April 24th, 2011

epic, long

Review: Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Surface DetailSurface Detail by Iain M. Banks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There was a time (starting about with the publication of Excession) when I'd started to wonder if Iain Banks really had anything new to say in Culture universe. Matter largely put those fears to rest, but it was an atypical Culture novel, since so much of it took place outside the Culture. Surface Detail, by contrast is a much more typical Culture novel - the ships with funny names, the drones, Special Circumstances are all here.

The book is divided into two major plot strands. One follows the quest of one Lededje Y'breq to avenge herself on her former owner, from whom she has escaped thanks to a rather unusual intervention by a Culture ship. The other follows a conflict among various Galactic civilizations over the practice of maintaining virtual Hells - computer simulations in which the uploaded consciousnesses of the deceased suffer torment. This conflict starts out as a virtual war, but things quickly move into the real world. These two plotlines eventually intersect, producing a number of dramatic explosions.

While I enjoyed Surface Detail thoroughly, I don't think I'd recommend it as someone's first Culture novel, nor do I expect it would convert anyone who had read other Culture novels and wasn't a fan. The pacing is rather...unhurried, and there are occasional bits that have kind of an in-jokey feel to them. There's also a bit in the epilogue that ties Surface Detail to Use of Weapons in a way that I'm not really certain adds anything to my experience of either novel. But overall, if you like the Culture, Surface Detail will give you lots and lots of what you like.

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