There seems to be an epidemic of weak editing these days. Surface Detail is sadly not immune, either on the typographical (words and punctuation missing or misplaced) or stylistic (poor word choice, lack of clarity) front. It’s not a major impediment, but it’s disappointing.
Iain M. Banks’ Culture books tend to exceptionally well-written, but also be dry, distant, and complex. Surface Detail is no exception. Characters with long, difficult names abound, and there are several plots and sub-plots, most of which come loosely together at the end. In fact, the epilogue relies on readers’ memory of another Culture book from some years back. (I didn’t get it and had to look it up).
Briefly, Surface Detail is about both an indentured servant/slave who breaks free, and a disagreement about the future of virtual “Hells”. As always, Banks’ writing is generally excellent, engaging, and witty. (Though there are some rough patches during which the editor seems to have fallen asleep.) Almost everything is plausible, though one key character is decidedly ex-machina and both inconsistent and non-credible in his actions. I’m always amazed at Bank’s ability to keep a complex, multi-element plot moving smoothly through a massive book.
At the same time, while I enjoy Banks’ writing, I often have difficulty remembering much about the Culture books afterwards. That may in part be because they’re complex. However, I think it has more to do with the characters. They’re likeable and realistic, but they seldom seem to have very deep emotions, and I always feel at a fairly great level of remove from them. Every now and then, I’m afraid with them, but more often I relate to them somewhat clinically. In this book, that’s true of the central character, to whom many bad things have happened. I accept her desire for revenge, but I never really feel it, and since it’s a plot driver, that’s problematic. At the other end is a couple to whom bad things continue to happen. There, I felt a little more empathy, but always at some distance.
In short, in Surface Detail, as with other Culture books (and unlike the only Iain Banks [no M.] book I’ve read, A Song of Stone), I finished the book and thought “That was really well written.” I did not think “I’m really relieved that Character X came out of it okay.” My appreciation was much more technical than emotional.
This book won’t change your mind about Banks. If you’ve liked other Culture books, you’ll like this one. If you’re new to Banks, you can start here, but you might be better of with Consider Phlebas or Use of Weapons.