Book Quote:

“Death, real death is a blessing in Hell,” she told him.

“That is precisely the point!” the creature thundered. “You may kill one person per day”

Book Review:

Review by Bill Brody  (JUN 6, 2011)

Iain Banks’ novel, Surface Detail, is his latest in the continuing series about the super civilization of the future, the Culture. It is about the lives of a number of distinct individuals whose stories come together to enrich the basic concepts. This is a story centered on a virtual battle between those who want to stop the construction of Hells because of their belief that it is uncivilized to engender perpetual torment and those who want to continue the practice based on the idea that Hell is required to keep people from doing bad things. The Hells are virtual worlds and the war is required to be virtual. The side favoring Hell is winning. The group on the losing side is now taking the battle outside of the virtual into the real, breaking the Culture’s eons-old premise that war must be fought in the virtual world.

This is space opera on a grand scale like Asimov’s Foundation series but with aliens who are really different form homo sapiens. There are hyper- cybernetic AI ships more intelligent than biological creatures and often more interesting as personalities. Individuals can have their very selves recorded so completely that they can be resurrected virtually or into biological or mechanical bodies in the real world over and over. One of the more visually arresting inventions here is the concept of the intagliated, people who were modified on the genetic level before birth to have elaborate tattoos. These tattoos are a punishment visited on the children of those who owe another more than can be paid. One of the most spectacularly decorated of these intagliated is a prime character in the tale, as is her master, the person who forced her father into financial ruin and now owns her as a living symbol of his power and wealth.

This tattooed woman is murdered by her owner and is subsequently resurrected, becoming a friend of one of the AI ships, an individual in the special forces of the Culture personified as a powerful and incorrigible bad boy. He takes great pleasure in running around the universe spreading violence and mayhem as a kind of super CIA agent. She enlists his help in pursuing revenge. Another fascinating character is a soldier fighting on the side of those who want to end the Hells. He is resurrected over and over as he repeatedly suffers virtual death in this virtual war. His experiences lead him to the belief that the enemy is winning. In the real world he then advocates that his side must betray the tradition and ethics of war in the Culture and move into the real world.

If someone in Hell dies (the conditions are such that they all die over and over in excruciating pain and degradation) they are resurrected back into that Hell. There is a woman in one of the Hells who has lost all hope; hope that her suffering can ever cease; hope that there is anything other than Hell. Ironically she entered that Hell as an investigative journalist hoping to end the practice by revealing the extent of sadism and brutality present there. After one of her deaths she is resurrected by a chief demon as an angel of death who can kill one sufferer a day in the sense of releasing them from further life virtual or otherwise. Her purpose is to bring the hope that pain and suffering can have an end. This will actually increase the suffering of the many who will have their hopes dashed over and over forever.

It is often hard to figure out why all the separate narrative trails are necessary or how they are connected. In the end the various story lines converge and resolve with sometimes surprising nuance. The Culture is a rich construct and it would have helped my enjoyment to be familiar with previous books from this series in order to get into the book more easily. That said, the concepts are quite rewarding. This is an author with a huge capacity for invention, which is given full rein by the vast scope of his world. Banks constructs a good plot and writes with great skill. The various characters come across with distinct voices, even from one incarnation to the next.

I will read more of the series and look forward to whatever Mr. Banks pulls off next.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 64 readers
PUBLISHER: Orbit; Reprint edition (May 12, 2011)
REVIEWER: Bill Brody
EXTRAS: Excerpt

Wikipedia on The Culture

Primer for  The Culture

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Embassytown by China Mieville


Science Fiction:

The Culture Books:

Mainstream books (written as Iain Banks):

June 6, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Speculative (Beyond Reality)

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