This is going to be a tough review to write. First off, I loved it, and I find those reviews difficult. Second, it’s another big Culture novel from Iain M. Banks, and as I found last year with Matter, it’s hard to distill everything into a brief review. I’ll do my best on both counts, but I’ll just start with this: for anyone who loves hard science fiction in general and space opera in particular, the Culture novels are the absolute best I’ve read.
Surface Detail begins with a murder. Lededje is one of the Intagliated, intricately tattooed inside and out down to the smallest detail and indentured to the wealthy Veppers as payment for a debt owed by her father. Sick of being shown off to the world as a trophy and raped in private, she runs away again, but this time, she lands a shot against Veppers just as he captures her, and in his fury, he murders her. She wakes up on a Culture ship in a virtual environment, her entire personality and all of her memories having been transmitted light years away at the moment of her death.
This event kicks off a sprawling yet intricate plot in which Lededje’s quest for revenge collides with a thirty-year virtual War Against Hell that will determine whether some societies will be allowed to continue the practice of sending the electronic remnants of their deceased to virtual hells. Culture agent Yime is sent to keep an eye on Lededje, who ditches the original ship and companion drone that was supposed to accompany her in favor of a morally ambiguous ship more likely to help her. At the same time, Veppers attempts to expand on his already considerable wealth and power by conspiring with another society to illegally interfere with the War Against Hell by bombing real locations. The conspiring society is both emulator and annoying adversary to the Culture and aims to implicate the Culture in the interference.
One of my favorite things about the Culture series is that the novels are all self-contained. Aside from the Culture itself and its own history, nothing else crosses over between novels. The stories are separated by hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. The characters do not appear in multiple books. There’s certainly a cumulative effect from reading more, where each reveals new societies and senscent species and aspects of the Culture, and by necessity, they tend to contain a lot of exposition, but Banks somehow manages to avoid the usual drudgery. These books are dense, and I have to take my time to keep everything straight in my head, but I’ve never been bored while reading any of them.
Surface Detail is next-to-last in the series, and it might be my favorite so far. The plot is sprawling and complicated. The characters are vivid and complex. The action is dark and intense, and Banks is — as always — unsentimental with his characters. The world-building is awe-inspiring. What pushes this one over the top for me is the overarching exploration of what it means to be a unique being. Is it only the personality and experiences and memories contained in the mind, or does the physical body matter, too? When a society is capable of transmitting a mind from one body to another, or from the real into the virtual, who gets to decide the fate of those in the virtual? Should people be allowed to decide for themselves whether continue their existence, or should the society be allowed to punish people in a virtual hell for “sins” committed in the real? It’s everything I love about Banks: existential questions wrapped in damn-good-fun. I’m just sad the ride is almost over.