|Surface Detail is a huge new novel about the
Culture from Iain M. Banks. Doubtless it will appeal to Culture groupies, but I must
confess I found it less than enthralling, mainly because there were far too many pages to
The story is told from several viewpoints, some living some dead;
though it is hard to define exactly what death means in this story. Many cultures (small
'c') in the universe have developed virtual afterlives in which the lucky dead (those
equipped with a 'neural net') can be reincarnated and from which they can sometimes be
'revented' back into reality. Some of these virtualities are heavens and some are hells.
And there's the rub -- the Culture (large 'C') is philosophically opposed to the hells,
but its own non-interventionist policies mean that on the surface it has to seem neutral
(they call it Realpolitik in our culture; small 'c' again).
The plot is complex and slow moving -- many characters die (sort of) and revenge
against their killers is an up front motive, though some other characters exhibit a
pleasing idealism in contrast to the cynicism of the movers and shakers. The Culture has
to interfere, of course. Clandestine operatives from Special Circumstances are ordered to
infiltrate and hopefully neutralise the hells and meanwhile there is a war to be fought in
There are too many characters, too many sub-plots and far too many infodumps where the
action comes to a complete stop as people lecture each other for page after interminable
page, explaining the politics, the sociology, and the technology; putting the enormous
tangle into perspective.
At half the length with half the number of characters this would be a taut and exciting
novel. As it stands, it is simply a sprawl; far too long for its length. It's ingenious
(Banks can sometimes be a deep thinker) but he is far too fond of his own voice and that
spoils the story.
Iain Banks' post-2000 novels have all tended towards the fat. I confess a little
ashamed, perhaps, but only a little that I felt his other recent works could all
have benefited from the attentions of a much stricter editor. Surface Detail
is in a slightly different position; what we seem to have here are two only glancingly
related stories shuffled together, and what's needed to tighten this book up isn't a
pruning so much as a deshuffling.
Story A is a murder/revenge tale in which an indentured woman is killed, is
surprisingly resurrected aboard a Culture ship and sets off in pursuit of her killer.
Story B is more along the lines of a political thriller and concerns the efforts of
various parties to stop the galaxy's more authoritarian civilisations from imprisoning the
minds of their dead citizens in virtual Hells. Story B, being broader in scope and grander
in scale, is probably what most readers would expect in a Culture novel, but it does drag
on a bit and it's more than usually obvious that Banks has an ideological drum to bang,
which tends to drown out the finer points of the narrative. On balance, I'd rather have
read a book that focussed on Story A, which moves at more of a clip and has all of the
actual Culture material in it.
The conjunction between the two stories, while apparently pivotal, is actually pretty
slight and doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense on reflection. It's more like a head-on
collision between the narratives: everything flies up into the air with 100 pages to go,
and by the time it lands again it's all resolved itself, in a less than entirely
satisfying way. Banks waves off his dramatis personae with an uncharacteristically pat
epilogue that doesn't help matters.
I don't mean to suggest that this was an unenjoyable read there's a lot to enjoy
here, but the overall package is lumpy and a little underwhelming.