I first came across the Culture shortly after comming to university, when I bought a copy of Consider Phlebas largely on the basis of the really lovely cover art featuring a shiny and not-too-plot-relevant spaceship. Despite reading a lot of SF through my teens, Iain Banks totally blew me away at the time, and for a long while I owned pretty much everything he wrote ever since with varying degrees of fanaticism. Banks took a long break from the Culture after 2000's Look to Windward, and I confess to finding his books after that - both The Algebraist and his non-SF novels - steadily less and less compelling. I had high hopes for Matter, his return to The Culture but really wasn't as grabbed by it as perhaps I wanted to be. That said, it was far from a bad book, so of course I picked up the new Culture novel Surface Detail.
I think I have to start with a simple statement: I think this is Iain Banks' best book (Culture of otherwise) since Excession. Actually I think it may be better than Excession, although there are a couple of points at which a knowledge of Excessions' exploration of Culture decision making is a help. Centred on the pretty strong and interesting idea of people living virtual afterlives, and the idea that for some societies, a virtual "hell" is seen as a good and/or useful thing to have, the book is split between the "Real" and "Virtual" levels of reality as a war started long ago to decide the fate of the Hells threatens to spill over from the Virtual to the Real.
Structurally we follow a large number of characters - both the usual motley collection of Culture Ships and People, but a number of other characters both inside the Virtual and across the Real, some of whose stories never quite intersect but keep you abreast of developments, or simply show you the life, of people involved in this sprawling and complex crisis. At first glace the lack of "comming together" seems odd, some characters story arcs are totally self-contained, but by the end it's clear that the viewpoint is important; that you need to know what is going on these places without the contrivance of somehow getting these characters to meet up. And it's the more distant characters that come across the best at times, although I'm not sure if that as a long-term Culture reader the broad personalities of Culture Citizens are fairly well defined and maybe a little too familiar.
That said, this is a subtley different Culture. Its hard to define, but there is a sense that the Culture has moved on, both technologically and socially. It's a bigger player, it's starting to outstretch itself and it's neighbours, and the races that are mentioned that are it's technological equals seem increasingly distant from Galactic Affairs and those that are butting heads with it are, it turns out, kidding themselves if they can match the Cultures cutting edge, as exemplified by the cheerfully psychotic Operating Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, a consistantly scene-stealing character if even I read one.
A couple of points do leap out at me though. Firstly, the "virtual Hells and virtual wars" idea is sufficiently strong and interesting that I'm entirely sure why this is a Culture Novel to start with. I suspect it could stand perfectly well on it's own (although I suspect the actual story would have to be different) and the Culture does play a slightly Deus Ex Machina role in proceedings. Secondly, yet again Banks is writing a Culture novel mostly from the outside, looking in and I wonder if it's fantastic near-magic level of technology is making it hard to sufficiently generate a threat for them. On this latter point, at least, a lot of the character arcs resolve around emotional stakes, rather than physical ones, and if there is one thing that The Cultures massive tech doesn't seem to be able to do, and thats un-screw you up.
I really enjoyed Surface Detail. It's a clever presentation of clever ideas with just the right about of concept, horror, dark comedy and high-tech ultra-violence to keep it moving at a good pace and wrap up with a good punch to it's finale. And the epilogue, which just for the last line alone made it feel like a small reward for people who have been reading Culture Novels of as long as he's been writing them.
Side Note: This is the first full novel I read on my Kindle, and I'm pretty much a full convert to the thing now. Really easy to use, convenient and elegant. Fantastic piece of kit and I'm really glad I bought it.