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Iain M Banks – Surface DetailSurface Detail is Ian M Bank's 9th instalment in the Culture series, and a marked improvement on the previous book in the sequence (Matter). It's a story about the consequences of the Culture getting an intervention wrong – but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The story starts with a death. Lededje Y'breq is an Indented Intagliate – tattooed from the molecular level upwards, and a lifelong possession of Joiler Veppers, the most powerful man in the Sichultian Enablement. Except that Lededje is on the run, and has just been cornered by her owner in the Opera House in Ubruater. When she is caught she is murdered by Veppers.

Vatueil, former Captain of Mount, is now a conscript Sapper. When he happens across a subterranean channel, supplying water to the enemy's castle, and stumbles across a gas trap, he is the only one in his troop with the presence of mind to walk through the cloud, and emerge on the other, enemy side. He joins the enemy, is questioned, and then killed.

Yime Nsokyi lives in Irwal on the Orbital Dinyol-hei. When the Orbital is attacked, apparently be an equivalent-tech enemy, she joins the fight as part of the Emergency Militia, the last-ditch Orbital defence. At some point she notices that she's the last one firing, and soon thereafter she gets killed by the attackers.

See a pattern? This book is all about dying, and about virtual afterlifes. All the three protagonists, which you meet (and then lose, after a few pages) at the beginning of the story come, eventually, back into the book later on. Some even (only?) died in simulations.
And when I say afterlifes I mean the positive, all-is possible virtualities as well as their dark mirror, the (virtual) Hells. Actually, this story is mainly about the Hells.

You see, there's a war going on. Or, rather, there are a lot of wars, but the one that really counts here is the one, run as a 'confliction' in a virtuality, to decide the future of the Hells. It's been raging for a long time, even in the Real, never mind in the simulations. And if the anti-Hell side wins then the Hells, barbarian as they are, will be shut down for good. Although it looks like the pro-Hell side is seriously getting the upper hand, now, and the anti-Hell side is considering to start cheating...

Some of the Hells are rumoured to be run in Substrates within the Tsungarial Disk, and artificial planetary nebula, containing 300 million habitats and manufacturies (mainly ship and weapon building stuff), abandoned (but fully functional) by a subliming race 2 million years ago. And, just by coincidence (right) this was part of the reparations that the Culture had to pay after the 'Chel disaster', when some intervention went badly wrong – as one character in Matter, the previous book in the Culture series stated: “Determining the appropriate level of interference in someone else's war is never a simple matter”. So this Disk is now the protectorate of the Nautre Reqliquia, and their mentored species, the GFCF, both of which are, for want of a better term, rather aspirational to raise in status and civilizational level.

The entire story is shot through with more or less subtle displays of the kind of challenges such a multi-civilization universe faces in maintaining the mentoring/ different levels of civilization status. At least in some areas tech transfer down the chain seems to be rife, fuelling aspirations beyond the current level of development, and a roaring black market trade in prescribed technology. And, always, there are the internal politics around power, influence, status, knowledge, and (for some, at least, where it still counts) money.

I'm not going to comment on the universe this plays in – if you've read other Culture stories then you'll know, otherwise I would suggest you don't start here (even if the book could stand on it's own, although lacking in background) but with at least some of the earlier books in the sequence.
There are two bits which are worth mentioning, though – firstly we meet an old friend from an earlier story again (sorry, won't tell you who it is, as this would mean giving away the final word in the story), and secondly we get a new class of Culture ship, the Abominator Class Picket ships. Borderline psychopathic, fast, the most powerful war ships the Culture has, they are spread out across space, waiting for something to kick off. Here one of them gets lucky with 'one of the most significant military engagements in modern times'. His sister ships will be sooo jealous...

The story is, with a few short exceptions, told in the 3rd person and from the viewpoint of the various protagonists. The info dumps are, by necessity, many, although most of them are contained in briefings for characters or descriptions of locations; but even the ones which aren't are well handled and didn't bother me.
Overall I found the book to be much more varied and much less demonstrative than Matter, and much more enjoyable, too. It is maybe not as focused as some other Culture novels, the 'big' or important strands have a tendency to get lost in the chaff of the smaller bits a bit; on the other hand it is enjoyable chaff, and that counts for a lot in my book.
Maybe not an absolutely essential must read, but definitely strongly recommended.

More Iain M Banks

Title: Surface Detail
Series: Culture
Series Number: 9
Author: Iain M Banks
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL:
Publisher:  Orbit/ Little Brown
Publisher URL:
Publication Date: Oct 2010
Review Date: 110116
ISBN: 9781841498935
Price: UKP 18.99 RRP
Pages: 627
Format: Hardback
Topic: SF
Topic: Space Opera


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