Surface Detail ★★★★

An Impressive Work of Scope, and Gravitas

I think what we all really love about Iain M Banks is his ability to come up with an idea, and then to not only run with it, but to travel at light speed with it to the furthest edge of the galaxy of our imagination… and sometimes one step further.

His ideas aren’t merely creative and individual, they are unique because of the depth to which he explores them. Sure, people have created super-powerful futuristic space exploring societies before, but Banks has put much more thought into how such a society would develop, and the quirks it would have, and the repercussions of its power and technology. It is his attention to detail that makes the Culture so interesting and expansive. People have created AIs before, and even put them in ships, but Banks has actually given them a personality that is not, and never has been, truly human. How would something act that had come into being, fully developed, as war ship with capabilities a mere biological could never understand? How does such a being define itself? And we all know that our favorite detail of the Minds is the names they choose, unlimited by convention or character count.

Authors have certainly explored virtual reality before. They’ve played games with it, they’ve gotten lost in it, they’ve even dipped their toe in the vast ocean of implications that comes with true VR. With Surface Detail, Banks went scuba diving. What are the consequences of post-biological existence in near-limitless virtual realities that are managed by any society with enough cash to create an Afterlife? What if wars no longer needed to be fought in “the Real” and soldiers could be rebirthed at the will of their commanders, remembering everything they learned from all their previous “deaths?” And what happens when the pan-human galaxy is faced with a group of societies who truly believe hells need to exist to keep the living in line?

Strangely enough, given the extensive descriptions of a particularly nasty hell and multiple violent murders, this was one of Banks’ least complicated and overall positive novels. I had gotten used to the bittersweet taste of his often sudden conclusions that rarely leave a main character alive. This time we’re left with all our characters, if not alive in a biological sense, existing as individuals in whatever realm they started in on page one.

This novel did not “fall outside of normal moral constraints” in the way that Banks sometimes spins a plot. In Surface Detail, all of the bad guys were uncomplicatedly bad, just greedy men, or dirty politicians, or demons in hell. All of the good guys were just people trying to live their lives, do their jobs, or escape their abuser once and for all.

In many ways, Surface Detail catered more to fans than to strangers picking up their first Culture Novel. As frequent travelers within The Culture, we were gifted with detailed descriptions of space suit tech, protection droids disguised as tattoos, crazy war-ship minds, new branches of culture intelligence, and even a previous character that is not exposed until the very last sentence. However, I think a novice to the culture world would be left feeling a little unimpressed. The true scope and breadth and depth of The Culture is somewhat ignored, and all we see are the surface details of something that is so much larger. The characters themselves aren’t as complex as I’ve come to expect from Banks. The details were as exquisite and creative as always, but for all those extra pages, I think there was actually less going on than in (for instance) Look to Windward or Excession.

While this may not be my favorite novel by Iain M Banks, it was still an incredible piece of science fiction, and leaves the average modern space-travel novel behind in a trail of 4D space dust.

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