Surface Detail

Surface Detail
Surface Detail  
Author(s) Iain M. Banks
Country Scotland
Language English
Series The Culture
Genre(s) Science fiction novel
Publisher Orbit
Publication date 7 October 2010
Media type Print (Hardback)
Pages 604 (Hardcover)
ISBN 978-0-316-123402
Preceded by Matter

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks is a science fiction novel in his popular Culture series, first published in the UK on 7 October 2010[1] and the US on 28 October 2010.[2]


Plot summary

A former slave, who was murdered by her owner and then revented (reincarnated) through the intervention of a Culture ship, seeks revenge on her killer against the larger background of a plot within a war over preserving or abandoning virtual Hells.


The events of Surface Detail take place around 2970 AD, according to Banks himself [3]. The dating is inconsistent in the novel. The events occur six to eight hundred years after the "Chel Debacle", depicted in the earlier novel Look to Windward which is itself set a hundred years after the events in Use of Weapons.

Each chapter of the book covers one or more of the six main protagonists—Lededje Y'breq, a chattel slave; Joiler Veppers, an industrialist; Gyorni Vatueil, a soldier; Prin and Chay, Pavulean academics; and Yime Nsokyi, a Quietus agent. Some of the plot occurs in various simulated environments. As the book begins, a simulated war game—the "War in Heaven"—has been running for several decades. The simulated war is to determine whether to allow or to disallow cultures in the galaxy from running Hells, simulated afterlives in which the mind-states of the deceased are tortured. The Culture, fiercely anti-Hell, has opted to stay out of the war itself while accepting the outcome as binding.

Vatueil is a soldier who has fought up the ranks of the war game to a position where he can determine policy, and he is instrumental in the decisions first to cheat—attempting to hack the Hells directly as well as attacking various pro-Hell side simulations—and then to take the simulated war into the real world.

Prin and Chay belong to a species, the Pavuleans, which runs a Hell. While still alive, they enter the Hell on a mission to reveal the existence and details of this Hell to the general population. Prin succeeds in getting out, but has to leave Chay behind, where she is subsequently tortured, restored to some semblance of sanity, and finally given a role in the pantheon of the afterlife. Prin, meanwhile, testifies to the Pavulean public of his experiences in Hell and attempts to convince them that it should be abolished.

Veppers is a businessman and industrialist: the richest individual in his society, the multi-planet Sichultian Enablement.

On the planet Sichult, Y'breq—owned by Veppers—is killed by him as she attempts to escape. To everyone's surprise, including her own, she is reincarnated aboard a Culture ship, having been implanted with a neural lace some ten years previously by a visiting Culture ship. She immediately wants to return to her homeworld, to find and kill Veppers.

The book hinges on Veppers' involvement in the War in Heaven. He initially appears to be a bit-player, but his involvement is gradually revealed to be more and more critical. The final revelation is that he has made some of his fortune by providing the hardware to run the Hells of various species; over a century he has accumulated about 70% of all the Hells. The hardware is located on his country estate on the planet Sichult. He sets up a secret deal to have the Hells destroyed in an attack which is to be blamed upon the Culture. His motivation is that such an attack will release him from his contracts to run the Hells, which would have become worthless if the anti-Hell side won, but which he cannot wriggle out of in any other way.

Y'breq travels back to Sichult on the Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, an advanced Culture warship. In hot pursuit is Yime Nsokyi, a Culture agent tasked with preventing Y'breq from killing Veppers. As they and their ships arrive, things come to a head.

The Culture agents conspire to arrange that the attack on Veppers' estate successfully destroys the Hells, while simultaneously appearing to attempt to stop the attack. They also conspire to ensure that Veppers' secret deal is revealed. Veppers himself is at the estate's mansion during the attack, where Y'breq finds him for the final, personal, showdown.

In the final sentence of the book the true nature of Vatueil's identity is revealed.

Critical reception

Roz Kaveney of The Independent noted that this was a poor book to introduce new readers to The Culture, but "far from the worst introduction to Banks's series."[4] Alastair Mabbott of The Herald describes the story as having "murder, revenge, pursuit and subterfuge taking place against a backdrop of escalating tension [that] stands up very well, and makes the prospect of further books in the Culture series somewhat less imposing."[5] UK book review site The Bookbag remarked that "...what sets this book apart is the quality of the writing and the depth of the author's imagination."[6]


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