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All in the details
October 14, 2010 8:29 AM   Subscribe

Surface Detail is the latest science fiction novel by the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks to be set in his Culture universe....

You can read the first chapter online

Bookbag review
Herald review
Bookgeeks review

If you are new to the Culture here is a guide

There's a font for Marain, the language of the Culture

Always one for keeping up with technology (last time around we had a podcast and a iphone app) Banks will be doing an interview by Twitter (an, if you will, Twitterview) with the booksellers Waterstones (@waterstones) on the 19th Oct. (tweet questions with the hashtag #mbanks and the 'stones drone will collect them)

SFX interview - part 1, part 2
Wired interview
ScifiNow interview
Audio interview with Tim Haigh
STV interview
posted by fearfulsymmetry (66 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Please oh please let there be a US release of this as an audio book.
posted by cccorlew at 8:36 AM on October 14, 2010


Oh no! The Marain font page seems to be down for the moment. I am hella intrigued by that.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:41 AM on October 14, 2010


I pre-ordered this a month ago why hasn't it arrived yet arrrggggg fuck you Waterstones
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:43 AM on October 14, 2010


*ahem*
Sorry about that.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:43 AM on October 14, 2010


The font page was up when the post went live. I think the MeFi may have borked it already. I tried to do a Coral cache, but too late.
posted by Jakey at 8:44 AM on October 14, 2010


Oh no! The Marain font page seems to be down for the moment. I am hella intrigued by that.

Try here.
posted by theodolite at 8:46 AM on October 14, 2010


Oh, bitchin! Thanks, theodolite.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:47 AM on October 14, 2010


Oh no! The Marain font page seems to be down for the moment. I am hella intrigued by that.

Looks like the whole of the Banks site has collapsed - it was fine before I posted.

Here's a direct link to the Marain script thing
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:48 AM on October 14, 2010


I loved Iain Banks fiction when I lived in Scotland - Crow Road was a delightful read. Yet I've never been able to get into his SF work, even though I eat up the genre.
posted by Vhanudux at 9:04 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yet I've never been able to get into his SF work, even though I eat up the genre.

I have sort of the same problem. I love love love all of his "literary" fiction, but each time I read a new Culture book, I find myself alternately bored and irritated for the first fifty to a hundred pages. But then something-- I don't know what, really-- "clicks", and suddenly the book that's been excruciating for the first few chapters becomes, as they say, "unputdownable", and I tear through the rest of it in one great, gasping, sleep-denying rush and finish it hungry for more.

Until I pick up the next one, which I also hate for the first fifty to a hundred pages.

I don't know what it is, but I guess what I'm saying is stick with it.
posted by dersins at 9:15 AM on October 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


The Marain font page was mostly just about this youtube.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 9:18 AM on October 14, 2010


Is Matter worth reading? Excepting Surface Detail, it's the only Culture novel I haven't yet read. (Personal taste data points: I thought they were all good-to-great except for Inversions and Use of Weapons, which I rather intensely disliked.)
posted by IjonTichy at 9:22 AM on October 14, 2010


I pre-ordered this a month ago why hasn't it arrived yet arrrggggg fuck you Waterstones

I hate to crow (a lie and a slight banks ref) I only ordered it on monday from amazon uk, with free slow delivery, and got to chapter 6 last night.
posted by biffa at 9:23 AM on October 14, 2010


I don't know what it is, but I guess what I'm saying is stick with it.

Wish I could, stick with them that is. I read EXCESSION about ten years ago because someone I respected said I had to if I had any respect for sci-fi as a genre. Man, it was hard going for a while, so MUCH to grasp, but finally worth it, mainly because I started to see it as a sort of meditation on just how inconceivably VAST the universe really is. Brilliant.

Quickly thereafter, I picked up CONSIDER PHLEBAS and sorry, too painful, too dense, too masochistic to go through the same experience I'd just had with EXCESSION again. A sexual analogy comes to mind. Just how much pain are you willing to endure to achieve a certain ecstasy? For me, not that much.

