‘Surface Detail’ is a Culture novel packed full of interesting ideas and sub-plots. The blurb on the back cover says that the Culture is going to war with death itself, which is a bit of artistic license. It’s not going to war with death but with Hell or rather Hells as there’s quite a lot of them. Apart from this the statement that ‘It begins in the Real. It begins with a murder.’ is spot on. I don’t suppose many readers who complete the 627 pages will reconsider the accuracy of the cover blurb as there will be so much more to consider.
The book starts with four separate stories, each given their own chapters. Initially, they are unconnected but, as the tale unfolds, you get to see how each tale has a bearing on another. To start with, we have a chase or more accurately a hunt. Lededje Y’breq has ran away from her owner Veppers and he, with the aid of two colleagues, is hunting her. Lededje is what’s known as an Indented Intagliate with a congenitally administered tattoo. This marks every aspect of her body from skin to teeth and is used to denote that she is owned as part of a debt her parents or grandparents ran up. In this case, she is owned by Veppers who, being the richest and most powerful person in Ennoblement space, is able to disregard the laws and completely mistreat Lededje.
Once we get Lededie’s untimely death out of the way, we are taken to what would be similar to a Napoleonic era as Vatueil with some other sappers attempt to tunnel under a castle with the intention of blowing it up. While this is very real to the people concerned, it’s just not in the real. I can say this without giving away a spoiler as one of the main themes of the story is about what is real and what is not or maybe it is. It is fascinating stuff.
Next up is Yime Nsokyi an operative with the Cultures Quietus department, which deal with the dead or more accurately the people in their after-lives. People in this context are sentient biological beings, so there are lots of different races. Yime is famous for being asked to join the renowned Special Circumstances Department of the Culture but turning them down to join Quietus. Yim is a good link to the fourth story, concerning Chey and Prin a pair of Pavulean aliens who currently wandering around the Pavulean version of Hell, could be considered as being a bit on the dead side. Of course, there is more to their story than is immediately obvious.
During the course of the next twenty-nine chapters the links between the various stories become evident with Lededje and Veppers becoming the main characters as things happen around and to them. Linking all of them is a battle over the Hells as the anti-Hell faction fight a very real but abstracted war with the pro-Hell faction to decide the fate of all the Hells. Things take a serious turn of events when the Hell war threatens to drag the Culture into conflict with its peer civilisations. Also grabbing the headlines is Lededje’s attempts to gain vengeance on Veppers which also drags elements of the Culture into conflict with other alien species.
If I had a criticism of this book it is that there’s too much going on. Six hundred plus pages is not nearly enough to fully develop all the characters or the sub-plots. Yes this is a gripping and thought provoking book of what the future may have in store but I was left wanting. Yime Nsokyi should have been involved more but then again, after a good start, Prin isn’t mentioned after about half-way through. We also get to hear nothing from the pro-hell combatants. I suppose you could take the alternative view that even having read the book there are lots of things you could discuss with fellow readers. In fact, there’s enough material here to keep you going for years and possibly a topic on ‘Mastermind’.
Banks has certainly excelled with ‘Surface Detail’ and it’s the type of book that you will want to re-read as there’s going to be something you missed on the first reading. This is good quality Science Fiction that engages due to the plot and characters and not just the various technology’s on display, although the ships AIs are always a delight. Highly recommended
(pub: Orbit. 627 page paperback. Price: £8.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-895-9)