I read Iain M. Banks’ previous novel, Matter, some time ago, and remember enjoying it but being immensely disappointed in the conclusion, which ought to have been thrilling, but which was, instead, a void. An act of elision and sleight of hand meant that readers got to experience only the before and aftermath of the final showdown with the genocidal AI.
So, with some trepidation, I came to Surface Detail.
I think this novel might be his most assured yet. He ably ties together a seriously BIG theme with a very personal quest for vengeance. This is also the first Culture novel to make me feel like I’ve been reading a series, rather than a disparate set of stories set within the same milieu (even considering the fairly direct progression from Consider Phlebas to Look to Windward). I’m not sure why this was the case, but I think the addition of a (fan service) appearance of a character from a previous novel might have something to do with it. He also makes substantial additions to the Culture mythos: three new branches of Contact dealing with the sublimed (Numina), hegemonising swarms (Restoria), and the post-dead (Quietus). The creation of these provides a sense that he is actively building on what has gone before; it is this kind of world-building momentum that I would expect to encounter in a ‘series’.
The story has a number of strands that gradually come together in a spectacular fashion. From a galactic perspective, the most important of these is the ‘War in Heaven’. With the development of technology that allows one’s consciousness to be uploaded to virtual worlds, some religiously inclined societies realise that they can now make the existence of heaven and hell reassuring certainties, doing away with the necessity of having to rely on all too fallible faith. Of course, some other societies find the idea of volitionally sending people to an eternity of agonising torment to be ethically questionable. Thus, the war, which the active players agree to wage in the virtual world (a confliction), saving a lot of wasted resources and bloodshed in the process. I love this idea (the existence of virtual hells and the consequences thereof); it’s a fantastic example of why I read sci-fi.
One strand involves the experiences of two academics who infiltrate their own society’s hell in an attempt to expose its existence and put it to an end. Another involves the adventures of an anti-hell soldier fighting on the myriad battlefields of the confliction.
Another, seemingly entirely unrelated, strand concerns the efforts of Lededje Y’breq to wreak vengeance upon her murderer. Y’breq comes from a planet-spanning but relatively backwards society where they don’t have neural lace technology. She is covered in tattoos, the design for which is etched in to her DNA, that mark her as the chattel of the enormously wealthy and influential Veppers. After one too many escape attempts, Veppers kills Y’breq. Little do either of them know, however, that a previously visiting Culture ship has fitted her with a lace. She dies, and wakes up in a new body (courtesy of another Culture ship) many light years distant.
There are another couple of strands besides, though these are the ones that seem the most central in retrospect. As Y’breq homes in on her target, Banks starts to weave these disparate threads together. Some of this weaving is less convincing than it might be, though the link between Veppers and the antagonists of the confliction, which at first seems inexplicable, does eventually make perfect sense and emerges naturally from seemingly inconsequential details of the story.
So, satisfying world-building; epic philosophically-grounded backdrop; a compelling tale of personal vengeance (oh, how I wanted Veppers to get his comeuppance!); and a healthy dose of all of the Culture novel characteristics we know and love (e.g., drones and ships with ridiculous names and exuberant characters — Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, I’m looking at you here…).
And the conclusion…?
Quite fulfilling actually. The main events of the novel culminate very nicely, and, for bonus satisying conclusion points, we also get a dramatis personae section where there’s a little vignette on what each of the host of characters went on to do next.
Top marks all ’round.