Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Surface Detail

by Iain M. Banks

In short, I was very impressed. Excellent read, very engaging and with a lot of substance to say. It's a return to form for Banks, while not nearly at the level of his greatest Culture books, it was much, much better than Matter. The work felt like a meaningful addition to the Culture universe, offering very new areas and themes that felt like an expansion of previous books. In the process it offered a take on virtual reality, particularly the politics that might ensue, that managed to make a very well worn SFnal theme feel unique.

The plot was quite strong, juggling a lot of different elements into a cohesive hole. There were plenty of surprises and twists but they never felt gratuitous, it was almost always clear why people were acting in the manner they did, and the whole scenario held together quite well. The obnoxious political preaching that dragged down Transition so much was basically absent. While there was a clearly unfavorable representation of conservativism and a brutal satire on traditional values---we need our eternal Hells for social cohesion!--it's left implicit in the way the story unfolds rather than emerging through prolonged preaching. The characters were also much more engaging than I've seen from Banks for almost a decade. Yime was a bit too irrelevant in the way the story developed--an element which was noted in the epilogue--but apart from that it felt like a fully developed cast with a lot of interesting arcs, even in situations where they were mostly observers. Things didn't seemed to be forced, instead there was setting up a lot of people from different positions and then running through them to flesh out the story and the wider narrative. The way Chay became much more prominent than she initially seemed posed for was good, and her story developed in perhaps the most surprising direction.

Vepper was a much more interesting villain than has appeared for awhile. At first I wasn't very impressed--that first chapter with him as a corrupt rapist and killer gave me a rather unfavorable expectation beginning the book. Yet, as it developed his position proved quite an interesting one. Undoubtedly evil, he wasn't nearly as over the top as he seemed, and also featured as a lot smarter than first appearances suggested. The very ending where he's finally killed didn't completely work for me, but most of the stuff in the middle balanced out quite nicely, and provided a very effective pivot to hang the narrative on.

Above all, I loved that the Banksian tone was back, the excellent use of humor, control over these elements without getting lost in them. And all with a very prominent viscous edge, a level of dark humor that makes Banks' writing utterly distinctive. It showed up a bit in the mechanics of the Hell, but even more effectively in the Culture-centered portions, the way past and current violence is rendered. In this regard the Legdedje-Demeisen dynamic was probably the most engaging. Overall there's an energy and lightness of tone, even when coupled with some rather harrowing scenes, that made this perhaps the most enjoyable science fiction book from 2010 that I've yet read. The length of the piece never grates, and is used to build up some very interesting species, invented history and wider characteristics. The new insights into the Culture were also welcome, from an extended look at how the devastation of Orbitals in the Idiran war operated to a look (for the first time) at military and intel branches beyond Special Circumstances.

The ending epilogue was quite an interesting move. I'd have previously thought that tie ins to earlier books were best avoided, that Use of Weapons was best left a completed story in itself. Nevertheless, the final line and the tie in of what had previously been an isolated character was very interesting, and added a level of complexity and wider ambiguity to the preceding account.