But keep on reading.
posted by philip-random at 9:25 AM on October 14, 2010


Now if we could just get Neal Stephenson to write the first half of a book, and Iain M. Banks to write the second half, it'd be suckfree.

[Not that they write similarly at all, just a joke.]
posted by lothar at 9:32 AM on October 14, 2010 [10 favorites]


Is Matter worth reading? Excepting Surface Detail, it's the only Culture novel I haven't yet read.

Having read it just recently, I thought it was quite awesome, although it has to be said that I hadn't read any of his books in years, so my perception of it might be a bit skewed.
posted by daniel_charms at 9:32 AM on October 14, 2010


I just finished Matter, which left me rather cold, actually. There was a couple of intriguing ideas in there, but it never really reach the heights of the best Culture novels. Maybe my expectations were too great.

I loved Use of Weapons, but that might be because I read it first. Consider Phlebas and Against a Dark Background (yeah, non-Culture, I know) are also very good. Excession and Look to Windward was to my taste as well.

But a new Culture novel? All is now right in the world. *logs on to Amazon*
posted by Harald74 at 9:35 AM on October 14, 2010


I have sort of the same problem. I love love love all of his "literary" fiction, but each time I read a new Culture book, I find myself alternately bored and irritated for the first fifty to a hundred pages. But then something-- I don't know what, really-- "clicks", and suddenly the book that's been excruciating for the first few chapters becomes, as they say, "unputdownable", and I tear through the rest of it in one great, gasping, sleep-denying rush and finish it hungry for more.

after reading one of the earlier 'Culture' books, Consider Phlebas, which features a protagonist who allies himself with religious fanatics against the 'Culture,' standing in for the post-enlightenment empire of knowledge e.g. post-historical liberal/democracy, i thought he might develop a really interesting critique of neo-liberalism and it's discontents. but it seems like he fell in love with his creation and never really pushed the critique anywhere. n-SF

i think of Banks's non-SF much like Margaret Atwood: nominally high-brow people who write in a low-brow kind of way. Neither of them write subtle books subtly.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:35 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Now if we could just get Neal Stephenson to write the first half of a book, and Iain M. Banks to write the second half, it'd be suckfree.

Holy shit, you are a genius.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:44 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I had forgotten to order this, thanks for the reminder.
posted by Skorgu at 9:45 AM on October 14, 2010


Everybody go read Transition, right now. It's not a Culture novel, but is almost something better.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 9:57 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


The only one of his books I have read was Use Of Weapons, which I really enjoyed. I can't add all of the Culture books to my already daunting pile of "read this next" books, so which one would should I go for next?
posted by vibrotronica at 10:15 AM on October 14, 2010


Vibrotronica, I'd recommend either Look to Windward or (my favorite) Excession.
posted by Skot at 10:20 AM on October 14, 2010


By far my favorite was Player of Games, fwiw. If you liked Use of Weapons, you might like PoG as well-- it takes place at a more "human" scale, unlike some of the others.
posted by dersins at 10:24 AM on October 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Hurrah, awesome - I went to see Iain M. Banks this past Tuesday at a Waterstone's here in Edinburgh - he read the first five pages from this book, did a rather good Q&A and then signed all our books. It was ace. It was great.
posted by Happy Dave at 10:25 AM on October 14, 2010


vibrotronica: Player of Games.

Alternately, maybe try the non-Culture SF Against a Dark Background or The Algebraist.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:30 AM on October 14, 2010


I walked over to Waterstones last week and finished the book a day later.
posted by Djinh at 10:35 AM on October 14, 2010


iainmbanks.net seems to be back up again now.
posted by Artw at 10:47 AM on October 14, 2010


It's not explicitly stated anywhere, and it is not a spoiler, but I got out from the book an interesting inversion of Pascal's wager: If you believe that eternal torture is just punishment for some (any) people because your God and theology tells you so, can you afford to be wrong about it?

