Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum

Surface Detail cover

Life's a bitch, and then you die. If you'll forgive a moment of glibness, one of the many differences between the mimetic and fantastic genres is that while the former might explore the implications of this axiom, the latter finds ways to circumvent it. As the M in the middle of Iain Banks's name on the front cover indicates, Surface Detail is a science fiction novel, and though it deals with death as one of its main themes, that death is negotiated with, ameliorated, or just plain temporary.

Banks wastes no time establishing this theme and, at the same time, wrongfooting his readers—in each of the novel's first four chapters, he introduces a main character, then kills them off. In order, then: Lededje Y'breq is murdered by Joiler Veppers, the richest and most influential person in their society and the man to whom she has been indentured since birth in order to pay a debt incurred by her father. Vatueil, a lowly soldier in a garrison besieging a seemingly impregnable castle, volunteers to join a force exploring a potential way in; though he demonstrates initiative and a level head, he is captured by the enemy, tortured, and gruesomely executed. Yime Nsokyi is killed during a devastating attack on her home orbital. Lovers Prin and Chay are already in the afterlife, suffering the torments of hell.

Now the trick: several years ago, a ship from the Culture, the utopian, post-scarcity society about which Banks has been writing for nearly a quarter-century, gifted an unwitting Lededje with a neural lace, a mechanism that captured her personality and memories and, at the moment of her death, transmitted them to the nearest Culture ship. Placed in a new body, Lededje decides to return home to take her revenge on Veppers. Yime's death is simulated, a drill she's participating in as part of her duties in the orbital's civilian militia. Her day job is as a member of Quietus, a division of the Culture's Contact wing devoted to dealing with the dead—who, given capabilities like the one that saved Lededje, vastly outnumber the living and are nowhere near quiet—and she is tasked with waylaying Lededje before she causes a major diplomatic incident. Prin and Chay, meanwhile, aren't dead at all. They've hacked into hell, or rather into a virtual environment meant to simulate it, in order to bring back testimony that might convince the other members of their species of the barbarity of the custom of consigning the recorded personalities of those deemed undeserving to such torment. Nor is the question of whether to maintain virtual hells unique to their society—Vatueil's war is being fought over this issue, but it is itself a virtual war, and following his death his mind-state is retrieved and sent to another part of the battle.

No sooner does he establish these plot strands than Banks sets about distracting his characters—and us—from their obvious trajectories, digressing into gosh-wow SFnal invention and the exploration of his latest addition to the universe of the Culture books, the digital afterlife. Yime spends the book chasing false leads, landing herself in trouble, and frequently in need of rescue. Vatueil bounces from one virtual battle scenario to another, but as he rises through the ranks of the anti-hell side it becomes clear that these battles are irrelevant. Having realized that they are losing the virtual war, or "confliction" as it's called here, Vatueil and his colleagues first try to hack it, then decide to bring it into reality by conspiring with several anti-hell, or simply opportunistic, races to destroy the computer "substrates" on which the hells are running, and in so doing relegate themselves to the role of bit characters in their own war. Even Lededje, whose quest begins quite promisingly as she takes up with the disreputable Culture ship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints and its avatar Demeisen, who are affiliated with the Culture's espionage and black ops division Special Circumstances, spends most of the second half of the novel as a captive audience. As Demeisen becomes involved with the Culture's attempt to staunch the confliction's spillover into reality, he narrates the space battles he participates in to Lededje, the better to explain those battles to the readers.

None of this is badly done, and as we’ve come to expect many of Banks's distractions and digressions are more engaging than other writers' purposeful plotting. Interludes such as Yime's visit to an Unfallen Bulbitian, a half-mad, sentient space station left behind by a species destroyed in a long-ago war, or a raid led by Vatueil in which he and his soldiers are micron-thick clumps of molecules squeezing between the crevices of fathoms-deep blocks of ice, are the sort of gonzo feats of imagination that Banks has become famous for, and are, if nothing else, enormously entertaining. A different sort of SFnal wonder can be found in Lededje and Demeisen's relationship, which is constructed in such a way as to constantly suggest a romance—she's the sheltered, haughty girl; he's the rogue with a hidden heart of gold—only for Banks to remind us, again and again, that we're in another genre entirely, and that Demeisen is a machine too different from Lededje to ever consider her as a romantic partner. Prin and Chay's plot strand, meanwhile, is entirely disconnected from events elsewhere—their society doesn't even seem to be aware of the Culture and isn't participating in the confliction over the hells—but it's the most affecting part of the novel. It gives Banks the chance to stretch his already quite developed descriptive muscles and indulge in his fondness for the grotesque (in their first introduction, Prin and Chay are near a mill whose wheel "turned on bearings made of cartilage laced with the nerves of yet more of the condemned whose bodies had been woven into the fabric of the building, each creaking, groaning revolution of the wheel producing seemingly unbearable agony" (p. 46)), but it's also an exploration of the intersection of personal feelings, suffering, politics, and staggering cruelty. Forced to abandon Chay in hell, Prin becomes a rallying point for the anti-hell cause in his society, even as pro-hell politicians try to sway him by promising to release Chay, whose descent into despair slowly transforms into salvation. Driven mad by her experiences, Chay becomes convinced that reality is nothing but an illusion, and sinks deeper into surrealism as the forces governing hell try to cure her of this delusion—so she can suffer all the more by feeling hope. She spends a lifetime in a virtuality within a virtuality, then becomes an angel of mercy who can permanently kill one of the condemned every day.

