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Friday, December 14, 2012 11:38 pm
Iain M. Banks' "Surface Detail"
Posted by: Misha Stone

This week I attended the Other Realms book group’s discussion of Iain M. Bank’s Surface Detail. Other Realms is a science fiction and fantasy book group that my colleague Jared started and because he is moving into a new role in another location, I will be leading the group as of next month, so I was pleased to join to group to sort out my own reading of Banks’ complex whopper (at over 600 pages) of a book.

Surface Detail is part of Bank’s Culture series. As Jared pointed out, pretty much every book by Banks starts out pretty confusing, whether you have read him or not, but he has a remarkable way of tying all of the strands together at the conclusion. Banks’ novels are also complex in their world-building and ideas, which makes them simultaneously puzzling at first blush but ultimately exciting.

This one starts with action from the get go. A young girl is murdered in a spectacular display of rebellion and corrosive control. Then, chapters flash forward into a war and then into a rather visceral depiction of Hell. Then, the dead girl returns–but how?

The group talked about the ideas presented in the book and Banks’ influences–namely Dante’s Inferno. We also talked about his depictions of Hell, the ordeal that one character, Chay, a two-trunked elephant, endures and what is being said through her story.

Banks’ book is violent, intelligent, political and provocative. One reader lauded the author’s take on the classic tale of good versus evil and another said she had to read it twice to gain a true appreciation of Banks’ work.

I had been meaning to read Iain Banks, who writes both science fiction (usually with the middle initial M.) and mainstream fiction, for years now. Book groups have an amazing way of introducing you to books and authors you might be placing aside in your own personal reading. I am excited about the new directions and discoveries that await me in my discussions with Other Realms.


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