Monday, October 25, 2010

"Surface Detail" by Iain M Banks (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Iain Banks Website
Iain Banks at Wikipedia
Order "Surface Detail" HERE
Read FBC Review of 'Transition"

INTRODUCTION: Iain M. Banks' early Culture books, "Use of Weapons", "Consider Phlebas" and "The Player of Games" as well as the standalone "Against a Dark Background" are among my top sff books of all time, with "Use of Weapons" (which I hope to review by year-end) still at #1 after 18 years since my first read and many re-reads in the meantime.

Last year's Transition was my number 1 sff novel of the year and this year Surface Detail will be most likely #1 sff of the year. Actually as structure goes, Transition was a pretty complex novel that required at least one reread for full appreciation, while Surface Detail is straightforward, though of course rereading it brings a fuller appreciation.

Surface Detail is also a Culture novel, the best since the early three and the first in which the global vision of the Culture as part of a well developed galactic community that started in Excession and Look to Windward, while being explicitly articulated in Matter, pays off big time.

I have seen before this attempt to proceed from relatively local adventure novels like the first three Culture books, to having a fully developed coherent "big picture" framework as in Matter and Surface Detail and it is not easy, but when it succeeds, it does big-time.

Because beyond being a very entertaining novel, Surface Detail is much more, an articulated vision of an Universe that while purely materialistic as far as its inhabitants know, allows the major goodies associated with traditional religion: souls, afterlife, though of course logically it has some of its drawbacks like Hell(s). All of course was implied from the first Culture novel (Consider Phlebas), but here and in Matter the edifice hinted before is explicitly built.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: Surface Detail stands at about 630 pages divided into twenty nine chapters, the usual IM Banks "what happened later with the characters" coda and a tongue-in-cheek epilogue that was hinted already in chapter two; I considered the possibility slightly far-fetched at the time, though there was a general "you know, it actually could be" feeling there. About what, well read the book to find out...

Surface Detail has several threads with all kinds of POV's: humans in the extended Culture sense like Ledejde - the "ingenue" decided on justice at all costs, even if it's inconvenient for the great and the good like the mighty Culture itself, Vateuil, "the ultimate warrior", Veppers, "the businessman from hell" - not quite literally, but close and Yime, "the Culture agent", non-human quadrepds "Pavuleans" Prin and Chay who take a literal journey in (the Pavulean) Hell and the "elfin" Legislator-Admiral Bettlescroy-Bisspe-Blispin III and of course the Culture Ships/Minds of which the The Abominator-class picket ship Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints and its bad boy avatar Demeisen take over the novel alongside Veppers.

Surface Detail is readable perfectly well on its own though a familiarity with the rest of the Culture novels only adds to its enjoyment.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The main idea of Surface Detail can be summarized simply: the laws of the Universe allow mind-states aka "materialistic souls" and any sufficiently advanced civilization can build a virtual afterlife since physical immortality in the Real is still undesirable due to issues like finiteness of space and resources. Some of course build Heavens, but some build Hells too...

Of course many of the most advanced (stage 7 and 8) civilizations object to the existence of Hells and the Culture is the most powerful of such, but unfortunately some events recounted in "Look to Windward" made it recuse itself from the debate for a while now. When the Pro-Hell and Anti-Hell forces decide to fight a virtual war - "The War in Heaven for the fate of the Hells" - to decide the issue for ever, the Culture (officially) stands on the sideline which gives an unexpected edge to the Pro-Hell side. And of course like all virtual contests, the result needs to be accepted by both parties since after all there is the Real where the war may otherwise spill with potentially catastrophic consequences.

While not directly involved with the war - except for Vateuil whose career as AntiHell grunt-to-marshal is recounted in his thread - all the characters above will nonetheless play an important role in its context and resolution.

I will let the three characters that dominate the novel speak for themselves:


“All those years, all those times I tried to run away, the one thing nobody ever asked me was where I might be running to.” She smiled a small, thin smile at the avatar, who looked surprised now. “If they had asked,” Lededje told her, “I might even have told them: I was running away to the Culture, because I’d heard they’d escaped the tyranny of money and individual power, and that all people were equal here, men and women alike, with no riches or poverty to put one person above or beneath another.” “But now you’re here?” Sensia offered, sounding sad. “But now I’m here I find Joiler Veppers is still deferred to because he is a rich and powerful man.”

Veppers (full quote here):

There was nothing worse, Veppers thought, than a loser who’d made it. It was just part of the way things worked – part of the complexity of life, he supposed – that sometimes somebody who absolutely deserved nothing more than to be one of the down-trodden, the oppressed, the dregs of society, lucked out into a position of wealth, power and admiration. ..... Still, at least individual losers were quite obviously statistical freaks. You could allow for that, you could tolerate that, albeit with gritted teeth. What he would not have believed was that you could find an entire society – an entire civilization– of losers who’d made it. And the Culture was exactly that.


“What, this?” he said, looking down at the ash-dark burn on his skin as Lededje stared at it, openly aghast. “Don’t worry; I don’t feel a thing.” He laughed. “The idiot inside here does though.” He tapped the side of his head, smiled again. “Poor fool won some sort of competition to replace a ship’s avatar for a hundred days or a year or something similar. No control over either body or ship whatsoever, obviously, but the full experience in other respects – sensations, for example. I’m told he practically came in his pants when he learned an up-to-date warship had volunteered to accept his offer of body host.” The smile became broader, more of a grin. “Obviously not the most zealous student of ship psychology, then. So,” Demeisen said, holding up his hand with the splinted finger and studying it, “I torment the poor fool.”

This is not say that the rest of the cast, especially Vateuil, Yime, Prin and Chay do not have important complementary roles but for me those three elevated the novel beyond all recent Culture novels which lacked precisely that: powerful, larger than life characters and here we have Veppers and Demeisen, while Ledejde is the most sympathetic Banksian character in a while for her quiet determination.

I talked about world building and sense of wonder in the introduction, while the coming together of the various threads is handled very well but I would like to add that there are so many great touches that I could fill two pages talking about them and those give Surface Detail a very rich texture. The novel has a lot of humor and I found myself laughing out loud at quite a few scenes, with the quotes above just a small sample.

If there is one negative is that the whole is somewhat less than the sum of the parts in the sense that each thread is very engrossing and with lots of specific goodies - the Pavulean Hell, the virtual War, the Unfallen Bulbitian and the Tsungarial Disk have each their goodies so to speak, in addition to the awesome stuff in the threads following Veppers, Ledejde and Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints/Demeisen - but the main story is quite straightforward. So in a sense you could look at Surface Detail as a core-story with beautiful ornate wrappings which one enjoys more in themselves than as part of a larger tapestry.

But that does not matter since Surface Detail (A++) is as good as speculative fiction on a large scale and about "big issues" gets from all points of view: great writing, powerful characters, coherent and detailed world building and just sheer sense of wonder and inventiveness. If you want to experience the best that sf has to offer these days and understand why written sf is still such a vital part of the "landscape of imagination", Surface Detail is the one 2010 novel for you. And the book has the added bonus that you can start exploring IM Banks' wonderful Culture universe just by reading it, even if you have not read previous Culture novels.

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