Surface Details, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 2010)

Grade: Γ – Good book within the genre.  Solid story, good characters, if you like this genre, read this book.

In brief:

Though Surface Details is not the best of his novels, it’s a very good read and a ripping yarn  told in a post modern manner.  In brief, it is a multi-perspective piece examining events surrounding a virtual war taking place in a virtual Hell.  Central to this is the saga of Lededje Y’breq, a woman tattooed on a genetic level to display her status as an indentured servant, who seeks revenge against her previous owner and murderer.  It has good action, good characters and though it never raises to the quality of his best works, Surface Details remains an enjoyable read throughout.  If you like Science Fiction, you should consider picking up this book.  If you like Iain M. Banks, you should definitely pick up this book (though to tell you why would be a spoiler).


The Culture Universe, a world of ultratech.  

In Depth:

While I failed to fall in love with this novel the way I have done with some of Banks’ other works, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Like all of his books, it gives brilliant descriptions that illustrate his wonderful imagination.  It is also populated with fascinating characters of human, pan-human, alien, artificial and mixed origin.  Their stories intertwine in a classic post-modern narrative that pulls you all the way through to the final twist at the end (which will only make sense to real Culture nuts). 

Banks’ premise of virtual afterlives is not his most original concept, but he manages to put new spins on the concept, and the story that follows it is very well told.  In brief, the setup lies around a series of Virtual Hells created by some of the more advanced galactic cultures whose tech levels allow individuals’ personalities to be recorded and transferred into a computer reality.  Among those cultures, individual who die are backed up onto a computer and, if they led what is determined to be a morally incorrect life, they are sent to a computer generated eternity of torment. As one might expect, Banks’ imagination and narrative skill does a skillful job of illustrating this virtual horror. 

Across the Galaxy, however, some cultures object to such a eternity of torment being inflicted on others and subsequently a war erupts over it.  By general agreement, however, this war is to be totally conducted within a virtual environment.  The Culture, who not surprisingly opposes the Virtual Hells, remains out of the virtual war for political reasons in the Real (the non-virtual war).  

As events in the story unfold, however, the Culture is drawn slowly into the war and the real world consequences of it.  As usual, Banks’ narrative pulls us through the story and turns his philosophical ideas into a page turner.

Having said that, there are some areas where the book falls down a bit. There are multiple protagonists with ‘unusual’ names who are, at times, a bit difficult to tell apart.  Indeed, at one point, most of the numerous female protagonists are on board Culture ships (whose names are never difficult to tell apart) en route somewhere and I got a bit mixed up with which story line I was in. 

This problem is compounded by the fact that Banks frequently begins his chapters and sub-sections without giving point-of-view (POV) character’s name.  This leads to long periods where one is not quite sure which character is in play.  It reads a bit along the lines of some woman on some ship heading somewhere.  Banks is skilled enough that I am sure this is an intentional stylistic choice, but at times it interferes with the reading rather than adds to it. 

Additionally, there was a point that was almost touched upon by Banks, but never really picked up on: A powerful political proponent of the Virtual Hells tells another character that they don’t exist (something the reader knows is wrong from the outset since we’ve been there). When asked why put forward the idea that they exist if they don’t,  the proponent of Hell argues that his society needs the threat of a Virtual Hell into order to keep social order. That, if there is no threat of punishment when one dies, social behavior will deteriorate and society collapse into anarchic violence.  He then asserts that the Hells don’t exist at all, but are only there as a threat and the story continues.

The concept of the need for a possible eternal punishment is a common argument used by religious apologists for thousands of years.  What Banks introduces in this story, however, is not the threat of a possible Hell, but the threat of a definite Hell.

This raises an altogether more interesting concept: how would human (or in this case sentient) behavior change if Hell was a certainty?  What would the impact be if, when you die, a computer read through your memories, made simple yes/no choices based on the memory of your actions using a set of preprogrammed criteria, and then passed you on to heaven or hell appropriately?  Would this change behavior?  Would the world be made a better place?

I don’t know, nor do I know if creating such a judgment system would be morally correct (especially considering what would have been considered sinful even just fifty years ago, not to mention in centuries past).  It might, however, curtail certain social behavior since there would be no possibility of getting away with a crime/sin and the punishment would be horrible and eternal.   Sadly, this question is never really examined. I for one would have found raising that question more interesting than the way he proceeds. 

Of course, one can’t raise every philosophical question in a single piece of fiction, and despite its heavy hitting philosophical examinations, Surface Details remains a solid, rip roaring and fun read.  I would not recommend it as the best book to start reading Banks with, but it is a good one all the same and I happily picked it up every time I had a chance.   

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
This entry was posted in New Space Opera, Post Modern, Ripping Yarn, Science Fiction, Series, Spy Thriller, Thoughtful, Ultratech, Unique or Imaginative World and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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