Sinking into digressions, pointless but inventive interludes, and guided tours of one particularly neat bit of SFnal invention after another are all, of course, very familiar Banksian tricks, as is the fact that the larger events that Surface Detail describes—the confliction over the hells, its emergence into reality, and a conspiracy to frame the Culture for this eruption—proceed quite comfortably with only minimal input from any of the main characters. Banks did something similar with Excession (1996), whose characters were constantly on the verge of taking the plot's reins into their hands only to be distracted or sidelined, while the actual movers and shakers turned out to be a small group of Minds, the fantastically intelligent AIs who are the closest that the Culture comes to a leadership. The crucial difference between that novel and Surface Detail, however, is that while Excession might be described as a novel that exposes the Culture's inner workings (and adds another facet to the question of its benevolence by shedding a light on the Minds' manipulation of events), Surface Detail is not really about the Culture at all. The forces who actually achieve the novel's triumphant conclusion, in which real war is prevented while the hells are destroyed, are an alien race we've never heard of before. Their sudden appearance as all-knowing, all-powerful parent figures who, with rather a bit more force than the Culture would have exercised, chastise the errant children and send them off to bed without their supper feels more than a little like a deus ex machina.

Previous Culture novels, despite varying styles, structures, and settings, boiled down to very similar preoccupations. Even Matter (2008), which was set outside of the Culture and in which it played only a minor role, boiled down to the familiar template of the Culture interfering, through the offices of Special Circumstances, in the development of a less advanced civilization in the hopes of steering it towards greater freedom and equality. In Surface Detail, the Culture, despite loudly supporting the anti-hell side in the confliction, is a neutral party, and Special Circumstances are replaced by the less flamboyant and, ultimately, less interesting Quietus. The central questions of most Culture novels—is the Culture right to interfere in the affairs of other civilizations, or is it an imperialist force? How can justice be achieved through a long view that often sacrifices millions in order to save billions? Is the Culture's just, free way of life something to aspire to, or has it made its citizens hedonistic and weak?—are absent here, or at most only faintly acknowledged. What replaces them is less engaging, and less thoroughly thought out, than one tends to expect from Banks.

The dilemma inherent in the question of the hells is less thorny than the previous novels' corresponding question of the Culture's right to interfere, and Banks works hard to flatten it even further. The hells are treated as axiomatically evil, realms of pure torment and sadism that violate any code of morality. This begs the question of why any civilized society—which most of the pro-hell societies in Surface Detail appear to be—would choose to consign its citizens to the hells, but this is a question that Banks, for the most part, avoids. He does not, for example, address the issue of who ends up in the virtual hells, for what crimes, and whether those crimes might be reason enough to subject them to sadistic punishment. The only denizens of hell we meet are the blameless, worthy Prin and Chay and the pitiable sufferers they encounter. This is a strange choice in a novel that is otherwise so concerned with retribution, and with its absence. A sizable portion of Surface Detail is dedicated to cataloguing, in risible detail, the many crimes and cruelties committed by Veppers, who somehow goes beyond mustache-twirling into a whole new realm of villainy, and to stressing that there is no chance that he will ever be brought to justice. As Lededje explains to the Culture ship that tries to dissuade her from taking revenge on Veppers, "He is a very charming, very powerful but completely evil man. He is utterly selfish and self-centered, and due to his position he can and does get away with anything—anything at all" (p. 157). Somehow, Surface Detail fails to make the obvious connection between these two points—that for some people, there is a cold comfort to be drawn from the thought that people like Veppers will receive, after their deaths, the punishment they eluded in life. Rather than addressing and unpacking this possible application of the hells, Banks continues to decry them as nothing more than exercises in sadism, even as his treatment of vengeance and retribution in the real world grows more and more muddled.

