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on October 15, 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 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 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 October 19, 2010
If you can create an immersive virtual reality indistinguishable from the Real then you can build Heaven ... or Hell. Inevitably some civilizations will build their own Hells, to punish sinners and encourage the virtuous. Equally inevitably, other civilizations will want to abolish these virtual arenas of unending torment.

In "Surface Detail", Iain M. Banks' new Culture novel, there is a war in progress on this very issue. Waged for decades in virtuality, the losing side is preparing to cheat and move the war into the Real. Suddenly this issue could drag everybody in.

This novel of 627 pages provides plenty of space for a multitude of story lines to develop and coalesce as the big picture comes slowly into focus. We start, in medias res, with the tattooed girl Lededje fleeing her overbearing boss. We cut to the conscript Vatueil, part of a mediaeval army besieging a castle in an opaque war. We cut to an overwhelming `equivalent tech' assault upon a Culture Orbital and meet Yime Nsokyi fighting in the last ditch. Not all of these events are happening in the Real.

It's a challenge to write compelling descriptions of Hell: how many words for torment are there in the language? How many gruesome tortures do you need to describe? How can you get the reader to empathise with suffering? Banks' solution is to apply a paced plot-driven structure to excursions into the netherworld: we encounter agonies from repeatedly unexpected directions.

Towards the end, as battle fleets assemble, the novel picks up pace and Banks has a lot of fun with the Abominator Class General Offensive Unit "Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints". This is a ship which could probably destroy a whole galactic spiral arm without really trying and boy, does it waste the bad guys!

So: exuberant, satisfyingly complex, interesting characters, quite a few surprises and a weird echo of "Use of Weapons" on the final page. What's not to like?

If all SF is really reflection on the here-and-now, what's the issue being explored here? No-one is going to feel too surprised that Iain Banks feels that torture is wrong, that virtual reality Hells are a poor idea, that sociopathic plutocrats ought to get their just desserts. So where is the subversive take on received bien-pensant opinion? The nearest I could find is that sometimes being talented, high-ranking and self-important doesn't make you the automatic centre of attention - a somewhat underwhelming truth.

So read it as intelligent, sophisticated entertainment: it's worth the money.
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HALL OF FAMEon June 10, 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 June 9, 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 of minds of countless readers, including the generations yet to come.
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on May 17, 2011
Surface Detail is the first Iain M. Banks Culture novel I've read. As such, I enjoyed it probably more than I should have. The galaxy in which the Culture civilization lives is fascinatingly detailed with wonderful technologies all the way up to the "indistinguishable from magic" variety. The personalities are fascinating too, including everything from a bloodthirsty combat ship, to a bigoted (vs. AI) captain of industry, a super-genius asexual precise-minded diplomat to the dead, and a quadrupedal bi-trunked gentle soul who ends up serving the head demon in a virtual Hell. So what does Surface Detail do, that it doesn't deserve the full enjoyment I got out of it?

For starters, the plot is convoluted and loaded with dead ends, some narrative threads unceremoniously dropped and their characters yanked in another direction fast enough to give them whiplash. There are too many characters that don't live up to their full potential. They are marvelously vivid, but many of them exist for no other purpose than exposition on the various details of the Culture and other galactic and virtual and extra-dimensional denizens. Banks does a wonderful job of bringing the galaxy to life, but then he doesn't do much of anything with some of his intricate creations.

Despite the flaws, Surface Detail is BIG enough in scope and ambition to absorb those flaws and in some sense make them work. It's an overstuffed book. If it works for a couch, why not for a book? Yes, the main story sometimes gets buried under the fluffy cushions of the narrative. There is so much there there, and the secondary plots are so well developed that it is easy to get lost. The book sometimes seems to lose sight of its protagonist, which is unfortunate, because she's a remarkable character. So if it sounds like I am being angry with this book for being so good, well, I guess that's part of it.

In some sense it's just all too much and it could use more focus. On the other hand, each different direction the disconnected characters take is so thorough, it's like a bunch of concurrent novellas jammed into the crevices of a fully realized novel. I loved the setting, and indeed, the main story, because I had never encountered this writer's demesne before. Those more familiar with the Culture may be more burdened by the book's flaws, but for me, it was mostly just icing on the icing.
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on January 3, 2011
I wouldn't skip a Culture novel, even if it consisted of a 80.000 word long Culture name. I also believe that Iain M. Banks should never get less than 3 star reviews, even for his super market list.

However, I must point out that Culture 9 did not really satisfy my Culture hunger. I have a feeling, that Surface Detail started as something else, and then this something else, was retrofitted into a Culture mould.

Good things first. Something I liked a lot (but could have liked even more): The fantastic concept of the Hells. The reader's first encounter with these cyber infernos is absolutely riveting and a fine rival to the hell sermon in the "Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man". Moreover, a novel called "Hells" could very well be a standalone novel, without the slightest Culture interference. And so, unfortunately, Banks comes up with Quietus to fix this, which, with the appearance of an almost grotesque agent, ruins somehow the Hells concept (as if SC really needed the existence of a Quietus branch).

