Surface Detail by Iain M Banks

Orbit, 2010, 627p.

I had a horrible notion from the title that we might be treated to the adventures of a landing party in the Star Trek sense – a surface detail – but thankfully Banks eschews that angle, instead the metaphor is literalised.

As a mark of her indenture, the Sichultian, Lededje Y’Breq, is an Intagliate; tattooed – not just inked but imprinted so thoroughly that the marking carries right on down to the cellular level. On the latest of her escape bids she bites the tip of her master’s nose off and, enraged, he kills her. But without either’s knowledge she has been implanted with a Culture neural lace and her consciousness is translated thousands of light-years to a Culture ship where she is revented into a new body. One part of the novel follows Lededje as she is transported back across the galaxy to confront her erstwhile master, Joiler Veppers, who is also given a narrative strand of his own. Other viewpoint characters are Yime Nsokyi, a member of the Culture organisation known as Quietus, Vatueil, who has a series of military adventures in a virtual war between the supporters and antagonists of the afterlives known as Hells, and Prin and Chay, who enter a Hell to gain evidence to campaign against its use.

The last three of these narratives are mostly set within virtual environments – though Prin does escape his Hell and bears witness against it in the Real. I hesitate to call this business of the Hells nonsense but it makes these strands inherently problematic. At first they appear gratuitous, there merely to provide a dose of mayhem and gore. Yes, entities within virtualities may suffer – even in the case of Hells continuing beyond “death” there as the torment never ceases since they are reincarnated instantly – but if they are not real characters why should we invest our sympathy in them; why should we care? (Agreed, none of the characters in a novel are really real, but having them as explicitly virtual does stretch the bounds of suspension of disbelief and of empathy too far, to my mind. If there are no lessons for the real world – and how can there be? The environments described are not real within the narrative – why, exactly, are we reading? Consider the unsatisfactory nature of a story which is revealed to be all a dream. Isn’t a simulation only an upgraded class of dream?)

A further niggle is that there might actually be two books here. There are certainly two main plots which are linked through Joiler Veppers. Continuity suffers as a result. Neither story arc builds up enough momentum before dissipating. Either might have made a more compact 300 pager instead of this one’s 600 pages – which, though, does have lovely end papers in a fractal design.

Banks, however, ties all the threads together plus throws in the usual space battles and grand set pieces along the way. However, a certain lightness of touch at times, a casual irreverence, suggests he might actually be sending up this whole Space Opera lark.

Minor quibbles. Lead cannot be amphoteric though its oxide(s) may. The density of an element is not related to its atomic number. Contrary to what Banks states, gold will sink in mercury rather than float, whereas lead will float, not sink – this would be the case no matter what planet you are on. We also have proofreading errors such as (three times) pixilation – the act of becoming confused or drunk – for pixelation – image blurring – though the latter is employed once; and there is a miniscule.

There is more than enough in Surface Detail though, I would have thought, to satisfy the adherents of Space Opera. And apart from the virtual Hells I was entertained, in particular by the Lededje sequences.

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