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Surface Detail   by Iain M Banks

Read: 2011-09-08 Reviewed: 2011-10-23
Re-read factor:

Straightforward plot: A woman born into sexual slavery is killed by her owner, gets re-vented by a Culture eccentric ship, and goes back to exact revenge with the culture and other interested parties monitoring her. Her owner got his money by running hells (computer programs providing virtual environments in which condemned souls are forced to live in perpetual torture) for civilizations which have them as the ultimate punishment but don't want the liability involved.

Banks decorates this simple script with some wonderful characters, and weaves some interesting and mostly relevent sub-plots around the main one. These include an exploration of `Bulbitians', a race of ships either cast adrift or scuppered on planet surface and suspected initially of running the hells, a visit to a giant warship fleet manufactory--purportedly unused except that the rich man is building a private fleet of warships--complete with a disease which the culture are trying to control as an aside, a disposable soldier (think _Use of Weapons_) who fights continual losing battles for a faction determined to rid the universe of the hells and who eventually takes the fight out of the virtual and into the real (this aspect is actually quite poorly developed).

In the end the oligarch and his empire, including the substrate which supports the virtual hells, is bombed out of existence thanks to the overwhelming technical superiority of the Culture.

All in, there is enough detail and science-fictional innovation to keep the reader interested, but ultimately this is a big book with a simple story, and I think suffers from the fact that jeopardy is completely removed from death and is treated in a trivialized way; no doubt this is intentional as it conveys the attitudes of the future society, but it does blunt the tension and any emotional edge in the work.

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