Surface Detail by Iain M Banks

January 3, 2011 at 12:48 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments

Iain M Banks is the sort of author I like to use as a reviewer benchmark. Most people have read at least one or two of his novels, and while some are more liked than others there isn’t wide agreement on his best and worst. If you feel the same way, I’ll break it down for you: I think Use of Weapons is his best work, and indeed it’s one of my favorite science fiction novels of all time. Player of Games was also very good, of course. Consider Phlebas and Against a Dark Background were fun but a little too depressing in their nearly nihilistic outlook. Feersum Endjinn, Excession and Algebraist (at least the first two thirds of it) were fun although a little lightweight compared to his early work. I felt Matter had all the joie de vivre of Consider Phlebas without the humor and kinetic action. And Transition I found to be a complete, unmitigated disaster.

Right away, Surface Detail has some parallels with Transition. Like that novel (or at least part of it), Surface Detail is concerned with the morality of torture, or rather the lack thereof. Starting from the common idea of mind uploading, Banks speculates that civilizations would use it to provide a virtual reality afterlife for their citizens. In addition to the Heavens you would expect, sometimes these afterlives would include Hells as well. The central conflict of the novel is the humanitarian struggle to get rid of these things, for Banks’ idea of Hell (and by extension, every Hell ever created by civilizations in the novel…there doesn’t seem to be any diversity) seems pretty much taken from Dante. I found this disappointing, to put it mildly. Don’t get me wrong, when it comes to torture Banks has a reputation for creativity that goes back to his earliest novels (Consider Phlebas in particular is infamous for opening with the main character’s captors executing him by drowning him in excrement) and he hasn’t lost any of that spark. But ultimately the pro-Hell argument seemed very much a straw man to me. Dante’s Inferno is seven hundred years old, after all. Yes, people still believe in this version of Hell, but I’m going out on a limb and guessing none of Banks’ readers do. Well, I guess no one is reading Banks to learn about cutting edge Christian theology, but Ted Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God” is far more interesting and has much more to say on this subject despite being a short story instead of a novel. Still, I would have been much more interested to see Banks turn his formidable creativity toward what the various virtual reality Heavens might look like, since heaven remains just as elusive a vision today as it was when Dante wrote the Paradiso.

Then again, the Culture is a sort of secular heaven, even if it is more accurately called a utopia. However, one of Surface Detail‘s main characters Lededje (his novels might be uneven but the aesthetics of Banks’ character names are, ahem, consistent) literally dies and, thanks to a device that transmitted her neural state at the time of death, wakes up to find herself in the Culture at the beginning of the book. She’s had a hard life up to this point to say the least, but instead of exulting to find herself in secular paradise, she immediately starts heading back to her homeworld to get revenge on the man who repeatedly raped and ultimately killed her. That’s understandable, but what’s less understandable is that while the Culture politely scolds her for wanting to kill someone, it doesn’t seem to have any therapy or counseling options available besides, well, being in the Culture, and that’s obviously not enough in this case. In any case, Lededje is given a new body but no psychological help, so off she goes. Her quest takes up a fair amount of the novel, but it ultimately doesn’t have any real impact on events.

Her murderer, Veppers, is a technocrat with a corporate empire in a non-Culture human civilization. In addition to being a serial rapist and a murderer, he literally has a harem and also holds gladiatorial events on his massive estate. A substantial chunk of the novel is told from his perspective, but this is made bearable by one of Banks’ literary superpowers: his ability to infuse charisma into over-the-top villains like Veppers and Transition‘s Adrian. Bearable, but not, in my opinion, worthwhile. These utterly self-centered characters have showed up frequently in Banks’ later work, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence they are absent from his best novels. In any case, most of the civilizations operating Hells turn out to have contracted out administration and maintenance to Veppers over the years, and he has a convoluted scheme to turn the galactic debate over their morality to his advantage. In the end, however, his schemes come to nothing and it seems unlikely they could have ever succeeded.

Prin and Chay meanwhile are anti-Hell activists of a nonhuman race that operates a virtual reality Hell, although to avoid censure from both domestic and galactic sources, this Hell is kept secret. With the aid of hackers, they enter their race’s Hell while still alive with the intention of escaping and then going to the media with their story. These are the scenes that let Banks construct his infernal theme park, but additionally Chay’s story in particular turns out to have some interesting moments. Overall, however, this was a frustrating storyline. The only argument presented by the pro-Hell side justifying their virtual reality Hell, which I remind you is a secret, centers on its deterrence. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see how it can deter anything unless people know it exists. Meanwhile, Prin’s goal is to testify before some sort of galactic tribunal of unspecified powers, but plenty of civilizations seem to admit to operating Hells and no one has stopped them yet, so I’m not sure what this was supposed to accomplish. Ultimately Prin and Chay’s crusade is overtaken by events elsewhere, so their heroism doesn’t end up changing the outcome.