If your God doesn't exist, then it leaves you, a person, believing and living as eternal torture is just and correct (for some). You are alone responsible for accepting eternal torture for fellow beings, no excuses. And that can be rightly seen as a despicable position to take, so despicable that you shouldn't take it even for a chance that your God is real and wants you to.
posted by Free word order! at 10:50 AM on October 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


But then something-- I don't know what, really-- "clicks", and suddenly the book that's been excruciating for the first few chapters becomes, as they say, "unputdownable", and I tear through the rest of it in one great, gasping, sleep-denying rush and finish it hungry for more.

Until I pick up the next one, which I also hate for the first fifty to a hundred pages.


Yeah, this. Me too. And in fact, many of his Culture books follow the same formula at the beginning. Start in media res with an unfamiliar character; write an irritatingly disorienting action scene; cut away to something seemingly unrelated as soon as it starts becoming clear what's going on.

It makes the first few chapters intensely effortful to read — but worse, at least in my eyes, is the fact that it's become so formulaic. If he really wanted to startle his readers at this point, he should write a book where the viewpoint character in chapter one also appears in chapter two.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:13 AM on October 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


after reading one of the earlier 'Culture' books, Consider Phlebas, which features a protagonist who allies himself with religious fanatics against the 'Culture,' standing in for the post-enlightenment empire of knowledge e.g. post-historical liberal/democracy, i thought he might develop a really interesting critique of neo-liberalism and it's discontents. but it seems like he fell in love with his creation and never really pushed the critique anywhere.

You know, I also SPOILERS, and as a result I wrote Banks off as a real asshole — one of those sci-fi authors who got picked on a bit too much in school and came to idolize power as a result. It didn't help that the only other book of his I'd read at that point was The Wasp Factory, which is a total puppy-kicking Nazi-memorabilia-collector kind of book to write, if you know what I mean.

Banks has claimed in interviews that the Culture is really just his idea of Utopia. But I do think he's got bigger reservations than he lets on. In some of the later books, Special Circumstances and some of the ship Minds get up to seriously underhanded and creepy stuff, and I think those passages show that he sees the problems. The implicit argument seems to be "Yes, this is some creepy-ass Matrix-type shit. But suppose it makes a billion people truly happy and fulfilled for every one who it inconveniences — are you willing to insist that it's still a bad thing?" That strikes me as a pretty provocative argument, even if it's not the one he originally looked like he was setting out to make.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:37 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


/shrugs

Can't say I've ever had any real trouble getting into Banks book at all.
posted by Artw at 11:37 AM on October 14, 2010


Love him. Think he's way past his best -in both genres- but still read everything he releases.
posted by Wrick at 12:05 PM on October 14, 2010


Banks has claimed in interviews that the Culture is really just his idea of Utopia. But I do think he's got bigger reservations than he lets on.

This is why people should read Consider Phlebas first. It is the only Culture novel to truly show the Culture from the outside, in an unflattering light (at least some of the time), with a protagonist who is vehemently anti-Culture. And the other books are different if your first exposure to the Culture makes you a bit suspicious and cynical. It also (I think) shows that Banks wasn't all "woo hoo Utopiaaaaa!" about it at first, but came around to the idea as he explored it.

I have been a Banks fan for a quarter century, and I met my husband because of him. I will read anything the man puts out, even if it sucks, even if it's his grocery list. I'll still say that the stuff that sucks, sucks (**coughcoughcough** Canal Dreams), but I'll still read it at least once (most of his books are eminently rereadable, and get better each time).
posted by biscotti at 12:44 PM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is why people should read Consider Phlebas first. It is the only Culture novel to truly show the Culture from the outside, in an unflattering light (at least some of the time), with a protagonist who is vehemently anti-Culture. And the other books are different if your first exposure to the Culture makes you a bit suspicious and cynical. It also (I think) shows that Banks wasn't all "woo hoo Utopiaaaaa!" about it at first, but came around to the idea as he explored it.

