Spoileriffic review. Surface Detail starts with four radically disparate storylines. Iain M Banks respects his audience. He assumes we have the patience to accumulate narratives and await enlightenment. The author also sets himself a challenge; how the hell does a resolutely defiant slave being hunted in a a high-tech theatre link up with a medieval siege? How does the siege link up with a viscerally disturbing vision of virtual Hell? How does Hell link up with Yime, a Culture citizen caught in a forsaken last stand to defend an Orbital? He does it. Mr Banks links all of these strands in a way that makes it seem all so integral in retrospect. Wonderful. Then the narrative goes astray. The problem is they lack consequence. Lededje Y'breq goes a long way, and is present when meaningful events occur but ultimately does nothing. Yime Nsokyi is even more ineffectual — the story is unchanged without her. It's entirely possibly this is deliberate. In the modern world most of us don't count. Surface Detail is a sadly mature book: the very Culture is hemmed in by other powers, unable to do what is right by morally grey neighbouring superpowers. Sometimes dark grey, but who wants total war? In this climate it is little wonder that individuals can do little. Atop this is the ghastly realisation that a intelligent purpose-built device is always gonna eclipse a human. Utterly. Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints is as pure as realisation of this unpleasant idea as has been seen. And doesn't he love it? The war in cyberspace for the fate of Hell is without resolution. The cause is vivid. The vile potential implicit in a virtual environment has only rarely been so gut-wrenchingly realised. But we never see Vatueil turn the tide. In either direction. The battlefield set pieces are woven from fine prose. But they go nowhere. All these arcs are water running into sand — they do not end, they fade. There is a resolution, but it builds from other arcs. The opening doesn't lead to the middle that the ending concludes. A novel well worth reading, but an oddly frustrating one.
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