Saturday, February 2, 2019

"Surface Detail" by Iain M. Banks

I'm slowly but surely working my way through all the Culture books, using a time-honored "when I stumble across them in a shop" technique.

This was a bit more work to get through, for me, than many of Banks' other works. Sentence-by-sentence, still lots of fun—the more attentively I read Banks, the more wordplay and cleverness jumps out at me—and the big ideas are good. However, the multiplicity of plots and view-points is a little overwhelming; what initially seems like three storylines proliferates and multiplies, with each point-of-view getting only fairly short textual chunks at a time. The result is a kind of attenuated feeling; there's so much not immediately obvious in each storyline (standard for Banks) that I just got a kind of collage of events, with things not really lining up until the last fifth of the book or so, when Veppers' real motivations become clear.

To real it back for a second to synopsis, Surface Detail is a Culture story: broad galactic space opera. The Culture itself is a multi-species civilization run primarily by Minds, highly advanced and typically ship-born AI. As it's basically a post-scarcity, hedonistic, space socialist utopia, tension in the Culture comes from its interactions with other civilizations—lower-tech groups that it sometimes attempts benevolent interference with, equivalent-tech groups that are potential threats, and "Elder" or "Sublimed" species that typically don't participate in galactic life, but may have powers far in excess of the Culture if they decide to do so.

Surface Detail has two main plotlines. One focuses on the Sichultians, a non-Culture humanoid race. Veppers, a massively wealthy playboy, murders his slave Lededje when she tries to escape. Unknown to either of them, Lededje was implanted with a "neural lace" during an earlier encounter with an eccentric Culture entity, which device backs up her mind and transmits it to a Culture ship, where she is "revented" into a physical body and sets about trying to get back to Sichult for revenge.

In the second, much more tangled plotline, we learn about "the War in Heaven". Many/most advanced civilizations run virtual afterlives where uploaded consciousnesses can continue after physical death; some non-Culture civs have created virtual Hells for a variety of reasons. After many groups (including the Culture) have been campaigning against these, both sides agree to hold the conflict in a purely virtual form and hold to the conclusion, so that it doesn't spill out into the Real. We meet many players in this plotline, including academics from the Pavul race who infiltrate their Hell and attempt to expose it, a high-ranking military commando from the War in  Heaven, and eventually a number of players who are seeking to affect the outcome of the War by means of Real-world action (physically destroying the computers that run the Hells, for instance).

Sichult winds up being intimately connected to the War in Heaven for a few reasons, which brings Lededje and Veppers' plots into line with the larger space opera.

Two hardest parts of this book for me: first, because of how short many of the sections are, there were whole swaths of the plot I found hard to keep straight or care about. Lededje & Veppers worked, but the rest is a bit of a blur. Secondly—and many might consider this a feature rather than a bug of Banks' writing—it's just discomfiting. The first three chapters consist of gruesome murder & rape, tragicomic but still brutally violent military death, and a horrifyingly visceral introduction to the Pavulean Hell. As in much of Banks, the backdrop is that the Culture is Genuinely Good, a more fleshed-out and open-minded version of Star Trek Federation Good, but the actual text of the novel revolves almost pruriently around barbaric sadism.

The Minds-as-characters are where Banks really shines—their intelligence and abilities allow Banks to write them as both believable utopia-shepherds and occasionally-slightly-psychopathic smartasses—and we don't get a ton of them directly here. Lededje feels like the putative protagonist, but while her backstory is developed, I don't feel like Banks infuses her with much character. By contrast, Veppers, who is a moral monster, is actually given the screen-time and agency to develop.

Also, I have to bring up a possibly-purely-personal complaint I always have with Banks, which is that my brain just refuses to remember his character names. With the exception of the Minds, which have funny phrase-names (two main players here are the Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly and the Me, I'm Counting) the entirety of Banks' characters have names that feel like they were created by some kind of random syllable generator. No more or less true than many SF/F works, but the sheer volume of his characters makes it particularly hard to keep up with.

The twist towards the end here is sort of slowly, messily revealed. It's terribly clever, and the kind of realpolitik that Banks revels in—when might a deeply good civilization have to temporarily put aside morals for those self-same morals' sake? It is a well-done wtf-moment to realize that everyone you've been following for the whole novel, villains and good guys alike, are basically on the same side. The ship that winds up helping Lededje, and almost single-handedly resolving the Real, physical battle at the novel's conclusion, is an "Abominator-class", masquerading as a "Torturer-class", and calls itself the Falling Outside Normal Moral Restraints. Banks' entire project in a single character name.

Overall: enjoyable, would definitely not suggest as an entry point to the Culture series.

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