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.