Surface Detail is a new book set in Iain Bank’s Culture
As the title suggests, there is some zooming in to be done here, with layers upon layers of reality to unpeel. The story topic pivots around the use of virtual reality in the Culture and other so-called “Level Eight” civilizations. The gist of it is – there is a war in the virtual Afterlives over whether civilizations should run virtual Hells for their citizens or not. Most of the story is told around the viewpoint of an indentured woman in an emerging civilization. We follow her from her life as a miserable indentured servant to a cruel tyrant, to her death and sudden appearance in one of the Culture’s virtual worlds. What follows in an entertaining joy ride through the Culture from her point of view as she makes her way back to her home world to get revenge for her murder. Another thread is about a participant in the war over the Afterlives from the ‘anti-Hell’ side. His point of view is an endless series of wars vs the ‘pro-Hell’ side from low technological warfare with guns to running as combat software in a war machine in orbit around an embattled planet. The winner of the virtual war gets to decide what happens in “The Real” – whether all the civilizations that run the virtual Hells get to do as they please or have to be delete their unpleasant virtualities.
Mr Banks entertains constantly, from his usually whimsical names of the ships such as “Me, I’m Counting” to exciting descriptions of epic galactic engineering. I would highly recommend this one for fans of Mr Banks or even if you haven’t read any of the previous Culture novel. One caveat though – Mr Banks uses a lot of profanity and graphic violent imagery – not for the faint of heart. It is however, a high-tech adventure worth reading.