tend to skip some pages.

Recommended if you like Banks other Culture-novels. It's not the best though (my favourites are 'Player of Games' and 'Matter'). If you haven't read any Culture-novels before, start with an earlier for introduction. I give 'Surface Detail' 3.5 stars: -1 for some silliness and tediousness, -.5 for being too long.
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on 18 November 2015
Its an Iain M Banks as ever brilliant.
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VINE VOICEon 21 February 2011
The very last word of this book got a great big smile from me (and, I suspect, other IMB readers) but the very fact that it was so amusing points up the problem with SD - it's more of the same. It's like a Hollywood remake - bigger, longer, more massive explosions, superior FX work, but still, at the core, the same stuff one has already seen.

This is not to say it's bad - far from it - just that it could have been better. It may be time for Banks to set his beloved Culture aside. He's reached the stage where he's bolting new stuff onto it just to introduce novelty. Yes, SD's better than Matter and The Algebraist, but that's not saying much.

And, yet again, poorly edited. A good copy editor would have got rid of the obvious typos (for example, "ordinance" and "ordnance" in adjacent sentences, both meaning "armament", "you" for "your") and someone should have sat down with IMB and knocked the book's length down to 500pp or so.
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