Sunday, 31 July 2011

Cultural Reflections: Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Finally got round to reading Surface Detail, the latest Culture novel by Iain ‘Optional M.’ Banks. It’s the seventh novel to feature the Culture (well, the ninth if you include the novella State of the Art and the sneaky Inversions), and one I’ve been meaning to buy for a while. Banks is one of the finest authors in Britain, science fiction or otherwise, and his Culture sequence is a universe I particularly enjoy visiting. Good thing, too - Surface Detail makes few concessions for someone new to the Culture. If that includes you, then here goes: the Culture is an apparently benevolent, hedonistic super-society that has existed from the distant past and will exist far into our future, populated by various interbreeding humanoid species (or ‘pan-humans’) and a vast array of sentient artificial intelligences known as Minds. They span the Galaxy, which they share with sundry other space-faring civilisations of varying levels of sophistication, promoting a façade of diplomatic integrity and righteousness while interfering left, right and centre in secret.

Surface Detail expands the universe of the Culture, introducing a variety of new alien civilisations and exploring in some detail the nature of their sophisticated virtual realities. Central to the novel is the idea of an artificially created Hell: the Culture, and its peers, can copy and store a living being’s mind, restoring it after the individual’s death, either to a newly grown body or a virtual afterlife. It follows that some, less salubrious civilisations will not only create heavenly versions of cyber-afterlife, but hellish ones too. Depressingly, this is probably right. Although belief in a literal Hell has diminished among the various religions of the world over recent years, it certainly persists in some fundamentalist quarters. Some people genuinely believe that the threat of eternal suffering is all that can keep our sinful species on the straight and narrow.

This is also the view of the Pavulean civilisation, who have created a particularly loathsome Dante-esque virtual hell. We follow the suffering of Prin and Chay, two Pavuleans who bravely, or foolishly, infiltrated Hell to bring back the truth of its existence, only to find escape very difficult indeed. These sequences are, in some cases, extremely distressing, Banks presenting us with some truly abominable punishments. It’s easy to forget that Prin and Chay are two trunk-bearing quadrupeds. Why Banks decided to tell the Hellish scenes from an elephant’s point of view I’m not sure; perhaps it’s easier for a reader to stomach if the victim isn’t exactly human.

On the flip side to this, Lededje Y’Breq lives a life of indentured misery, from which she is freed when she is murdered by her owner in the first chapter. Through a contrivance, she is recreated by the Culture, and naturally attempts, against their strict edict, to return to her home planet of Sichult and exact her revenge. Although likeable enough, Lededje isn’t the most interestingly developed character. Her murderer, Joiler Veppers, despite being a thoroughly obnoxious, uber-rich rapist, is a far more fascinating character to read about. Still, the most fun is to be had with Led’s illegal taxi ride home, the objectionable sentient starship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, who’s a riot from the moment his avatar arrives on the scene.

Lededje’s story is the primary thrust of the book, and her return to Sichult is the catalyst for chaotic events that reverberate through the Galaxy. The many civilisations are conducting a war over the afterlife, with pro- and anti-Hell sides warring in the virtual. These sequences struggled to hold my attention, but improved when the war entered the real (strictly against terms of treaty). It’s hard to accept the Culture not entering the fray on the side of the anti-Hell faction; diplomatically tied though they are, I’d expect them to forego sneaky underhand tactics and face-saving when presented with something so utterly against their ethical standard. Yet, the wider exploits of Cultural and Galactic life get some intriguing exploration; particularly of interest is the mysterious Unfallen Bulbitian, a gigantic life form/space station/temple/anomaly that may have links to the worlds of the dead and/or the ascended godforms, the Sublimed. It’s always pleasing to be reminded that, super-advanced though it is, the Culture is not the top of the tree in Banks’s universe.

Surface Details is far from being the greatest Culture novel, although it’s an improvement on the big return in Matter. There are flaws; certain characters feel a little sketched-in; Banks seems to lose interest in Prin and Chay in the latter stages of the book; and the ending, after six-hundred-odd pages, still seems to simply shut the book down suddenly, with only Lededje getting any closure. Yet, Banks’s science fiction is still superior to almost all its competition. Surface Detail makes me want to go back and reread Use of Weapons, Player of Games and Execession, while also giving me cause to look forward to the next Cultural work.

Sun-Earther Daniel Hedley-John Tessier of Midsussex

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