Book: Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Now this is a “Culture” novel.

January 3, 2011

Iain M. Banks

Surface Detail

Orbit, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-316-12340-2

627 pages


Iain M. Banks (he uses his middle initial for his science-fiction novels) has written many excellent and very entertaining novels. Just not lately.

A 2003 book about visits to distilleries in his native Scotland, Raw Spirit, had little remarkable in it and was marred by unrelated rants about contemporary politics. In 2004, The Algebraist, a “Culture” novel, was good but not among his best. In 2008, Matter, a sort-of “Culture” novel, wasn’t much better than pretty good. And in 2009, Transition was little more than an angry allegory for contemporary politics. No one reads fiction for the purpose of being preached at.

But with Surface Detail, Mr Banks is back on form. There’s a little bit of political preaching here (unfettered capitalism is bad and a principled stand against torture is good, who knew?) but it’s not enough to mar the narrative more than a tiny bit. And the rest is a very fine narrative.

The book begins with a sequence of vignettes. In the first chapter, a young woman who appears to be some sort of escaped slave on a planet that has slightly better technology than 21st century Earth does, but not nearly Culture technology, is chased and killed. In the second chapter, a low-ranking member of a military engineering unit in a low-technology culture helps to laboriously dig a tunnel in an attempt to attack a city that’s not succumbing to a siege. He too dies as the chapter ends. In the third chapter a woman takes part in the defense of a Culture orbital (which other science-fictional characters might call a small ringworld) and then gets a call that means she might be going to work. In the fourth chapter, a husband and wife of a species resembling sloths with two prehensile elephant-like trunks are in a virtual hell easily as horrible as the one Dante imagined.

This being a “Culture” novel, each of those things means rather more once we learn its context. And they’re all related of course. Every possible relation between what’s real and what’s virtual seems to be explored in the book. For example, in the fifth chapter, the woman from the first chapter wakes up in rather more pleasant circumstances aboard the Culture General Systems Vehicle Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amongst Folly. It seems that someone from Special Circumstances once had a reason to take an interest in her.

We even get to meet a snarky spaceship, the Abominator-class Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints. Fans of Mr Banks won’t be surprised to find that it’s in SC. I can only hope that Mr Banks will continue to write in this vein and leave politics in books about politics.