Book Review: Surface Detail – Iain M. Banks

Surface Detail - Iain M. Banks

Surface Detail - Iain M. Banks

Having read the entire Banks sci-fi catalogue and a smattering of his fiction, I haven’t come across a novel of his which didn’t have a deeply woven tapestry with subtle accents. His prior novel Inversions didn’t impress me much as I found the feudal kingdom a bit tedious to tackle, and the posh lifestyle of the
king somewhat dull, but I did find the darkness and humor to my liking yet still
received 3/5 stars. Of a similar raring, Feersum Endjinn didn’t have
evoluptuously complex characters or a grand epic-ness. Surface Detail (SD) takes
negative aspects from both of these novels and shares the similar rating of 3/5 stars… which I thought I’d do for the release of SD.

Typical ofBanksian SF is the plethora of characters strewn across the galactic plane, who have a unique plot line and are fated to be joined together in extreme
circumstances in the last 10% of the novel. That sounds about right, doesn’t it?
Most characters in SD are somewhat flat: generically evil like Veppers, fairly
morbid yet motivated Quietus agent Yime, the sarcastic and blood-thirsty AI of
Demeisen and the sulky yet revengeful Lededje. The real highlights of the spread
of aliens, humans and pan-humans are the hellish plights of Prin and Chay
(escaped from hell and stuck in hell for perspective lifetimes, respectively)
and the trials and mindset of the cute and conniving Culture-fan of the GFCN
species, Bettlescroy. Two separate books could have been written about these
characters alone!

Veppers annoyed me the most, undoubtedly. I’ve read
enough of easily unlikable characters that I now know it’s pretty simple to
create such a beast (aggressive sexual acts ala The Algebraist or maniacal
single-mindedness ala Dark Background). Veppers takes on both these traits as
well as being filthy rich like King Quience of Inversions but also has an added
distasteful trait of acting just like and amoral, spoiled king. This character
has been made again and again by Banks and the current version of evil in the
guise of Veppers is tried, tested and now getting quite dull.

As for the
supposedly galaxy-spanning plot… well, not so much in SD. There’s a brief
scene on a Hub, horrific depictions of a virtual hell, uninspiring terrestrial
life on a bland planet which Veppers resides and a vague description of a series
of orbital factories abandoned by an extinct alien species which isn’t explored
to its fullest. Most of the novel is aboard a few Culture ships or alien
vessels, where the plot is talked about and their intentions laid out in full.
There were no large surprises behind the intentions of the major caste and the
only excitement rally came about via the war-loving, sardonic AI named Demeisen.
There are some frivolous and interesting scenes of exotic alien architecture
(like the said Tsungarial Disk orbital factory and another derelict
monstrosity).

Granted, there were a number of exotic ideas which held my
interest and imagination even while at work or exercising, but most of the novel
was just uninspiring and untried: the virtual hells should have been better
explored to a greater degree but Banks limited it to a single hell, the NR level
8 species is of similar level as the Culture but was left wholly undetailed, and
the broader greatness and sustaining quality of the Culture wasn’t delved into.

If another Culture novel is written, I do hope Banks steers away from
the `glitz and glamour’ of Special Circumstances and sticks to grassroots
Culture civilization, which is what is draws me back to his universe again and
again.

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About peterschow

"the Schow must go on"
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