The publication of a new Iain M Banks Culture novel is greatly exciting for me. Banks is one of the few contemporary sf writers who keep me interested in the state of the genre and give me faith in the longevity of science fiction. The Culture novels (of which this is the 8th) are not tied together by plot or character but by the universe he has created. The Culture is a fictional interstellar anarchic, socialist, and utopian group of post-scarcity Minds (AI) that exist individually as ships. The universe is populated by an array of other cultures from low-tech to fantastically high-tech but the Culture tends to lord over them all as sort of powerful liberal anarchists.
My simplistic overview does a disservice to the complexity of Banks fictional world. The best thing about Banks Culture books (which are by no means uniformly excellent) is that he has a variety of really cool science fiction ideas and by custom building his universe he can drop them in where he likes.
Surface Detail is quite complex with multiple story lines, timelines and an array of characters. The book rewards diligent and consistent reading but is quite rewarding towards the final third as the overall plot threads come together. My only complaint would be that I felt a couple of the threads lost some of their narrative steam towards the end. Banks argues in an interview that some of the characters "end up working almost as a Greek chorus, commenting upon the action rather than taking part in it."
Nevertheless, this was a really great book and definitely a worthwhile read for those interested in the genre. As Banks says,
You do have the whole galaxy to play with, and you have the full panoply of types of planets to play with, not just rocky, watery planets. You’ve got no excuse for getting bored with it!