Elf M.'s Reviews > Surface Detail

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
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Surface Detail is Iain M. Banks latest Culture novel, and... that's about it.

No, really. If you've read a Culture novel, you know what you're in for: a series of novelletish vignettes featuring a vast cast of characters, from all different types, two of which (the corporate sociopath and the political sociopath) will crop up, be lectured to by some nominal "good" protagonist, and eventually fall from grace and probably be killed in some gruesome manner.

If Banks applies himself at all in Surface Detail, it is in his depictions of Hell. Literal Hell in this case. The plot of Surface Detail surrounds those civilizations, similar in technological level to The Culture, that continue to maintain Hells: places where uploaded, digital consciouness are tortured for as long as a given civilization's Powers That Be deem they be tortured. They believe that the existence of Hell, and the threat of it, are necessary to maintain peace and order in their civ/species/polity. The Culture, and other like-minded civs, are convinced that the pro-Hell forces are barbarians, and that the galaxy would be better off without Hell.

The story goes off like a Banks novel, with the usual clockwork-with-some-pieces-missing plotting that is Banks's hallmark. There's a slave girl with a tattoo who somehow ends up halfway across the galaxy and tattoo-less; she fucks her way back to her homeworld for a chance to kill her former master. There's a Culture specialist in dealing with the dead (more on that in a paragraph) who gets caught up in trying to track someone down and help them deal with their death. There's an alien species lifted out of Well World that has Hells, and two politically motivated researchers who break into Hell in order to return and report about it. There are some Culture operatives working to tamp down an outbreak of violently hegemonizing smartmatter, that turns out to be something military involved with something about the political battle over Hells. And there's the secret agent involved in a long-running, publicly visible gladiatorial match between the pro- and anti-Hell forces, having their own referee'd war in the bizarre belief that the side with the strongest moral strength ought to win: the pro-Hells want the anti-Hells to stop lecturing them, and the anti-Hells want the pro-Hells to shut it all down.

Banks' weakness here is that he remains ideologically wed to a personally idiosyncratic vision of humanity. People of The Culture live 400 years, and then cheerfully knock themselves off. Those who don't are considered narcissistic and self-obsessed, since they won't make room for the next generation. When they die, they may choose to spend eternity in a digital retirement zone, indistinguishable from the real universe. There's an entire division of Contact devoted to dealing with these people, called Quietus. The distinction between "I'm a digital person now. I got killed, but as I haven't lived out my 400 years, it is entirely appropriate for me to have a new body made and be reinstantiated in it, but while I'm waiting for it to grow I'll hang out in this paradisical setting," and "I'm a dead person, living out a digital afterlife in a paradisical setting," is bizarrely rigid and universal in his galaxy. It's as if Banks's people have the technology to tune, affect, influence, adapt, modify, and duplicate themselves, but only within narrow notions of Banks's own expectations of mortality.

The other problem is also classic Banks: the two most interesting characters are shuffled around on the stage but Banks doesn't really know what to do with them, once he's done with them. Prin and Chay, the characters from Well World, the ones who break into Hell, have the best story in the book. Chay, especially, but it peters out into the end after Banks has done an especially masterful job of speeding Chay through harrowing Hell after harrowing Hell. Prin, on the other hand, is Banks' mouthpiece: he delivers Banks's lecture to the audience about the Evils of Believing Threat of Pain Is Necessary To Maintaining Social Order. There's supposed to be a big confrontation after this speech is given. Banks never lets us see it. Prin had done his job, and is shuffled off-screen.

Surface Detail is a better book than Matter or Transition, Banks's last Culture and non-Culture SF. (His non-Culture, non-SF The Steep Approach to Garbadale, I haven't read.) It has the vast stage, the wonderous setting, but the sensawunda and shock-and-awe of The Wasp Factory or Use of Weapons is long since gone.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
July 17, 2011 – Finished Reading
October 30, 2011 – Shelved

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Bryan Fairly spot on review, jibes with my thoughts nicely. However, one thing, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I'd hardly say Lededje Y'breq "fucks her way back" to anywhere. If I recall, she engages in one dalliance that literally has nothing to do with her journey back to her homeworld. Instead, it was simply a diversion, need to be satiated. Aside from Veppers, there was actually surprisingly little sex in the novel, slightly out of character for Banks.

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