Some reviewers, such as Clare Wilson in The New Scientist and Doug Johnstone in The Independent, have taken Surface Detail as a comment—a rather negative one—on religion, but this strikes me as a reductive reading, if for no other reason than that it perpetuates the all too common fallacy that "religion" and "Christianity" may be used interchangeably, and ignores the existence of religions in which the concepts of hell and the afterlife either don't exist or are significantly less central than they are in Christianity. It's true that, either deliberately or in a bit of synchronicity, Surface Detail's publication has coincided with the American evangelical community's launch into a debate over the doctrine of hell (for an instructive, thoughtful recap from the anti-hell perspective, see Fred Clarke's blog posts on the subject), in which the proponents of hell have offered arguments very similar to those raised by a pro-hell politician from Prin's society, who argues that "We need the threat of punishment in the afterlife to keep us from behaving like mere beasts in this existence" (p. 258). But it seems to me that as soon as hell ceases to be a metaphysical concept and becomes a social policy, its existence says more about the nature of civil society than it does about religion.

Of course, the point at which metaphysics becomes social policy, at which technology makes the society of our dreams, or nightmares, possible is where the Culture lives. Life's a bitch, and then you die, and if you'll forgive another moment of glibness, the whole edifice of the Culture—its egalitarian policies and byzantine political maneuvering, its well-intentioned wars and atrocities—can be summed up as a reaction to this simple axiom, and to the unstated corollary that there is nothing after death, so you might want to make life a little kinder. Surface Detail suggests another type of reaction—instead of trying to make life less cruel and unfair, make sure that there's a place after it where you can settle accounts. Rather than pitting these two approaches against each other Banks opts for what ultimately seems like a hair-splitting distinction between vengeance and sadistic vengeance. Surface Detail is, as I said at the beginning of this review, a novel suffused with death, and even as he brings his characters back to life again and again, Banks makes us feel the reality and awfulness of that death. If there's a purpose to the human characters' existence despite their inability to affect the novel's events, it is this—Lededje's rage at her own murder even though she has survived it; Vatueil's determination to survive despite knowing that he is in a simulation; Auppi Unstril, a character from late in the novel who becomes one of the first casualties of the confliction's eruption into reality, who muses, as she lies dying, that though her personality has been backed up, "So what? That wouldn't be her. She was here, dying. The self-realization, the consciousness, that didn't transfer; no soul to transmigrate. Just behavior, as patterned" (p. 518). And though he will not even suggest that there might be a good reason to send someone to hell, Banks is certainly willing to consider that dealing out this kind of death is a good enough reason to be killed in turn.

Many of the characters that Surface Detail signposts as "good" draw a distinction between punishing someone by hurting them, which is not OK, and punishing them by killing them, which is. Near the end of the novel Lededje notes that she wants Veppers dead but isn't set on being the one who kills him, and Auppi, thinking about the people who attacked her, muses that "She hoped whoever had done this got seriously fucked up . . . let the fuckers die horribly. Well, let them die. She'd compromise that far. Evil wins when it makes you behave like it, and all that" (p. 518). Banks is so invested in decrying sadism that he forgets to consider that there are consequences to any sort of revenge, to the person who carries it out and to the society that tolerates them. Which is a shame, because it's precisely in this question that Surface Detail might have made the Culture, yet again, its focus, by pointing out that the reason Lededje is moved to vengeance is that the Culture will not help her seek justice. When she discovers that the Culture will not take action on her behalf, in part because of Veppers's importance in her society, Lededje is shocked that "his position, his money protects him even here?" (p. 158), and at the end of the novel it seems that Veppers's power, and the Culture's infamous calculus of the greater good, will combine to deprive her of any chance of justice. After seven novels in which it has been decried for its high-handed interference in the affairs of other species, Surface Detail might have been the book in which the Culture is decried for standing aside—from the confliction over the hells and from Lededje’s quest. Instead both are resolved happily and somewhat bloodily, without the Culture's official interference, and solely through the actions of a few individuals who never reflect back on their societies. There is no consequence, not even the faint sense of disapproval that permeates other Culture novels, to either the official choice to stand aside or the unofficial choice to intervene. That a Culture novel is flabby, digressive, and mired in surplus bits of SFnal invention and philosophical musings is only to be expected, and sometimes part of the fun. That it does all these things in the service of such a mealy-mouthed message is profoundly disappointing. It's admirable that Banks is trying to find new things to say about the Culture and new ways to expand the series's universe, but judging by Surface Detail, he hasn't yet figured out how to do so successfully.


Abigail Nussbaum (anusbaum@netvision.net.il) is the Strange Horizons reviews editor. Her work has also appeared in The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Vector, and the Israeli SFF quarterly The Tenth Dimension. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.