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Bookmarks Issue: 
51-Mar-Apr-2011
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A Culture Novel

A-Surface DetailScience fiction writer Iain M. Banks has a reputation for books as eclectic as they are expansive. His acclaimed "Culture" novels include Consider Phlebas (1988), The Player of Games (1989), Use of Weapons (1990), and Matter ( 4 of 5 Stars May/June 2008). Surface Detail, the series' ninth installment, tackles technological and religious issues--and culminates in one heck of a battle.

The Story: Lededje Y'breq carries the mark of "indented intagliation," a tattoo that binds itself to the bearer's DNA. When Lededje runs afoul of her master, the enormously powerful and wealthy Joiler Veppers, he murders her. Reincarnated by the Culture, a technologically advanced society comprised of AI Minds that oversee the actions of lesser beings, Lededje vows revenge. Along with others who have suffered similar fates, she also finds herself involved in the "War of Heaven," a conflict between reality and a virtual hell being fought over technological and religious differences. Can anyone stop the two worlds from colliding?
Orbit. 640 pages. $25.99. ISBN: 9780316123402

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"As with many of Banks's works, [Surface Detail] is an engrossing novel of ideas ornamented by fantastically cinematic set-pieces. ... The novel's real power lies in the absorbing questions it poses about the value of the real, as opposed to the virtual, about who or what is expendable, and whether a society is better held together by threats or by promises." Naomi Alderman

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Fans of Iain M. Banks' Culture strand of science-fiction novels know pretty much what they're going to get with every book set in the author's futuristic galaxy: mind-boggling technology, brilliant leaps of imagination and serious moral and ethical themes, all wrapped around several intertwining, intimate human-interest stories that usually have ramifications for the security of the universe. ... Banks is not afraid of ramping up the action and pace to a thrilling climax, and so it is here, with a quite extraordinary battle in which Banks performs the neat trick of giving us the overarching war strategies as well as, through another story-line, the human effect of such actions." Doug Johnstone

io9 4 of 5 Stars
"Iain M. Banks' new novel, Surface Detail, is some of the best work he's done in his galaxy-spanning Culture universe. ... This is a terrific novel that's as much fun to read as it is to talk about afterward." Annalee Newitz

Locus 4 of 5 Stars
"The Culture itself ... is a setting optimized for exotic adventures that mix satirical comedy with horror and idealism with bloody-minded realism. ... Civilizations rise and fall, Banks tells us, species rise and decline, marvels are wrought and return to dust, but wickedness and folly are forever." Russell Letson

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Banks has certainly imbued Surface Detail with excitement and energy, but ultimately the novel seems too long, and too virtual. ... Culture fans will enjoy Surface Detail, but others may wish for fewer layers and a little more depth." Jeff VanderMeer

Critical Summary

Iain M. Banks's Culture novels, one suspects, won't be fully appreciated by any but avid SF readers for quite some time, even if the author routinely reaches beyond classification. His world building is never less than spectacular. The AI components of his stories prompt comparisons to Philip K. Dick; his rich backdrops certainly influenced those of Alastair Reynolds and China Mieville. Yet what separates Banks from the ranks of other SF writers is the human component that thrives postsingularity--after technology has made its creators obsolete. Banks's trademark--big ideas and equally compelling individual stories mingling seamlessly--is on full display here.