By Iain M. Banks
First Published: 2010
Review © 2011 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Science Fiction, Space Opera, Action
Surface Detail is an epic thriller/war/space opera science fiction novel by Iain M. Banks. This is his latest addition to the “Culture” series of novels and it proves to be an engrossing action packed look into the far future. Banks does an excellent job of creating multiple immersive worlds for the reader to dive into and enjoy.
Surface Detail opens with an intense scene ending in brutal violence demonstrating just how hellish life can be for a young woman on a relatively backwards planet. The next chapter jumps to a second story line where the violence only increases in a vicious war. A couple of chapters later, the reader is introduced to another storyline where two lovers are trapped in an artificial virtual Hell that does it’s best to exceed expectations for the type of Hell made famous in the traditional Christian “fire and brimstone” sermons. All of these plot lines are connected to the overarching conflict between the major pro-Hell civilizations and the major anti-Hell civilizations in the Galaxy.
In the far future galaxy where the “Culture” is one of the most advanced civilizations among a multitude of civilizations, technologies have enabled the conscience of any intelligent creature to be “downloaded” into virtual worlds. The virtual worlds can be designed to be fabulous playgrounds. They can also be designed to be a realistic simulation of Hell with the ability to provide diabolical torture to the inmates. Some civilizations claim that the virtual Hells are a necessity in order to deter undesired behaviors. Other civilizations believe that virtual Hells are uncivilized and should be abolished because sentencing citizens to an almost infinite existence of continuous torture only lowers the civilization to the level of the worst psychopaths.
Clearly, this kind of ideological conflict is destined to be closely entangled with the religious heart of many civilizations. As is usually the case when religion is involved, there is not much hope of compromise. In order to avoid real war, the two sides agreed to a virtual war with the winner to take all. The only problem is that after 30 years of virtual war, with one side starting to look like it’s in real trouble, there is a strong potential that rules may be broken, or worse yet, war may break out from the virtual world into reality.
With a variety of virtual wars, the beginnings of a real war, and the intrigues and violence committed by the richest and most ruthless man in one particularly critical world, there are plenty of action packed scenes. Banks also adds some splashes of wit and humor, especially to the AI of one of the most advanced war spaceships who is one of the most entertaining characters. The only real disappointment is the two dimensional character of the main villain. He’s your typical rich and powerful CEO who is ruthless to the core with no redeeming value. A lesser criticism is that some of the action scenes go on a bit too long, much like an action movie. But then again, this novel doesn’t pretend to be anything but a thrilling action adventure in the far future.If you’re looking for an action packed adventure ride through multiple far future worlds which includes advanced war scenes, space battles, descents into virtual Hells, and an individual’s quest for revenge, Surface Detail should fill the bill nicely. It’s not necessary to have read any previous Culture novels before reading this one as Surface Detail stands on its own quite well.