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Monday, December 13, 2010

Review: Surface Detail

The last two Iain Banks books I read, Whit and Transition were merely OK. But Surface Detail is a Culture novel, so like a GOU hell bent on destruction, this fat novel swept all my other reading aside for several days while I enjoyed re-entering Iain Banks' utopia.

Most fictional utopias are anything but, but Banks' utopia is genuine. I would really enjoy living in it. Furthermore, Banks' utopia is idealistic: the goals it espouses would generally be ones I would agree with. You would think that with 8 novels already set in this universe, Banks would be running out of ideas, but each novel manages to work in a new concept. This time, the focus is on virtual reality and the idea of downloading consciousness into it. Banks uses this concept to play out how traditional western religions would make use of it and effectively argue how morally indefensible such uses of virtual reality is.

The plot has multiple strands, some more important than others, all eventually converging at the end in a big bang. Some of the strands were deliberate misdirection, fizzling out without actually impacting the main story-line. As usual with Culture novels, the most interesting characters are the machines: the ships' Minds, and the interaction between them effectively run the plot and the story, leaving the human characters effectively as puppets. It takes a talented writer to make all this work without leaving the reader feeling cheated, but fortunately Banks has it in spades and deploys all of it here.

All in all, this is a great book to start the 2011 reviews with. If every book I read in the coming year is as much fun as this, I'd be very happy. Recommended!

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