EPS Review #224 - Surface Detail

Surface Detail, by Iain M. Banks, Orbit 2010, 627pp.

More in the sequence: 41, 93, 175, and now 224. I dropped everything to read it, on the train, with the light on in the car park, when I should have been sleeping, etc. Of course it is very much more of the same: bad guy in a medium tech society and his alien pals get their come-uppance from the Culture, the ideal liberal society where almost anything goes and our computers are godlike but love us anyway.

The novelty this time is Hell: life after death as a brain state in a good simulation. Some societies think it's a good opportunity to inflict a spot of extreme punishment on these beings. Of course, the Culture does not.

Waking in this real body had been similar to waking up within the fake body imagined in the great ship's substrate. She had experienced a slow, pleasant coming-to, the warm fuzziness of what had felt like deep, satisfying sleep changing slowly to the clarity and sharpness of a wakefulness informed by the knowledge that something had profoundly changed. Embodied, she'd thought. Embodiment was all, Sensia had told her, ironically while they were talking in the Virtual. An intelligence completely dissociated from the physical, or at least an impression of it, was a strange, curiously limited and almost perverse thing, and the precise form that your physicality took had a profound, in some ways defining influence on your personality.

As usual, the most fun is the almost unimaginable high-tech, and the entities that manipulate it. You almost hug yourself when one gets advantage of another this way:

"I beg to differ, as those who are right have always begged to differ from those who are wrong but refuse to admit it."

There is a lot more sex and (golly) profanity than usual. The most powerful Culture ship/mind, Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, is definitely a Bad Boy. I had moments where I thought "not another plot thread and set piece", but then I went ahead and gobbled it up anyway. There are rewards for the faithful.