Iain M. Banks, author of the SF “Culture” novels, is a very charismatic and zany bloke. I met him at a signing in Manchester, for the launch of Surface Detail, in 2010. Check it out here.
I wentto Tenerife in May this year and wanted a big book to see me through two plane journeys and a week of lazing by the pool. I read half of Surface Detail in that week and the other half in the subsequent two and a half months.
The story, set in the distant future, revolves around a woman who returns from the dead to wreak revenge on the the galactic president-type that raped and murdered her. It’s a frankly bizarre book, marrying heavy, nerdy SF plot with Brit-sitcom-style hit-and-miss humour. It’s not a comedy by any means, but the book does feel as if a myriad of Scottish stereotypes were abducted and transported 200 years into the future, and scattered around a cluster of planets and nearby spaceships.
The investigation into the more scientific areas of the plot (too complicated for my feeble mind to follow) felt like it was putting the handbrake on the story, which was complicated enough. In Banks’ future, we all live in a digital realm, which includes the existence of Heaven and Hell. Heaven is rarely spoken of, but Hell- where two surprisingly well-intentioned aliens find themselves- is described in a detail bordering on snuff. Not only are these scenes unnecessarily violent, but they are also pretty pointless- one character is transformed into some kind of overgrown demonic bat, and her job is to kill people who are in Hell. Yes, this is as dumb as it sounds.
In the end, some story threads are tied up. Others are not. Sometimes an open-ended story works. In Surface Detail, they did not.
If you don’t normally read contemporary SF and you want to see whether it’s your thing, a giant (and expensive) novel like this might not be ideal. Instead, check out Waterstones’ Best SF range. I read Best SF 14 some years ago, and the anthology of Science Fiction shorts was superb.