Thursday, December 30, 2010

Surface Detail

As I've mentioned before, I can't not read a new Iain Banks novel, especially one set in the Culture. He's a writer was has an astonishing ability to flesh out a universe, to take a few powerful ideas and build a consistent and fascinating world from them. Surface Detail is set in the universe of The Culture, which a number of his other books are set in, so it's familiar to readers. In this novel he bolts on a whole separate set of concepts to this world - that of digital hells that various cultures set up to punish digitally uploaded personalities of beings within their society that deserve punishment for some reason. It's a bit out of place, as none of this was really mentioned in any of the other Culture novels, and it's something that would really be expected to have been mentioned. In that regard, it feels rather clumsily to the existing world, when it could have been set in a new world without the retconning that is necessary here to make it fit.

Other than that, it's a pretty good read, especially once the action gets going. The baddies are (as always in a Banks novel) extra bad, so much so that it's not a book you'd give to kids (I was looking for books for my sixteen year old nephew for Xmas, and considered Banks, but decided not to, what with all the genocide and torture and rape that are so often present in a Banks novel). The good guys are all kinds of shades of grey, textured and three dimensional characters. The Minds, the vastly superhuman intellects that are embodied in the starships of the Culture, are always delightfully entertaining.

It;s not the first Culture novel I'd suggest for a new reader of Banks - I'd still suggest starting with Consider Phlebas, which blew me away when I first read it. And it's probably not up to the standard of The Algebraist, but otherwise it's still pretty great, and worth a read.

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