BanksRead Review: Surface Detail, by Iain M Banks

surfaceIt begins in the realm of the Real, where matter still matters.
Lededje Y’breq is one of the Intagliated, her marked body being witness to a family shame, her life belonging to a man whose lust for power is without limit. Prepared to risk everything for her freedom, her release, when it comes is at a price, and to put things right she will need the help of the Culture.

It begins in the realm of the Real.
It begins with a murder.
And it will not end until the Culture has gone to war with death itself.

After the sad announcement a week or so ago, and a great idea jointly belonging to Alan Bowden and Annabel Gaskell, I picked up Surface Detail by Iain M Banks as my first BanksRead – it’s been on my shelf for a while and I was saving it for an undetermined moment, but, all things considered, I decided that moment had arrived.
All (good) science fiction writing asks questions; the biggest question behind Surface Detail must be, “What happens when we die?” and, more specifically, “Is the concept of Hell actually moral?” Considering the circumstances of my selection of this book, these were unusually pertinent questions.

Surface Detail is a Culture novel which builds on the heritage of the previous books, reiterating previously agreed concepts – Artificial Intelligence, having your mind-state backed up so that you can be ‘revented’ in the case of unexpected death – and develops them further, by asking how an atheist, pleasure-seeking civilisation like the Culture would react to the creation of Hell-style afterlives for the mind-states of the deceased to inhabit. We also follow Lededje, brought back to life having been murdered by her ‘master’, the extremely unpleasant Mr Joiler Veppers, in a quest for revenge. These strands will, of course, overlap and intertwine in time; I’d expect nothing else. It’s when and how they will come together for some kind of resolution that keeps me hooked.

I’m always fascinated by Banks’ world-building; it’s convincing and detailed without being overwhelming, and the same can be said for the new civilisations and technologies we encounter in Surface Detail. I loved the contrast between the Sichultian Enablement, still so capitalist and obsessed with ownership, and the technologically, but also ethically, advanced Culture; at one point Veppers, ever the intergalactic wideboy, tries to buy a ‘naval’ spaceship from an ally and is unable to comprehend that they’re just not for sale. I was also really moved by the narrative strands following Prin and Chay, two Pavuleans on a mission to experience their civilisation’s Hell first hand and report back, exposing the abuse perpetrated by their government. It’s a heroic attempt with tragic consequences, inspiring admiration for their bravery and empathy with these strange, truly alien creatures, and the suffering they endure. It really does take a great degree of skill to make the reader well up reading about twin-trunks horse-like quadrupeds, but I found Prin and Chay just as ‘human’ as any of the other characters.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Culture novel without the Minds, the artificially intelligent brains of the ships which in fact should the majority of the responsibility for ‘running’ the Culture and its various enterprises. We meet these Minds through their manifestations as avatars. The most interesting Minds, to me, have always been those who, by their actions, subvert the stated values of the Culture, some subtly and some with much theatricality and occasionally some colourful swearing. The avatar of the Abominator-class picket ship Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, called Av Demeisen, is a prime example of this – witty, charismatic, dangerous but ultimately a fantastic ally. And really, if the name of that ship doesn’t convince you to read this book, I don’t know what will.

For my next BanksRead, I think I’m going to go back to the start (for me, at least) and reread The Crow Road. But this was a fantastic way to get back into Banks, and to really appreciate the dark humour, the philosophical depth and the prose skill of a brilliant writer.

Surface Detail is published by Orbit.

Kate Neilan
@magic_kitten

3 Replies to “BanksRead Review: Surface Detail, by Iain M Banks”

  1. Kate, thank you for the link and taking part in the BanksRead Forum. Lovely review above – this is one of his SF novels I haven’t read yet, but it sounds like I’ll enjoy it a lot. I confess I haven’t actually read one of his SF novels since 2008 when I re-read ‘Player of games’ for book group – I have some Banksian SF catching up to do!

  2. One of the great things about Iain Banks, apart from wit, intelligence, story-telling ability etc, is that he always does something different and unexpected. Every book you think- however did he come up with that!!! And yet he does it again and again. In this case it is as you say Kate the creation of a (very convincing) hell, and a reworking of ancient questions around that, such as can you maintain a moral and good society , or even any sort of society, by a contained (very very tiny!!) act of evil. I first came across it in an Ursula LeGuin short story, The ones who walk away from Omelas, but I believe it goes right back to Plato. Iain isn’t as subtle as Ursula, but he writes with a savage relish! I miss him already and trust he finds the heaven he doesn’t believe in.
    Christopher

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