Hmm, I think mainly Banks just enjoyed having a protagonist who was seriously wrong about something. Most of Bora Horza Gobuchul's arguments against the culture are super weak. I'd actually look at Matter as a book that questions the Culture, or at least the Contact and Special Circumstances parts of it - it seems to be in part a treatise on Interventionism and whether or not it's a good idea (Look to Windward has an element of this too).
posted by Artw at 12:50 PM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Banks has claimed in interviews that the Culture is really just his idea of Utopia. But I do think he's got bigger reservations than he lets on. In some of the later books, Special Circumstances and some of the ship Minds get up to seriously underhanded and creepy stuff, and I think those passages show that he sees the problems. The implicit argument seems to be "Yes, this is some creepy-ass Matrix-type shit. But suppose it makes a billion people truly happy and fulfilled for every one who it inconveniences — are you willing to insist that it's still a bad thing?" That strikes me as a pretty provocative argument, even if it's not the one he originally looked like he was setting out to make.

Omelasian.

I always took the Culture as an implicit critique of communism (Banks is an avowed Marxist) - in that for it to actually work you need free everything, godlike AI and the understanding that horrible things will be done in your name. Even if they're for the best reasons.

To his credit, he takes this on - Look to Windward in particular is about the last.

Someone asked about Matter - I loved it to bits, but it's in the vein of Inversions for about a third of its length (though with a much more pronounced scifi bent.

The Shakespearian vibe it gives off, the incredibly rich number of ways in which the title informs the book and the storming final section were my favourite elements.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:54 PM on October 14, 2010


Banks had actually written several Culture novels before Phlebas was published (they were later used for the basis of Player Of Games and Use Of Weapons) and had been thinking about it for years so writing a novel from a critical perspective would not be difficult.

When I first read it (when it was first published) I thought it was pretty obvious that Bora is on the wrong side and that novel is pretty much a tragedy. But then is a very strong 'miserablist' streak in British SF (as opposed to the more optimistic US tradition).
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:20 PM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Banks has claimed in interviews that the Culture is really just his idea of Utopia. But I do think he's got bigger reservations than he lets on.

This is even better laid out in Matter with similar themes in Inversions and The Use of Weapons. Matter shows some of the problems the Culture has with colonialisim. This is played for laughs with the Affront and the actions of the Grey Area (aka "meatfucker") in Excession, but taken seriously in Matter, particularly. To me, this is a better criticism of the problems the Cuture causes than Bora Horza Gobuchul's existential angst.
posted by bonehead at 1:33 PM on October 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think the strongest Culture books were the first -- Player of Games, Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons. Starting with Excession the series has gotten increasingly bogged down in contemporary science. (Seriously, introducing a contemporary buzzword like nanotech? It was much better played in Phlebas when Bora Horza notices an insect, and realizes that while the Culture has machines that size their spaces tend to be clear of pests.) The setting of Matter was almost ridiculous.

By contrast, The Algebraist was brilliant. It's set in almost an anti-Culture universe, and Banks hasn't run out of big ideas about it.
posted by localroger at 1:33 PM on October 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


The important thing about Bora Horza Gobuchul is that, when it comes down to it, he's kind of a dick.
posted by Artw at 1:36 PM on October 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Here's a thoughtful review of Player of Games from Abigail Nussbaum.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:41 PM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Eh. Dick, emo teenager, I suppose he could be both.
posted by bonehead at 1:48 PM on October 14, 2010


Though I often dismiss Consider Phleabas as a sprawling mess, he's actually kind of a great character tragic character, what with his stubborness and insistence that everything is everybody elses fault being the root of his downfall and (spoiler, I guess) taht of everyone else he cares for or has anything to do with. That section in the tunnel sequence is fucking amazing.
posted by Artw at 1:57 PM on October 14, 2010


