I just finished Banks' "Surface Detail" Culture-universe novel. Great stuff, although my reading of it was rather interrupted and spread over almost 3 months, so my memory of the earlier parts is greatly diminished.

The last line in it feels like it's supposed to be closure of some great narrative arc, and/or reveal something surprising and new about the character concerned... except the name mentioned is completely lost on me!

What am I missing here (if anything) ?

By the way, the last line is

Your table is ready, Mr. Zakalwe.

  • 2
    The question would be much improved by quoting the line you are asking about. Put it in a spoiler box (>! is the markup you want). Commented Dec 26, 2011 at 17:59
  • Thanks, updated. Actually, just googling the phrase turns up a load of discussion on other forums. I'd assumed at most it would be a reference back to an earlier minor character in the same book I'd forgotten about because of my interrupted reading.
    – timday
    Commented Dec 26, 2011 at 21:57
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    When I reached that last line I laughed out loud. I felt as if it was a little jest just for the benefit of those familiar with Banks' early works, especially as "Use of Weapons" is one of my favourites.
    – user59247
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 18:05

4 Answers 4


Spoiler for Surface Detail:

Zakalwe is the protagonist (I will not say hero) of Banks's earlier novel Use of Weapons, so we gain some new retroactive insight into the character who has now been revealed to be Zakalwe.

  • Thanks! A great arc indeed. I see the relevant wikipedia page (not "Surface Detail"'s) does contain a mention of the reference in SD.
    – timday
    Commented Dec 26, 2011 at 17:09
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    Actually, personally I thought it was rather pointless, and didn't add anything to either book. But maybe that's just me. Commented Dec 26, 2011 at 21:13
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    I know what you mean. One of the things I like about the Culture books is that all the books pretty much stand alone (references to big events like the Idiran War excepted)... and this seems a bit of an unnecessary entanglement between books. On the other hand, in the context of Bank's assertion that the idea of the Culture originated simply to serve as a suitable backdrop for the character in question (see textualities.net/andrew-wilson/iain-banks-interview ), I think he arguably has more right than most to be deserving of such treatment.
    – timday
    Commented Dec 26, 2011 at 22:25

There are two levels of importance:

Firstly, Zakalwe is a character in a previous Culture novel, so it can be seen as a homage. Secondly, Zakalwe is a Special Circumstances asset specifically used to influence the outcome of wars the Culture can't directly be involved in. It thus implies that the Culture, while publicly staying out of the war over hells, was actually involved through SC, who employed one of the greatest naturally created military strategists ever to have existed to influence the outcome. It significantly changes character of the overall plot, since it shows that the Culture actually would never have let hells continue to exist, but were able to find a more direct way to remove them.


At a Q&A in 2012 for the Guardian Banks was asked why he chose to add that line, and from memory he said that it just seemed to fit.

That is, the character in SD didn't necessarily start out as being linked anything else (as timday says - the book could stand on its own) but that it felt right to make linkage

(Clumsily trying to avoid spoilers)


I wonder if Banks is hinting at the connection between himself and the character addressed; both subvert accepted views of what constitutes standard behaviour. In this final scene there is a clue about the method that Banks uses to address what truth he considers too hard for people to question or accept is in the character's thoughts about the sunset, "you could only gaze steadily upon it... when it was at its most filtered". Banks used "Surface Detail" and "The Hydrogen Sonata" as polemics against established religions' concepts of a damned afterlife and inspired texts, his final two books describing our civilisations' struggles with divinity filtered via science fiction.

  • 2
    I wasn't aware Banks had ever shown an interest in making furniture.
    – Spencer
    Commented May 1, 2022 at 22:52

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