On Surface Detail


Surface Detail Cover

Possibly the most exciting moments in literature in general and SF in particular are – for me – the publications of new novels by Iain M. Banks, especially Culture novels. However, such moments also come with an unfortunate downside. After waiting two years for the publication of Surface Detail, I finished the thing in just over two days. Yep. Set aside a weekend, turned down a party or two, and devoured all 627 pages in an unrestrained personal geekfest. All that anticipation frittered away over a matter of hours. But worth it.

Surface Detail stands out for me as one of my favourite SF reads by this author. Moreover, by dint of the novel’s astounding parting punch, it has made me desperate to reread the entire canon of previous Culture novels. In fact, I started today with Consider Phlebas.

For those not familiar with Banks’ work, the Culture is the name of a Galactic post-human civilisation populated by pan-human (humanoid type) citizens, a medley of non-humanoid species, and varying levels of AI, of which the Minds are the most complex. For detractors of the Culture, the fact that it is based upon machine rather than biological intelligence, together with the society’s socialist-utopian ideological core and its tendency to ‘interfere’ with the development of civilisation’s lower down on the technological ladder, are reasons aplenty to to abhor it. For the Culture’s sympathisers, these same reasons are cause for celebration.

Indeed, although the Culture is as much (if not more) its machines as it is its constituent biological species, Bank’s writes his AI with a warmth that belies their non-organic nature. The Minds, the AI cores of the Culture’s ships, hubs, and orbitals, are amongst the most fascinating characterisations found in SF.

On to Surface Detail itself. The novel begins with a death and it remains concerned with the subject through its entirety; specifically, what occurs after death in an age and location where people can back-up their mind-states and download themselves into vast virtual playgrounds, and where it is both possible and practical to have new bodies grown following the death of the old.

For various reasons, some people choose, or are forced by circumstance or society, to stay dead. At least physically. Amongst the vast Galactic community (of which the Culture is just one player) a trend for building and maintaining various ‘heavens’ came into being, allowing the deceased to experience the pleasures such realms proffer, at least until said individuals succumb to boredom and choose a final, irrevocable, termination.

Surface Detail explores the existence of the Heavens’ counterparts: the Hells. A war has been waging between the anti-Hell and pro-Hell Galactic factions in especially allocated virtual battlegrounds . But as the war reaches its final conclusions, one side decides to bring the fight into the Real, risking the first real war in thousands of years. In this respect, Banks’ extends and amplifies the central conceit of his previous Culture novel Matter, in which the Culture’s preference for playing in virtual realms is contrasted with the Nariscene’s preference for playing within Matter itself. Indeed, as one character in Surface Detail puts it, the Real is ‘where matter still matters’.

A significant portion of Surface Detail is set in one of the Hells. Two academics/activists have gained false entry into the realm in order to expose the true horror of the place to doubters on the outside. This is one of the most memorable and disturbing accounts of damnation in SF since ‘The Priest’s Tale’ in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. Banks’ skill is most apparent in the way he interweaves horror, humour and an intelligent rumination on the nature (and rights) of a virtual self.

The start of the novel concerns the murder of Lededje, a sort of indentured slave in a society where failure of finance can have dire penalties for not only the defaulter in question but for future generations of their families. A pertinent and illustrative prediction given the world’s current and on-going financial situation. Lededje’s murderer and owner Veppers, being the most powerful man in a relatively low-level technological civilisation, comes to the attention of the Culture after it is clear that his position and assets might hold the key to the resolution of the virtual war before it is spills into the Real.

The Lededje/Veppers saga is a a compelling driving force throughout the novel. Veppers’ contempt for the Culture and Lededje’s sudden connection to it makes for an interesting analysis of the Culture itself. Bank’s often explores the Culture from the outside – Horza in Consider Phlebas, Quilan in Look to Windward, Ferbin in Matter – and the technique still works for me. However, the resolution of the murder/revenge thread paled in significance besides the wider themes and conflicts depicted and I found my attention waning during what should have been a nail-biting and tense final moment.

The absolute master stroke of this book, though, has to be the final short section; literally the last word. I shan’t give anything away here but it is the reason why I’m going back through the Culture novels to fully appreciate the move. Having said that, it might be reason enough to suggest that a reader unfamiliar with Banks’ SF starts off with one of the first Culture novels in order to fully appreciate the ending to this one. Then again, the novel stands very well without it.

2 Responses to “On Surface Detail”

  1. 1 Alex

    Dude, it’s Lededje, not Lebeje! If you want to understand the last word, then you need to read “Use of Weapons”, (on a par with, if not better than Surface detail, IMHO).

  2. 2 veeuye

    Hey Alex,

    Good spot on the name. TBH, I’m not sure if my internal pronunciation of Banks’ SF names ever matches up and, in this case, it has probably spilled out into my spelling. Editing text now.

    Also, I’ve read all of the Culture novels, including UoW. Didn’t want to mention it as it is a massive spoiler but ho hey. I agree; UoW and Surface Detail are the top two in my opinion, with Excession a very close second.

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