You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Surface Detail

Iain M. Banks has created an advanced galactic society in his Culture novels. The latest in the series is Surface Detail, and it deals with a fascinating concept as well as exciting action. In the Culture, death is merely an inconvenience. There is technology to transfer one's consciousness into machinery where one can interact in any conceivable virtual world. Consciousness can even be transferred back into a living body if one wishes, essentially bestowing a sort of immortality. This is not entirely novel in a science fiction setting, but Banks adds a twist: some societies decide to put the consciousness of their dead criminals in a virtual Hell. In these virtual worlds, torment is continuous, and virtual death only buys a short reprieve. There is eternal war in the hells.

The Culture is officially against the hell worlds but does not interfere in the matters of fellow socieites. Yet there is a war going on between the pro-Hell and anti-Hell factions, with the fate of the Hells in the balance. This war is entirely virtual, but one side has decided to break the rules and take the war into the Real.

The story starts when Lededje Y'breq, a sex slave in the Sichult society, is murdered by her owner. She wakes up in a virtual worlds light years away and is told that she had a brain implant that transmitted her consciousness to a distant ship at her death. Lededje requests a new body and transport back to her home world. The AI Mind that controls the ship acquiesces but, knowing she seeks revenge, insists that she take a drone to protect her--and keep her from harming anyone. Yet Lededje contacts the advanced warship Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints and its avatar to arrange for separate transport without a chaperone.

Like most of Banks's novels, this one contains AI Minds that are both powerful and entertaining. The Falling Outside is a ship with powerful technology and a flair for the dramatic. Indeed, the AI characters are often more interesting than the humn or alien characters. The ship and Lededje are close to another situation that is brewing: forces in the war over the Hells have arranged to use a large array of manufacturing facilities orbiting a gas giant to build millions of warships. And in order to provide a distraction, there is an outbreak of smatter, a sort of advanced nanobots or gray goo.

There are many other characters involved. There is a Queitus operative (a division in charge of the officially "dead" in the virutal world) who may or may not be working for Special Circumstances, the Culture's version of the CIA. There's Veppers, Lededje's owner who is the richest man in the system and a complete sociopath. Vatueil is an AI entity fighting in the war of the Hells, but on which side is a bit of a mystery. Then there are the grand locations: the huge ship that Lededje wakes up on, containing millions of people, the gas giant and its many facilities, an ancient space station that used to be the home of a vanquished species, now home to a mad AI.

My only complaint is that with all the strands in the story, not al come together. I was left wondering what happened to the smatter outbreak, or the ancient AI in the space station. But the main characters have good storylines and the plot comes to a satisfying conclusion. During all the fun, the reader is presented with questions of morality and mortality: when individuals can exist forever, what kind of fate is truly just? A-

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