Review: Surface Detail, by Iain M Banks

When I started out with Bank’s latest Culture novel – Surface Detail – I did so expecting a well written but gory, gruesome and bleak story. 100 pages in I knew he would live up to those expectations… 200 pages in, though, I was starting to wonder. Gory and gruesome, definitely. Bleak? Well, not so much, because where I expected a tale of deluded individuals searching for meaning in the meaningless and, in the end, dying meaningless deaths as a consequence this time the ongoing theme seems to be one of hope, of the value of holding on to one’s dreams.

Among the interesting features was the way the designated villain, Jolier Veppers, evolved into a textured person – callow, yes; greedy, yes; willing to spend lives to stay on top of the hierarchy, yes. A despicable person, yes. But despite this, a person, not a figure from some shadow play.

Another is how all the stories that this book is made from contribute to the central tale and theme. Some of them are decidedly gruesome reading – especially so the descriptions of the Pavulian Hell – but without them the story would had felt half made and shallow.

Despite all this the book was only jogging along pleasantly – if such a word can be used in the Culture context – until Lededje, main protagonist, meets Demeisen, avatar of the Culture Special Circumstances Agency Abominator-class Picket Ship Falling Outside Normal Moral Constraints. Then the tempo picks up, the pages just flying by. The Falling Outside Normal Moral Constraints really is a very sophisticated war ship, built to destroy. Such a Mind, and such an avatar, has to be able, independent, and, compared to a culture – the Culture – that tries to embody the original Star Trek ethos (everyone gets what they need to live, no money needed, peaceful explorers…) more than slightly psychotic. Set alongside Veppers, for example, or the war about the Hells, his very existence incites discussion on ethics and morality, and about what constitutes “evilness”…
I guess those who end up not enjoying this book will arrive at that notion for one or both of two main reasons – the description of the Pavulian Hell and the ideology behind the Hells, and the fact that such a mean character as Demeisen is also portrayed as somewhat likeable.

Endings are always hard. This one have three – a “real” story ending, followed by a few pages telling how the various characters ended up, and a third one, which I hesitate to retell as it’s a major spoiler… but you’ll only understand that third ending if you have read Use of Weapons, Culture novel #4.
Personally I could had lived without the intermediary, second, ending, but it doesn’t spoil anything and I can see how the author or the editor wanted this in, so… it’s OK with me.
The third ending… puts an added perspective on Use of Weapons, and I like that.

Recommended reading. IMHO. High reread probability.

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4 thoughts on “Review: Surface Detail, by Iain M Banks

  1. Pingback: Review: Cyberabad Days, by Ian McDonald « re:considering

  2. Much as I like Banks’s fiction, both sci-fi and “regular,” it’s in spite of the gore, and sometimes it just gets too thick. In retrospect, having first read “Surface Detail” a year or so ago and now dipping into it to re-read favorite bits, i.e. Lededje’s sojourn with Demeisen, I find the Pavulian hell business–all the hell business, actually, and the associated sim-world business–kind of boring.
    But Demeisen–now there’s a character. Banks was smart not to let him in until half-way through–he’d have walked off with the whole book.

  3. I agree with you; as I read his books I often wonder what a distorted mind he must have for thinking the gory bits up.

    Not long ago I too did a fast reread, and I hadn’t intended too but I too skipped the Pavluvian hell stuff… On the first read, though, it did add to the moral message aspect of the story.

  4. Pingback: Read: Excession, by Iain M Banks « re:considering

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