Stephen's Reviews > Surface Detail

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
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it was ok
bookshelves: sci-fi, reviewed, audiobooked, scottish, longreads
Read 2 times. Last read November 22, 2016 to November 25, 2016.

With the ability to create any kind of Virtual Reality imaginable, some civilisations have created Hell. Each respective society would punish those they deemed to deserve with virtual eternal torment, but no less real to the mind experiencing it.

I found this an incredibly imaginative way of dealing with the idea of death and the afterlife without making the story supernatural. It’s almost even believable. It’s quite easy to imagine the justifications presented for creating a virtual Hell to punish people – it sounds similar to justifications for the death penalty. It’s also interesting to imagine the ways fundamentalist religious people may justify actually creating the afterlives of their religion, something that Surface Detail unfortunately doesn’t touch upon.

Of course, many other civilisations find this practice of eternal torture barbaric. The galactic community therefore decided to host a ‘confliction’ – a way of preventing conflict in the ‘Real’ world by fighting a war in virtual reality, with both sides swearing to abide by the outcome. In this case, should the anti-Hell side win, the Hells would be abolished. However, this arrangement can only work when you can be certain each side will adhere to the result. Consequently, the Culture did not take part in the confliction in order to deny the pro-Hell side the opportunity to call foul; “Of course you were always going to win with the Culture on your side!”

Unfortunately, the premise is one of the better things about an otherwise disappointing novel.

The antagonist of the story is a cartoonishly evil capitalist called Joiler Veppers, whose lack of emotional depth makes his POV chapters a real slog. The book opens with him murdering his chattel slave when she attempts to escape. The murdered slave, Lededje, is then unexpectedly reincarnated aboard a Culture ship because sci-fi stuff. She immediately decides to return to her home to kill Veppers. Lededje is an enjoyable enough character, and her journey back home with the Culture Mind Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints has to be my favourite human/ship-Mind pairing of the series so far.

Vatueil is a soldier who has fought the War over the Hells for several lifetimes, working his way through the ranks until he is now in a position to decide policy. When the anti-Hell side seems set to lose he chooses break the agreement of the confliction and cheat, first attempting to hack into the Hells and, when that doesn’t work, to bring the war into the Real.

Yime Nsokyi is a Culture agent who spends most of the book attempting to reach Lededje to stop her from killing Veppers, as killing the most powerful man in the region without carrying out the proper calculations isn’t the way of Culture interventionism.

Chay and Prin are academics belonging to an elephantine-esque herd species, and they abhor their society’s use of Hell. However, they haven’t been able to mobilise the public to fight against the virtual Hell, as their leaders deny its very existence, saying it’s simply a rumour, though a useful one for keeping general population in line. As a result, Chay and Prin decide to enter Hell, in order return with evidence of its existence and work to mass public opposition towards it.

Surface Detail uses these different strands of the story to gradually reveal a plot regarding the War over the Hells but I’m sure it needs so many. Yime Nsokyi was an mildy interesting character but she had very little to do. Veppers was disappointingly unambiguous, especially given Iain Banks refusal to include any true ‘villains’ in his previous Culture novels, instead always opting to flesh out his characters to the point where you can’t even bring yourself to call the most heinous crimes the work of an ‘evil’ person. This isn’t the case here. There’s absolutely nothing redeeming about Veppers. Lededje is…just okay.

Finally, there’s a reveal at the end of the novel which actually cast the story in a more negative light for me personally, as the reveal makes you realise that the Vatueil character had MUCH more potential.

The only story I consistently enjoyed was Chay and Prin’s. Hell has driven Chay to madness and she’s convinced there was never any life before Hell, and that the ‘Real’ was just a myth in order to keep them hoping, and thus making their torment worse. It’s therefore down to Prin to break them both out of Hell, as per the original plan to get back to the Real and expose its existence to the public. But something goes wrong and only Prin gets through, leaving Chay in the Hell alone to face even worse punishment for their escape attempt.

If you’ve read much Banks, especially books like The Wasp Factory and Use of Weapons, then you know he takes a sadistic pleasure in the obscene. He must have been in his element thinking up horrific punishments dished out in Hell. One particularly horrific element of the torture was his description of the demon’s semen burning like acid, and that it leads to the conception of some kind of parasitic monster which will agonisingly bite and claw and rips its way out of the victims they rape. This can happen to both men and women, no womb required – Hell doesn’t discriminate.

But I digress. I liked quite a few elements of Surface Detail, some of the side characters are fantastic and I adore the overall concept of what would if some societies used them to bring create virtual manifestations of afterlives. But many of the main characters are one-note and the gradually revealed conspiracy isn’t all that interesting. Overall I didn’t enjoy the book very much.

So, after reading six-out-of-ten Culture novels, the score sits at 3-3; I loved The Player of Games, Use of Weapons and Look to Windward but didn’t enjoy Consider Phlebas, Excession or Surface Detail. However, the best thing about the Culture series is you can really dislike a book (or even many books) but still find that my love for the series as a whole is more than the sum of its parts.
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Reading Progress

December 12, 2013 – Shelved
December 12, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
February 24, 2014 – Started Reading
March 20, 2014 – Shelved as: sci-fi
March 20, 2014 – Finished Reading
August 21, 2014 – Shelved as: reviewed
July 26, 2015 – Shelved as: audiobooked
March 27, 2016 – Shelved as: scottish
November 22, 2016 – Started Reading
November 25, 2016 – Finished Reading
November 27, 2016 – Shelved as: longreads

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