Space Opera Sunday: Surface Detail

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Book cover: Surface Detail - Iain M Banks (a dark skinned woman with patterned skin and even eyes stares over a flaring sun)There are rules governing how high tech civilisations engage with the up and coming. But there’s no stopping well-meaning meddling in a future where death need only be temporary. Now a girl who should never have been reincarnated will try to kill the most important man in her world; and a dead general must decide whether to bring a virtual War on Hell into the Real…

Bear with me: this is a big one (for those without the patience, TL;DR).

Surface Detail has more dramatis personae than most of the Culture novels, weaving a pattern as complex – and as interconnected – as the tattoos that decorate its Intagliated protagonist. It takes on privilege, religion, free will and the meaning of death; introduces new aspects of the Culture; further explores the cascades of influence governing interactions with low-tech civilisations; and, as usual, throws in a few spicy hints of greater mysteries Beyond.

It’s an awful lot of scope, but Banks was never afraid of taking on lots of things at once. It could easily result in a big steaming mess of ideas garnished awkwardly with a kitchen sink, but I think – in the end – that Surface Detail pulls it all together. It doesn’t always look like it’s going to: my biggest problem (no surprises here, it’s practically a Banksian trademark) is the pacing. With so much going on, the first half feels bloated and laboured. It’s not obvious until the penultimate act if the disparate storylines will converge, let alone how.

So I spent a little time struggling to engage, in part because after Look to Windward I – perhaps unfairly – stopped believing that subplots will end up being particularly relevant. Culture novels have never been short and I’m not so interested in padding; I have plenty of my own to be going on with. So I hesitated to fall in love… and this was tricky, because there’s a lot to like here. We meet Lededje Y’breq on the run, trying – not for the first time – to escape Joiler Veppers, a man it’s easy to hate.

It kicks off with a great opening line and what is effectively a pre-credits sequence. Lededje is hiding in the rafters of an opera house; Veppers and his security team are trying to flush her out. It’s obvious this will end badly – if she can’t elude them, her choices are pain or death. Her determination won me over from the start; her choices drive the rest of the book. And yes, it ends badly for her.

Gripping or not, where The Lord of the Rings has too many endings, you could argue that Surface Detail has too many pre-credit sequences: 3 more, in fact. Perhaps inevitably in a book at least partly about death, they’re all pretty bleak beginnings too – gruelling scenes in which we meet characters – spoilers from here on out folks – only to see them die or be abandoned to horror.

Needless to say, none of them are actually dead. Lededje is promptly reincarnated – much to her own surprise as she doesn’t even know that’s a thing – and the rest are in virtual environments where death is meaningless, in some cases horrifically: think Edge of Tomorrow, only bleaker.

The first half of the book painstakingly spins out the rest of the context to lay out its themes. Lededje is Sichultian, from a society only just establishing itself within its own solar system (mentored by a civilisation that is mentored by a civilisation that is Level-equivalent to the Culture; like Matter, the cascades of influence and rules on what tech you can trade for are vital here. Crucially, we’re well outside the Culture’s sphere of direct influence).

Her murderer, Veppers, is the richest man on Sichult – a self-absorbed playboy who betrayed her father for profit (why merely protect your own interests, when you could also reap the benefits of your best friend’s downfall); and on Sichult, the law states that your heirs – to an agreed number of generations – are handed over as assets to offset the dishonour of being unable to meet your commercial obligations.

In case ‘only’ parsed this as ‘your family get sold as slaves if you go bankrupt’, Banks spells it out: when Lededje’s father kills himself rather than watch his wife become Veppers’s newly-tattooed property, his sperm is recovered and his unconscious wife is artificially inseminated to ensure his commitments are met. Lededje is also contractually bound to have children to fulfil the deal. If there’s one thing I’m weary of in the Culture novels, it’s this: the shorthand of rape (hell yes this is rape) and misogyny to show that a society is immature and barbaric.

I know Banks meant well. The whole point is that an enlightened, sensible society wouldn’t pull this shit and the Culture will be endlessly disapproving of (and meddle with) societies that do. But the consequence is that – given how many books are told from a non-Culture POV – we spend a lot of time in the heads of those who are suffering from – or worse, revelling in – terrible acts against women (even Jaskens, a relatively likeable henchman, indulges in a fantasy that a female associate is only employed for her looks and is waiting for her to fuck up. It’s like somebody challenged Banks to educate his fanboys on #everydaysexism).

Okay, gripe over. Thankfully, the worst happens off page, in the past. Lededje is not haunted by the fact she only exists to pay a debt; she’s driven by the need to escape Veppers’s grasping ownership and the desire to stab him in the face. As we get to see parts of the narrative from his vile POV (ARGH), it’s impossible not to cheer her on. I’d be tempted to call him an over-the-top, almost unbelievable caricature of a wealthy bully, but I’ve watched the news recently.

While the novel doesn’t dwell on the horror it is built on, it doesn’t sidestep it either. This is all about storing up moral debt. The question is whether the Culture will allow Lededje to collect – or whether even the Culture can be bought off.

Because Lededje’s rescuing GSV tells her they can’t possibly help her kill Veppers – or permit her to do so – because of his pivotal importance in their home system. Even in the Culture, power and privilege apparently buy immunity (much to Lededje’s disgust); however much they disapprove of him, the Culture can’t allow her to disrupt the Sichultian Enablement just because Veppers is a bastard.

