Lededje Ybreq is an indentured servant who is killed by her owner. She is revived on board a Culture ship, courtesy of a neural lace given to her by a passing eccentric ship when she was younger. Once she is used to the idea of being alive again, she seeks to return home to kill him.
Meanwhile, several lesser civilisations are engaged in a virtual war over the right to have virtual hells. The Culture is profoundly anti-Hell but felt that it shouldn’t participate. The war has been raging for decades and the anti-Hell side is losing. Because of this it is about to break out in the Real.
Lededje finds herself travelling home with the warship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, a delightfully psychotic mind created to be a weapon but knowing it will almost certainly never get the chance to show its full capability.
Lededje’s journey home takes her right into the middle of the outbreak of war in the Real, giving Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints the opportunity it never thought it would get.
I love the Culture and I want to live in it. With Surface Detail, Banks has created a new Culture novel that is possibly one of the best. I love the ideological discussions presented by the existence of virtual Heavens and Hells and what that means for civilization. One hell world is explored through the POV of two activist characters who voluntarily go to their world’s Hell to support the anti-Hell movement. The pain, despair and hopelessness is vividly brought to life. I found myself profoundly anti-Hell.
Characterisation is excellent, and my favourite of the many memorable characters was Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints. I love ship minds in the Culture novels; they’re so very entertaining. FONMC was wonderful. It is the mind of a ship created to be the ultimate deterent and loves destruction and mayhem, but is aware that it may never get to truly express itself. So it’s avatars are cruel, mean, spiteful and sadistic, and charming, elegant and manipulative, like the psychopath that the ship really is. And when FONMC gets to destroy an entire fleet of warships all by itself, it is so joyful that it is hard not to be happy for it.
In Surface Detail, Banks does not disappoint. It is full of interesting characters, sparkling dialogue, and rich with intellectual concept. It will make you think, and laugh, and cry. Highly recommended. This is a contender for best book of the year.