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Surface Detail

I have just spent the past week reading Iain Banks’s novel “Surface Detail“.

This is the first of Iain’s books that I have read, and only half-way through I realised that this was part of a group of books all set in the same universe. Despite this, it most definately was able to stand on its own, and at no point did I feel I was missing a back story.

The exception being the very last sentance where I felt the book was giving me one of those “meaningful looks” like it should have meant something. It turned out it related to one of his earlier books and it was only then I relised that they should probably have been read as a series.

I was a little bit confused at the start – the first three chapters deal with three entirely different characters, seemingly in three entirely different worlds or times and they all die at the end of the chapter (sorry for the spoiler, it’s a minor one).  This took the wind out of me a bit.  I found it difficult to pick up the book to start the fourth chapter, dreading another completely unrelated story.  I even began to wonder if the book I had bought was actually only a collection of short stories.   I was very wrong.  After persisting into the next few chapters, everything began to pan out.

As with all good science fiction, Surface Detail tended to focus on the philosophy and moral right and wrong. Specifically in this case: What death means, whether physical punishment for crimes is justifiable by the deterrance it provides to those not punished, and what defines a soul. Iain does a very good job of describing the technology contained in his books, especially considering I had not read any of his novels before. The new concepts were easy to understand and the explanations seemed to be done tactfully without insulting the reader’s intelligence or making it too obvious that he had stopped the narative in order to explain something.

Banks did an extraordinary job of pulling together disparate story lines and merging them into a climax.  Of course there are still questions that I have in my head, and story threads that never quite got explained, but then I believe that this is a good thing (in moderation).  Compare to some of China Mieville’s books.  His whole book-writing philosophy seems revolves around the theory that it is the unknown that engages the reader (i.e. in a horror movie, it is more exciting if you only see small, hurried glimpses of the antagonist, rather than knowing exactly what it is – see the original predator vs the rest of them).

Anyway, It has been a while since I have read good science fiction (I am usually a fantasy type of guy), but book has definately encouraged me to read more of it. Specifically I will be reading more of Iain’s books.

  1. Naoru Kozan
    May 8, 2011 at 13:43

    Consider Phelbas and Use of Weapons. They are both Culture novels and are a damn good read.

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