It’s enough to make even this cynical reader’s blood boil. If I hadn’t already been so, it ensured I was firmly invested in Lededje’s search for an ally who would help her sidestep the goody-two-shoes GSV’s plan for her (meanwhile, Quietus – the Contact section that deals with the dead – deploys an agent to try and head Lededje off; and the right question to ask is why it’s Quietus that does so: their excuse is that Lededje has just returned from the dead, but… well, it’s a bit thin, isn’t it?).

The clue is in the sprawling parallel plot – the fate of death itself. The higher civilisations, like the Culture, have long mastered digitising personalities. The Culture backs its citizens up, freeing them to live carelessly and die repeatedly, safe in the knowledge they will be revented (downloaded into vat-grown bodies). Other civilisations have digital Afterlives, many of which include both Heavens and Hells, sentencing their unworthy dead to an eternity of torture to punish corporeal sins. The Culture disapproves, but have refrained from intervening.

Now a virtual war – or confliction, as it’s called here – is in full swing between the pro-Hell and anti-Hell societies. This is the civilised way to solve galactic disputes: an elaborate multi-player war sim, where all participants are sworn to observe the outcome. If the Hell Nos win, all Hells will be shut down. If the Hell Yeahs, everyone else will shut up.

And in spite of having strong opinions on Hell, the Culture have decided not to play, although they will abide by the result.

Or will they?

Everyone can be forgiven for not believing it for a second.

We experience the confliction through the many digital incarnations of Vateuil, from foot soldier to space marshall in a side increasingly desperate to hold its own. We are shown the stakes by Chay and Prin, space elephants (sorry, couldn’t resist) who voluntarily enter Hell to convince their people it’s a concept they should give up. For me, this is the weakest plot strand: what we largely learn is that all races share a Dante-esque vision of Hell (unlikely) and that Hell really is awful (well, duh). It delivers lots of pathos and gives Prin to debate the rather GOP Pavulean Senator, exposing (if arguably too easily – Banks never really believed in providing strong devil’s advocates for opposing ideologies) the Senator’s dubious moral position.

However, moral authority doesn’t guarantee victory, and the Hell Yeahs are winning the confliction. As Vateuil and his cohorts grow desperate, they take bigger risks – until the only option left is to ignore all the rules and assault the hardware running the Hells in the Real. In other words: cheat. The Culture would be proud. But it’s definitely nothing to do with them.

You’d be safe to assume that the various characters, plots and subplots converge in Sichultian space. The first half of the book builds slowly; over halfway through I was still lamenting the absence of a major Mind character. When one finally arrives in the shape of Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints (how apt), it’s an Abominator-Class ‘Fast Picket’ that puts the offensive into Offensive Unit (in every sense). Its avatar is foul-mouthed and deliberately provocative, single-handedly generating more than enough entertainment in the second half of the novel to make the slow first half worthwhile (perhaps I derive too much joy from an almost unlimited AI getting to indulge in its psychotic streak). At one point, almost everything it says sounds like a ship name:

  • LOU This’ll end in tears, mark my words
  • ROU I can help it, I just don’t want to
  • GCU Would you rather I lied to you

The second half of the novel barely pauses for breath as the pace gathers and the stakes get ever higher. This is arguably at the expense of character development: I struggled to find multiple dimensions to, well, anyone, but I was having enough fun by this point that I didn’t really care. Along the way, it becomes increasingly obvious that maybe – just maybe – Horza was right: in delegating everything to the Minds, the Culture has become inhumane. The GSV Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly makes it clear to Lededje that while humanity get a say on policy, it’s a small one. They’re just not clever enough for their views to really count. The Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints goes one further: killing drones and humans is regrettable; attacking a ship is an unambiguous act of war. Poor Lededje; no wonder she struggles to find any sympathy from the Minds.

The final act zeroes straight back in on that early question of privilege and morality as it becomes clear just who owns the hardware running the Hells (I’ll give you one guess), who is pulling which strings, and what side everyone is really on. Like most Culture novels, I expected sleight of hand; if anything, I was charmed – if surprised – to discover that almost all the characters here were exactly what I was told they were (I remain deeply amused by the GFCF).

The one major exception is the reason I burst into tears at the end and have been struggling with a wealth of feelings ever since. Given this isn’t just a final act spoiler – it’s literally a final line twist – I’m not going to discuss it or its implications. Suffice to say, I think the last line changes everything – and on the strength of that one line alone, it’s worth re-reading the book (although to be fair, I’ve enjoyed it enough that I will certainly do that anyway). Maybe by the time I get to the third or tenth revisit I’ll be able to grapple with Vateuil without bursting into tears. Well done, Mr Banks, you finally made me cry.

Overall, I’d say Surface Detail is a glittering return to form. It’s not without faults: it’s flabby; the characters are flat; while it’s largely driven by female characters (HOORAY), Lededje and Yime spend significant amounts of time being rescued and impressed by the effortless competence of male-presenting avatars; and as usual, Banks is entirely one-sided in presenting his arguments. But in the end – and even before that killer last line – it was a satisfying emotional rollercoaster. Not least of all because – in the end, in spite of unlimited reincarnation – death has meaning after all.