Orbit, £18.99, 627pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Surface Detail, By Iain M Banks

There is a point in fictional series – whether fantastic or otherwise – at which we read in order to find out more about the series itself. There is little point in new readers starting here. Fortunately, this is not usually the case with Iain M Banks's epic space-opera novels about the hedonistic, benevolent quasi-imperial society known as the Culture. It is only marginally true with Surface Detail.

Nonetheless, the book's title does advertise that it contains material that will interest long-term followers more than others. There are long and loving explanations of how emergency suits protect human passengers from the titanic wars of robotic spaceships, and extended explanations of galactic politics at this particular point in Banks's constructed future history.

The current book is set at a point where the Culture has many rivals. They resent its smug air of moral superiority and fear its capacity for successful intrigue on behalf of its militantly secular and tolerant ethos.

Virtual realities and the downloading of personalities, Banks suggests, enable the religiously inclined to ensure the existence of an afterlife in which sinners can be punished for what can be made to seem an eternity. A society like the Culture will regard this as an obscenity; and the background story of Surface Detail assumes it will lead to conflict.

Into the middle of this mess wanders Lebedje, an alien slave murdered by her owner/rapist Veppers, and resurrected through the benevolence of a Culure AI. She is determined to avenge her own death on Veppers while he is keen to retrieve her and punish the Culture for meddling in his affairs.

The war between these two becomes crucial to the broader conflict. Much of this is predictable: part of the point of creating the Culture is, for Banks and his audience, to have a universe in which things generally work out for the best. Yet what we are made to care about is the surface detail of the process whereby they do, and the emotional content of that process. We are made to care deeply about Lebedje and her personal vendetta – and about Yime, the bureaucrat tasked with stopping her. We care less about the various Ais – their existences are without jeopardy – but they entertain along the way.

In spite of the horrors Banks gives us here, the general effect of this book is entertainment. Some of the Culture novels have more to them beyond the sheer brio that we take away here. Surface Detail is far from the worst introduction to Banks's series. Yet there is no way that a new reader is going to understand its revelation of just how ruthless the Culture can be in the pursuit of its goals.

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