Surface Detail, By Iain M Banks

A galactic war breaks out over virtual resting places

Fans of Iain M Banks' Culture strand of science-fiction novels know pretty much what they're going to get with every book set in the author's futuristic galaxy: mind-boggling technology, brilliant leaps of imagination and serious moral and ethical themes, all wrapped around several intertwining, intimate human-interest stories that usually have ramifications for the security of the universe.

And so it is with Surface Detail, the eighth (depending how you count them) novel to be set against the backdrop of the quasi-omnipotent, near utopia of the Culture.

The Culture, it should be stated here, is a wonderful invention: a pan-galactic, pan-human society so technologically advanced that they are effectively able to cheat death. The Culture has a policy of non-interference with lesser civilisations, a policy its extreme wing, Special Circumstances, regularly completely ignores.

Special Circumstances does feature in Surface Detail, but perhaps more interestingly we are introduced to another branch of the Culture's "Contact" division, Quietus, which deals with the dead.

That's not as daft as it sounds, because in this galaxy, the dead are never really dead. A number of civilisations have developed mind-mapping technology and realistic virtual realities, and have gone on to create a kind of virtual heaven for their deceased. Unfortunately, some of them have also created a virtual hell for eternal punishment and damnation. The Culture, being right-on liberals, are dead set (excuse the pun) against such things, as are other galactic societies, and a virtual war is waged to decide on the right to these hells' existence.

As we join Surface Detail, that so-called "war in heaven" is threatening to spill over from the virtual to the real, with potentially devastating consequences. Into this maelstrom are thrown at least half a dozen individuals on both sides, and Banks charts their progress through complicated interconnected storylines.

So we have tattooed slave Lededje, who is killed then "revented" by the Culture, intent on taking vengeance on her killer, Veppers, a powerful man in his society and a crucial figure with respect to the existence of virtual hells. We have Prin and Chay, protesting academics who venture into a hell to gather evidence for their cause; Yime, a Quietus agent sent on a dangerous and secretive mission; and Vatueil, a leading military man killed and reborn countless times in the virtual war.

It has to be said that all this is a little bewildering for the first 100 pages or so. Readers familiar with Banks's style won't worry about that, though, safe in the knowledge that the writer knows what he's doing and that it will all make sense in the end.

And it does. Banks is not afraid of ramping up the action and pace to a thrilling climax, and so it is here, with a quite extraordinary battle in which Banks performs the neat trick of giving us the overarching war strategies as well as, through another story-line, the human effect of such actions.

For all that Surface Detail is a big old romp of a space opera, as always with Banks it also tackles some pretty weighty themes. The nature and morality of religion are examined, in a more even-handed way than you might expect from an outspoken atheist. And ultimately, Surface Detail is about personal identity; what it means to be who we are.

In its expert blending of these ideas with a gripping, action-packed plot, Surface Detail is one of Banks's finer Culture novels, and a welcome addition to a compelling universe.