Surface Detail – Iain M. Banks

This begins a little weirdly. The first 3 chapters all end with the central character dying (I think in the third chapter it’s fairly obvious that this is a simulated death, but still). This might have been more obviously linked to the plot if I’d read the blurb on the back first, but I don’t often do that, and I try to never do it when I suspect that the book will be plot-driven.

This book is about death. The blurb declares that it won’t be over until The Culture has gone to war with death itself. This is either a complete lie or a gross misunderstanding. I will not betray my prejudices about the nature of marketing types by saying here which I suspect it to be. What it is about is hell, as a variety of non-Reality existence. Kind of. Some SF authors would use this as a platform to search for some deep truths. But that doesn’t really happen here.

What we get instead is a very pretty space opera, nicely paced (I was about to put it down after the first 4 or 5 chapters, until characters started coming back to “life” and having something to do with the plot) and with some interesting people and non-people. The world is a mature one (not quite sure how many Culture books Banks has written, but I think it’s around 10 – I could look it up, but meh) so there’s no sense he’s making things up as he goes along. There are rules (which are not often specifically explained, but hinted at cleverly enough to understand) and it all works very smoothly. There are some nice set pieces and some funny jokes. And the good guys get what they want and the bad guys get what they deserve. More or less.

So, all in all, very pleasant, enjoyable, not particularly challenging. I haven’t read any Iain M. Banks before, but I do suspect I will hoover up some more Culture in the future.

See also:

The Commonwealth books by Peter F. Hamilton – also British space opera. Similar set-up (post Singularity, galaxy-wide community of liberal democracy/capitalism, FTL ships, etc.) but a bit deeper.


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