There is also a ship's Avatar, that re-establishes Banks' readers faith in Ships, assuming the unthinkable, that Banks' readers would or could have lost faith to fellows like Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The and the like.

However, the plot overall is not really of Culture magnitude, there are too many secondary heroes, who are given too many pages to unfold too many uninteresting storylines. The bad guy has very similar vices to the Algebraist's villain, and to be honest, he feels tiresome and, unheard of for Banks, predictable.

Perhaps, I am overspoiled by the oh so many Culture literary singularities in the past. I think there have been good Culture moments in Banks' last 2 novels, but there has not been a Culture masterpiece for at least a decade. 3 ½ stars.
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on December 1, 2010
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 July 17, 2012
Surface Detail, the latest from Iain Banks in his Culture Series (although this series is not based on a single character who goes from book to book but rather based on the outer world massive civilization known as The Culture, its agents and their actions), this book is simply amazing. There are many concurrent threads going on which tie up at the end; from the perspectives of various characters, various environments, including HELL (many of them - literally), also you find the ubiquitous Culture overseeing what it can, with the cynical and darkly humorous naming conventions for its ships. Banks is one of a kind, I've been reading him since page 1 of the first printing of The Wasp Factory those many years ago (his first three books are classics and belong in any collection).

Surface Detail is not easy reading but it's fast paced, exciting, suspenseful, darkly funny in spots, vicious, torturous, and contains several surprises. Basically there is a war going on between those who think a moral obligation falls upon its citizens to create a Hell to punish evil doers, fighting against those who believe that the Hells created by people are cruel and immoral, and should be abolished. Banks doesn't hold back, he usually doesn't, so you get a free tour of HELL, but be forewarned, it ain't pretty.

I will read this again soon, right now I am re-reading the other Culture books I have around the house (remind me to order the ones I gave away 10-15 years ago, I want them back!). The word "Genius" possibly gets overused but Banks is a true genius for his complex plots, unique style of writing, depth of characters, creation of powerful alien technology, and for pleasant and unpleasant surprises. I haven't always liked his non-SF books (some are slow, easy going affairs - maybe it's Banks fault for writing to the other extreme so well), his non-Culture SF novels are fine though, more than fine, excellent (The Algebraist, Against a Dark Background are not to be missed). I enjoy The Culture novels best of all the types he writes, with their in-your-face Drones, Minds, Ships with names like Xenophobe and I Blame The Parents. I have pre-ordered The Hydrogen Sonata and can't wait!
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on May 16, 2013
This would not be a good book to start if you've never entered Iain M. Banks' "Culture" series. But for long-time fans this is a fun romp thru his universe of altruistic (and nosy) A.I.'s that butt into everybody's business.

In the book, certain advanced societies have created true "Hells" for some of their citizens. Essentially large computer networks where stored personalities can be tortured for eternity. This book revolves around some of the various people engaged in creating those Hells, and those (like the Culture) who are opposed to the Hells.

Like a lot of Banks' work, it's pretty way-out-there kind of story. He didn't quite pull it off as well as he has in some of the other books in this Culture series, like "Excession" or "Consider Phlebas. Some of the motivations and characters in this book didn't quite ring as true as they had on those others. But it was still entertaining and kept me wanting to finish the story to see how it all ends.
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on July 1, 2012
This was my first exposure to the Culture novels. I was a voracious sci-fi reader for many years, then drifted away as life placed more demands on my time. So, the book sat on my nightstand for months as I contemplated its heft, thinking it unlikely I'd enjoy a new science fiction author enough to slog through a book this large. Finally, with a short vacation in the woods in the offing, so I tossed the book in the bag and decided to give it a shot.

Three days later, I was done with it, and sad it had ended.

When the first two characters you meet in a novel die at the end of their introductory chapters, you begin to think something very interesting is going on. But when those two characters are also themselves very interesting, with witty and imaginative details aplenty, and tense vignettes introducing them, you realize you're in the hands of a great storyteller.

The numerous threads that are interwoven by the end of the novel -- the Hells, the Culture, the minor societies, the characters and their stories, the murder, the revenge, the choices, the deceits, the revelatiosn -- make for an amazing set of dramatic arcs that culminate very well. The imaginative and creative heights Banks reaches are amazing. The writing is bright and vivid, if sometimes hypercharged with energy (not a failing, just a feature).

Overall, simply one of the best science fiction books I've ever read.
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on March 29, 2016
I say this as a self-confessed Banks fan, but honestly this is one of my favourite Banks novels. I really don't want to spoil anything, so I won't go into details, but it ticks all the boxes. Outrageous feats of technology, complex and interesting characters, multiple intertwining storylines, unanswered questions (sadly!), Culture shenanigans, and a GOU showing off just how ridiculously awesome it is.

It should probably come with a "contains scenes of extreme violence" warning, but that's pretty much par for the course with Banks.
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