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Surface Detail (Culture) Paperback – May 12, 2011
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About the Author
- ASIN : 0316123412
- Publisher : Orbit; Reprint edition (May 12, 2011)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 656 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780316123419
- ISBN-13 : 978-0316123419
- Item Weight : 1.25 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.45 x 1.9 x 8.2 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,018,127 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Banks' writing is hugely imaginative, fun to read, full of fanciful images, gripping action and very cool concepts.
If you need your Sci Fi to be grounded in known theory or reasonable extensions thereof, some of Bank's flights of fancy will give you cause to look askance. But he puts such craft into his imaginings it is easy to forgive.
Surface Detail did not turn out to be my favorite book of the Culture series, but it got me hooked.
Reading this book in 2019 opens an opportunity to contrast with Neal Stephenson's novel, Fall, which also deals with the concept of artificial, but full, life after death. While Fall describes a way to get there in the near future, Surface Detail, considers a far future where most advanced civilizations take it for granted - and use it in different ways. Stephenson describes the evolution of man's first artificial heaven wonderfully, but falls short in what might happen there. Banks is a more engaging and thought provoking description of the distant result.
Yes, the very end is a sudden and rich connection to another Culture novel. It felt wrong to me at first, but became more fitting as it sank in.
Another thing that’s different about my read through the second time is that I used an audiobook for much of it, which is a completely different experience than reading text on paper or my Kindle screen. I find it harder to follow proper names so many relevant details of characters, places get lost. And The complex plots of Iain Banks books do not lend well to those kind of details being lost.
Trivia/spoiler: what is the very last word of this novel?
Top reviews from other countries
Like most of the other Culture books, it's complex and multi-threaded. But all threads very neatly come together - they never seem pointless or contrived.
At the heart of this book is an examination of the consequences of backing-up an individual's soul, personality and memories and restoring them into any number of possible virtual realities. This allows, after death, for virtual heaven or virtual hell. Indeed, the ability to force a person against their will into a virtual hell to be eternally tormented is a terrifying thought.
A brilliant read, and thoroughly thought provoking. Mr Banks, we miss you.
Lets start with the Hells (and yes, that is plural). I thought initially that the depiction of the one that we saw was fantastic, and he really took the ''fire and brimstone'' concept beyond anything that I have ever seen. But why do we only ever see one Hell? Seems to me that all of these thousands of alien races with their thousands of different concepts of what constitutes horror could have made for some truly varied environments. Because of this, the Hell that we see ends up becoming repetitive as the same scenes of torture are replayed over and over again with only slight variations.
The ideas relating to transhumanism and virtual Heaven and Hell could easily have carried a whole book, but the whole revenge plot and the (ill- thought out) reintroduction of a past main character seems tacked on as most of his previous personality simply was not there. I found Ladeje to be a very blank, uninteresting character and Veppers had little characterisation beyond ''wealthy rapist.'' The psychotic AI warship was easily the best character - in that he actually had one.
I hate to say it, (especially as his cancer may or may not have been affecting him yet) but this seems like a very paint by numbers Culture novel. It is better than ''Inversions'' but a million miles off the ''Player of Games''.
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.
Iain M Banks crafts fantastic worlds where he doesn't simply look to the future but takes possibilities to their most grand, if not a times most extreme. In this book the main protagonist is Lededje Y'breq is one of the Intagliated, her marked body an illustration of her family’s shame. For her life belongs to a man whose hankering for power is without end. She will do anything for her liberty, her release, when it comes, is at a price, and to put things right she will need the help of the Culture; an anarchist utopian society that transverses space on planets, huge space orbitals and various space faring vessels. They can be considered munificent, progressive and almost infinitely ingenious though it may be, the Culture can only do so much for any single person. With the backing of one of its most potent AI minds - and arguably unbalanced - warships, Lededje finds herself heading into a war zone not even sure which side the Culture is really on. A war - brutal, far-reaching - which is already raging within the digital realms such as virtual heavens and hells that store the souls of the dead, and it's about to erupt into reality. For physical death doesn't have to be fatal. It's a simple matter to upload your mind regularly and if your physical body suffers an accident, then a new one can be cloned and your mind popped back into it.
When you read Iain M Banks Culture novels you will realise that space opera can be so, so much more, and it's all done with a razor-sharp black humour – but always with such intelligent style.
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.