Excession was best. They're all great. And now I have Surface Detail in my hands.
posted by Wataki at 2:00 PM on October 14, 2010


Though I will say that I love The Algebraist almost as much as Excession.
posted by Wataki at 2:01 PM on October 14, 2010


I'm a big fan of Inversions, but you probably want to read one or two other culture books first. Probably Player of Games and Use of Weapons.
posted by Artw at 2:03 PM on October 14, 2010


The important thing about Bora Horza Gobuchul is that, when it comes down to it, he's kind of a dick.

So he's a bit of a git, is what you're saying?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:49 PM on October 14, 2010


Heh. I'm just waiting for the user of the same name to show up.
posted by Artw at 2:56 PM on October 14, 2010


From Nussbaum's above-linked review of Player of Games:

The novel is essentially constructed like a classic sports movie, with challenges and setbacks offset by triumphs, and it is a tribute to Banks's skill that he manages to make a relatively long sequence of these--Gurgeh plays six games in the tournament, most of which last several days and sometimes take a whole chapter, or several, to describe--seem effortless and engaging.

For what it's worth, I hated the novel, partly because I didn't find the game sections engaging at all; Banks never tells us what the rules are, so the reader can't evaluate for him/herself the intelligence or daring of any of the protagonist's choices. So it basically comes down to Banks using his voice as author to directly stress just how suspenseful things are and how smart the players are. Although honestly, that didn't even piss me off as much as the characterization in the novel, which felt cardboard and lifeless. But then, I've said all this before.
posted by Greg Nog at 3:02 PM on October 14, 2010


18.86$ for the Kindle edition and 10$ for paperback? Seriously: what the fuck, publishers? Do you want people to pirate the book?
posted by ts;dr at 3:06 PM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Best place to start: Players of Games.
Epic Masterpiece: The Algebraist.

I recently finished Transitions: It takes at least halfway through to start to get a grip on what is going on. Then it's swell.
posted by ovvl at 3:14 PM on October 14, 2010


I was really disappointed by The Algebraist. I don't remember why though. I think I disliked the ending for some reason. It's the only IMB book I haven't re-read at least once though.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:37 PM on October 14, 2010


I've not planned this very well, I started reading a 600 page history of the English Civil War the week before a new Banks book came out. I know that, theoretically, I could just stop reading my current book and then go back to it, but if I start with that sort lax reading behaviour who knows where it'll end up?

Is Matter worth reading? Excepting Surface Detail, it's the only Culture novel I haven't yet read. (Personal taste data points: I thought they were all good-to-great except for Inversions and Use of Weapons, which I rather intensely disliked.)

Given your listed dislikes you should probably ignore it - I really liked Use of Weapons. I also liked Inversions, and that's possibly much closer to Matter, medieval instead of renaissance.
posted by robertc at 5:07 PM on October 14, 2010


I was really disappointed by The Algebraist. I don't remember why though.

I was as well. What sticks in my craw (but others may not care) is the way Banks deals with aliens. Some are truly alien, like the gas-giant dwelling creatures, but even with them they communicate with humans and are almost a kind of silly comic relief. Other aliens are even more human-like, and it takes on an almost Star Trek feel to it; just dab on a little silicone on their heads and emphasize some cultural traits not in the Western Civilization tradition...and bam! You've got your aliens. Banks is a good writer, so it's disappointing he takes these shortcuts.

I like his mainstream fiction perhaps better than his SF. I've read three or four of his books and can't really remember much about them. I'll give them all a whirl again some day.
posted by zardoz at 5:28 PM on October 14, 2010


I only recently finished Transitions, so am very pleased to have another Banks book to read. So far I've only read Transitions, Matter and Excession (though I have The Algebraist sitting on my shelf waiting to be read), and I'm looking forward to working my way through his back-catalogue.

