I’m always eager to read the latest Iain M. Banks novel, especially if it involves the Culture, because not only is Banks a great writer but his ideas and settings are really good, and I think the Culture novels have made a significant theoretical contribution to science fiction. So they’re always a pleasure to read even if, like this novel, they’re too long, have unnecessary plots, and suffer from two significant flaws.

Surface Detail adds a new layer to Banks’s vision of the galaxy the Culture inhabit, this time by expanding on ideas about virtual minds, backing-up minds, and sublimation of whole cultures that he had previously only alluded to. The central plot of this novel concerns a war over the fate of a collection of pan-galactic hells, conducted in a virtual environment in order to prevent it spilling into the real world where it might actually hurt people. These hells represent the natural consequence of the development of technology enabling people’s souls or minds to be backed up – some civilizations provide an afterlife for those who have died and are sick of living; and some of these civilizations also provide a hell, where those who did wrong in life are tortured forever. The Culture, of course, being the most sanctimonious anarchists in pan-human history, object strongly to this phenomenon – even virtual torture offends them, though they might occasionally blow up a habitat containing billions of people, just because they have to – and this story concerns their non-involvement in this war. The idea is excellent, expanding on Richard Morgan’s ideas with a nice post-scarcity, space opera twist, and the idea of virtualized wars is also excellent. The novel also adds further detail to the growing description of the Culture’s place in the galactic order, the nature of civilizational sublimation, and of course introduces new tech, a wide range of civilizations, and some nice concepts about what happens when civilizations die and leave their tech behind. It also has an excellent character, the Abominator-class starship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, whose personality matches its name exactly.

I like the way Culture novels work on a theme, so even minor plots match the theme, and I like Banks’s decision to take on the topic of personality back-ups, though I think the aforementioned Richard Morgan’s take on the consequences of this technology in books like Altered Carbon is more interesting. As other reviews I’ve read have observed, this book is a little too long, introducing unnecessary plots and characters (in my opinion 3 characters could have been dumped altogether along with their completely irrelevant plots) but Banks’s writing is so much fun and his ideas so intoxicating (if you like space opera) that this never bothers me. However, there are two significant flaws in this novel that I think have been becoming increasingly obvious in Banks’s Culture novels, to the extent that I can now safely say they are a developing pattern in his work:

  • Too Many Settings: Like the roof of the Cistine chapel, this novel is garish, with unnecessary colour. Every couple of pages there is a new setting, each one as luscious and extravagant as the one before it, and none of them playing any significant role in the novel beyond a few pages. The main story occurs against the backdrop of an essentially completely normal country estate (a common theme in Banks’s novels) but an encounter of a few pages only may occur in some resplendent and insane natural or artificial setting, that we barely have time to revel in before we’re flicked on to the next scene. Every one of these settings in itself is great but it doesn’t do any justice to the setting to flick it away after just a few pages. I remember the main settings of Consider Phlebas very clearly because there were only 3 or 4, but in this novel Banks has gone through 20 or more stupendous settings, and by the end of it I’m numb to their power. He could have spread them over several novels, and given me greater opportunity to enjoy each one. This book basically requires only three – a crazy opera house, an in-system underground city, and the mansion – with the subsidiary setting of a single GSV.
  • Deus Ex Machina: The entire plot involving the Quietus spy Yime Nsokyi was a deus ex machina, with her being spirited from catastrophic event to catastrophic event by the Ship she works with. At one point she is told bluntly: humans have not been able to contribute meaningfully to space battles for about 9000 years. Then she gets in several. There are multiple other points where the humans are basically rescued, dumped into a new plot or have their machinations revealed by Ships. The Ships are so omnipotent and omniscient that they are, to all intents and purposes, gods, and Banks seems to have lost the skill of crafting stories where he doesn’t use these powers. Earlier novels – especially Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons – avoid this problem by careful crafting and choice of setting, but in more recent novels he’s given up on the (admittedly challenging) task of setting up plots which don’t rely on the Ships just swanning in and fixing/fucking everything up. Don’t get me wrong – I love it when the Ships do this – but it’s poor narrative crafting and a writer who wasn’t so creative in other ways would be punished for it critically. Though I have noticed recently that this seems to be a bit of a phenomenon in modern sci-fi and fantasy – it happened a bit in the Stephen Hunt, Richard Morgan and James Butcher novels I’ve been reading recently, so I’m wondering if it’s a narrative trend in modern SF/Fantasy. In which case someone needs to point out how crap it is.

Despite these concerns with the novel I can’t say that Iain M. Banks is going downhill. Rather, I think he’s got a lot of creative license from his earlier success and is using the freedom this gives him to explore the Culture as a sci-fi phenomenon. The plot and the narrative detail are secondary to his prime interest, which is exploring the ramifications of his post-scarcity world. I think this post-scarcity concept is very important to sci-fi, and until his actual writing and characters lose their considerable power, I’m happy to go along for the ride with very few reservations, so I recommend this novel to anyone who wants a good space opera novel.