Review: Surface Detail, by Iain M Banks


(Orbit, 978-184149-894-2)
(Review first appeared in ASIM 49, December 2010)

Any season that sees the release of new works in what have been, for the past couple of decades or so, the two most iconic ongoing series in the Space Opera subgenre (to whit, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, and Iain M. Banks’ Culture series) has got to seem somewhat propitious. Even if, this time around, we’ve only been asked to wait approximately one-third of the time interval that ensued before the release of the previous Culture novel (nod of thanks to IMB on that score; LMB, please take note).

Space opera, as a style, is typified by a sense of sweeping scale, by high-end galactic adventure, by larger-than-life characterisation and by a representation of society in which the human (or human-analogue) inhabitants are at constant risk of becoming overshadowed by their technology. Banks’ novels certainly meet those criteria, and they do so very stylishly. But if it’s a faster-than-light white-knuckle roller-coaster ride you’re after, Surface Detail might not be entirely to your speed. Like Matter and like The Algebraist before it, it’s a textual behemoth of a book (it weighs in at over 600 pages); and like both those books and Transition, Banks’ 2009 even-though-it’s-supposed-to-be-mainstream,-this-still-seems-like-SF-to-me release, his latest book takes as its priority the introduction of a diverse net of characters, the connections between which may not become apparent for several hundred pages. It’s a style which, I suspect, is likely to put off some potential readers; but then, if you’ve got the entire Galaxy to play with—and there’s a sense in which the palette for each Culture novel becomes richer, the canvas broader, the daubs and strokes of colour and shade more precise—then why not take a little time to put everything in place?

Surface Detail is a story of vengeance, or the quest therefore, as Lededje Y’breq, humiliated, tormented and ultimately murdered at the hand of ruthless Sichultian powerbroker Joiler Veppers, seeks to make Veppers pay, for this crime at least. (Only, first, she’ll need to traverse the thousands-of-light-years’ gulf between the scene of her death and the site of her unexpected revival.) It’s a story of clashing ideologies, embattled cultures (both with and without the capital ‘C’), and of an all-too-real struggle for control over a particularly nasty, albeit plausible, application of virtual reality and machine-enabled existence. It’s a book with a quite bewildering array of characters, many of whom we get to know quite intimately without having any idea, until very late in the piece, of where they fit into the wider scheme. And yet fit in they do, each and every last one: Banks, I suspect, regards the leaving of loose ends as anathema. If you’ve read any of Banks’ half-dozen most recent books, you’ll recognise this slow-burn, throw-everything-into-the-pot approach as part and parcel of his approach to writing, and if you’re prepared to accept it, it can make for very heady stuff indeed. Surface Detail starts slowly, but accelerates fairly steadily: it leaves the third act not quite so late in the piece as did the previous Culture excursion, Matter, but it does, indeed, take its time with the setup, the better to throw a few highly surprising plot twists (and introduce such memorable Culture-tech items and entities as a gloriously psychopathic warship, a transferable, transfigurable, armour-quality full-body tattoo, and three (3) previously-unmentioned branches of Contact, to fulfil the duties for which Special Circumstances is less ideally suited than it itself might consider) along the way.

Is it flawed? Yes, on a few levels. I spotted a couple of nomenclature mismanagements which riled my inner pedant, and some of the confrontation-through-dialogue sequences didn’t completely convince. And while I bought the central precept of the larger-scale plot, and pretty much all of its offshoots, there was a part of me that felt things were wrapped up just a bit too neatly, with an implausible degree of acquiescence from one quarter. (I’m of the opinion that societal change is prone to be less expedient, less straightforward, than Surface Detail’s broader denouement paints it.) But on another level, I just didn’t care about these might-be-defects. Surface Detail does so many of the things it sets out to do that it would be churlish to focus on the few facets which suggest it to be less than stellar. Plus it’s damned hard to cavil at a book which took the trouble to persuade me that I needed to get through the entire second half, all three-hundred-plus pages of it, in only slightly more than 24 hours, because by this point I genuinely needed to know, for my own sanity, peace-of-mind, what-have-you, just where the hell (whoops, spoiler alert) this was all heading. Surface Detail may well be a slow burn, to begin with, but it’s no less combustible material for all that. Banks’ skill at crafting gripping human-scale stories within a Galaxy-scale frame is enviable; and to produce stories of this calibre repeatedly, in a series for which each book-length component forms about as good an introduction to the Culture as any other, is something to be celebrated.

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