For someone like me who though Transitions was a fantastic novel (one of the best things I've read in ages), what other of his non-Culture books would folks recommend?
posted by damonism at 6:23 PM on October 14, 2010


Most obviously The Bridge.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:38 PM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Wasp Factory and Crow Road would be the two big ones. If you like The Crow Road you're in luck because a bunch of his other books are basically variations on it.

A Song of Stone and The Business might be of interest as well as they're a little SFish without being M. Books.
posted by Artw at 6:47 PM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I seem to be in the minority. I don't care for his non-SF books, in fact, I put down without finishing my most recent attempt to read his mainstream fiction, "The Business". Bleah. Putting down a book is almost vanishingly rare for me, but I did not care. Not at all.

On the other hand, I love most of his SF, with the strong exception of Feersum Endjinn.

Aside:
I can't stand phonetic writing as a device. I'm not a verbal/auditory reader, and forcing me to do so just slows me down for no reason, without adding to my enjoyment in the least. Similarly, I don't care for Irvine Welsh, too much use of the same annoying literary device.

In SF, he's one of my top five favorites, in mainstream, I can just take a pass, thanks.

I'll be reading "Surface Detail", of course.
posted by Invoke at 7:43 PM on October 14, 2010


For someone like me who though Transitions was a fantastic novel (one of the best things I've read in ages), what other of his non-Culture books would folks recommend?

Any of the first three (Wasp Factory, Walking On Glass, The Bridge) as they were more like Transition before he started writing sf proper and his main-streamy novels became more main-stream. The Bridge is probably his best novel imho. I also really like Crow Road and Espedair St.

Ones to avoid are Canal Dreams, The Business and Dead Air.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:14 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I should have noted that while The Business may be interesting from the point of view of being a non-M book that leans SF it isn't really that strong a book.
posted by Artw at 7:29 AM on October 15, 2010


Consider Phlebas did vex me at several points, but the finale was harrowing and appropriate. One of the things I most enjoyed about the "big picture" background prior to the more personal showdown at the end was the dialogue among various characters on the morality of the voluntary war that had killed and otherwise harmed so many; the morally fraught calculations on misery applied to spare (potentially) greater misery. These are topics I really wish we on Earth would considered more thoroughly before engaging in armed conflict.

I also "got" Bora - it's not that he's a dick, it's that the Culture, because of its entering the war voluntarily, did indeed bring mayhem and misfortune to him. The Idirans, while not free of fault in Bora's eyes, were more like the home team; while they were colonialists, they seemed to have left well enough alone with the Changers. So Bora viewed the Culture—with some justification—as an aggressive and hostile power, and a power that relied so heavily on machines as to be completely untrustworthy. In a way, the Culture is just as fanatical in its beliefs as the Idirans.

Also consider that, as a powerful biological weapon, a living killing machine, the changer Bora may have had a natural antipathy, may have felt existentially threatened, even, by the Culture's machine intelligences. So there is my treatise defending Bora's POV if not his actions.
posted by Mister_A at 7:45 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Plus he was a badass who

****SPOILER****












Snapped off his own finger.
posted by Mister_A at 7:46 AM on October 15, 2010


And I just remembered that they refer to him as "Horza" in the book, not Bora.
posted by Mister_A at 8:19 AM on October 15, 2010


Transcript of the twitter interview (facebook)

More reviews:
Big Issue In Scotland
The Culture Vulture
Fantasy Book Critic
The Guardian
The Independent
io9
Mail On Sunday
Scotsman On Sunday

A recent letter to the Guardian by Banks
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:43 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


My copy finally arrived yesterday - so late that I'd already complained and had a refund. And then I told Waterstones it had arrived after all, they said I could keep it for free. Sweet.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:28 PM on October 26, 2010


A recent letter to the Guardian by Banks

Nicely expressed there.
posted by Artw at 2:04 PM on October 26, 2010


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