The only Culture citizen of the viewpoint characters is Yime, a human working for a branch of the Culture’s Contact bureaucracy that specializes issues relating to uploaded dead people. I don’t see why the Culture wouldn’t just call these “people” since really there’s nothing dead about them, but in any event she is sent after Lededje in hopes of…well, that’s never made clear. She’s just supposed to get to Lededje and trust this will be useful somehow. This seemingly simple task proves unexpectedly difficult, but Lededje turns out to be unimportant, so Yime’s mission is even more so.

The final viewpoint character is a man named Vatueil. After much acrimonious debate in galactic diplomatic channels, the pro-Hell and anti-Hell activists apparently decided to settle the issue by fighting a virtual war and swearing to abide by the result. Vatueil fights in this war for hundreds of subjective years. In the end, the losing side doesn’t respect their oath and starts a real war instead, so Vatueil was apparently completely wasting his time. I think Banks was trying to be ironic here, something along the lines of war being hell and Vatueil finding himself in a virtual hell about virtual Hells. Maybe. If so, it didn’t really work.

Incidentally, Banks is fond of twist endings, and there is a revelation in the epilogue relating to a previous Culture book. For once I anticipated one of Banks’ little twists from miles away (and even figured out the relevant anagram while reading), but even if I hadn’t, it amounts to a “hey how about that” and doesn’t change much of anything about the novel (or the novel it references).

From these summaries of the viewpoint characters, you may notice a common theme. Although they frequently seem like they are about to influence the course of events, the characters all turn out to be spectators to the story. To a certain extent this is an inherent problem with the Culture setting. The intellect of the artificial intelligences that control the Culture is so vast that humans end up being mere bystanders. To the extent that the Culture is heaven, or at least a utopia, it begins looking suspiciously similar to Veppers’ life. Much of the time Banks spends with Veppers seems aimed at demonstrating how empty his life is: being wealthy, he can have virtually anything he wants, and he indulges himself with ridiculous pastimes as well as nearly constant sexual activity. Well, this really isn’t that different from the life we see Culture humans leading. Their post-scarcity economy gives them basically anything they want, they fritter their time away in outlandish hobbies, and of course seem to have as much sex as they want. While the Culture doesn’t allow the rape, murder, and slavery that Veppers also practices, these things are basically tangential to his lifestyle, and in any case if I recall correctly the Culture allows people to indulge such tastes in simulations.

Although there are some interesting contrasts here, it’s not really anything new if you’ve read previous Culture novels. It’s been a while since I read it, but I’m pretty sure the meaninglessness of life when it’s reducing to being a mere pet of machines was at the core of the Idirian opposition to the Culture in Consider Phlebas. While Banks has added a few new departments to Contact as well as a sort of galactic equivalent of the United Nations that ends up working out in practice rather similarly to the patronage system in David Brin’s Uplift novels, this is basically the same Culture setting being brought out of the toy box for another round. If you haven’t read Banks’ best work like Use of Weapons and Consider Phlebas, you should be reading those and not this novel. If you have, however, you might want to know if this novel is worth reading. Given all my complaints about the treatment of Hell and the powerless characters, I’m sure you would expect me to say no.

The thing is, when it gets going, this is an enormously fun novel. The Culture warship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints steals every scene it finds itself in, and Banks makes sure it’s in plenty. I’ve often noticed that although people talk about wanting to see big battles in space opera, it’s really the sort of thing that comes across much better visually in a film or TV show than in prose. Banks squares this circle by letting us watch a complicated engagement with the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints‘s running commentary. The ship’s breezily casual attitude toward combat, its relentless sarcasm, and its smirking asides are the prose equivalent of big budget special effects, at least for me.

Additionally, while as I’ve said there’s no substantive development of the Culture setting here, I feel out of all the Culture novels this one best captures the dark cynicism of Special Circumstances. Usually we see it from the inside, or else in retrospect, but most Culture characters in Surface Detail aren’t part of it and in fact both dislike and fear it. Even though this feeling is evoked and then not developed intellectually the way Banks’ early novels did, it’s nice to see Special Circumstances in its proper light without the distraction of the James Bond antics of their operatives.

In the end Surface Detail can be called a minor Culture novel, but it’s one of the better ones. Science fiction authors are well known for tailing off late in their careers and Banks has been writing for a long time now, but there’s more than enough good here for me to keep holding out hope that Banks has another great novel in his future.


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  1. […] and especially in the penultimate novel Surface Detail. When I finished reading Surface Detail, I was frustrated by the way all of its many viewpoint characters turned out to be irrelevant to the outcome. If […]

  2. This may be my favorite Culture novel.

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