Friday, 26 April 2013

Surface Detail

The news of Iain Banks' cancer stunned me. One second I had been sat in the common room at 39 Park Square on a mini-pupillage, looking forward to a day in court. The next, I was floored by Banks' press release. I love his books. He has a knack of wowing me with his characters, his settings, his use of prose. As a writer, he's what I aspire to be.

It's still five months until his latest Culture novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, goes paperback. My copy is already on order (and has been for some months). But if I can't celebrate Banks' writing with a new book, then I thought I'd go back and read an old one or two. A few weeks back I re-read Use of Weapons for the second time, and found it as tightly-plotted, expansively written and emotionally engrossing as ever.

Next up was Surface Detail, the 2010 Culture novel, and his most recent entry to the series.

For those not in the know, the Culture is a series of connected but independent books set on the fringes of a pan-galactic utopia known as the Culture. Since 1987 and Consider Phlebas, Banks has written ten novels in the series, including The Hydrogen Sonata. Mostly, the stories are set around the goings-on of Contact, the area of the Culture concentrating on making contact with other races, and the sub-division Special Circumstances - or, as it was put in Surface Detail, the dirty tricks section.

Over the years the novels have gotten gradually more complex and ambitious. Consider Phlebas was a fairly straightforward novel in both style and structure. Use of Weapons, the third full novel in the series, was probably the most radical in its narrative structure, but it still had just one central plot. By Look to Windward the series was seeing recurring plotlines and overlaps from book to book. And in Surface Detail we have Banks' most ambitious space opera epic yet.

On one hand, there's the revenge story which drives the bulk of the narrative, that of Lededje Y'breq, murdered on her homeworld and out to exact retribution on her killer. But in reality that isn't the focus of the novel: the true focus is on the virtual war regarding the use of virtual 'hells' to store souls in perpetual agony, and that has multiple plot threads dedicated to it. There's a virtual warrior in the war, an activist who gets trapped in one of the hells, a protester against them... and the Culture apparently standing aside.

If it sounds complex and bloated, that's because it is. There's no denying the ambitious scope of Surface Detail, but it needed a good editor to take his red pen to it. Sub-plots prove themselves to be superfluous, on occasion the story drags, and Banks' usually lyrical prose isn't quite up to his highest standard. At 626 pages, it's no light read, and it proves in some ways that Banks is at his best writing space opera of 300-400 pages, where he can be expansive but restrained. Unrestricted, his mind seems to go wild, and it needs the focus of definitive structure and length to keep his creative juices from corroding the standard of his work.

But. But... But... It has to be said that the Culture, following on from the thoroughly underwhelming Matter, is truly back. Although it's easy to criticise the technical problems of Surface Detail, it's possible to overlook them purely because it's so entertaining. As ever, Banks is overblown with violence and sex and sarcasm. He throws massive set-pieces around like a child throws mud without making half the mess. His characters' motivations may be easily readable, but the same characters are also easy to connect with because they seem so human.

So. Although Surface Detail won't go down as Banks' best work, it will go down as a good entry into the finest space opera series possibly ever written. I've said it before, and I have no doubt I'll say it again: when Banks is average by his standards he's still surpassing the finest efforts of some of the most talented writers also in the field. He still shows the flashes of brilliance that made so many fall in love with his writing in the first place. He's not been at his very best often of late (some of us remember The Algebraist and Inversions), but when he does get to that level he's still the best there is.

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