Review of Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
Critics are calling it “Singularity Punk” – stories about societies so advanced, even death becomes a lifestyle choice.
Imagine being able to copy, download and store a human mind – to be able to move it around like a computer program and run it inside a simulation that is absolutely indistinguishable from reality — a society where citizens are encouraged to “back themselves up” regularly so they can be resurrected in new bodies if they die.
If you had the power to store individuals in elaborate virtual environments, what would you do with it? Some societies in Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels have decided to create virtual Heavens to reward the faithful. But does a virtual Heaven need to be balanced with a virtual Hell?
That’s the argument at the core of “Surface Detail” – the 9th Culture novel — where these myriad artificial afterlives have divided themselves into pro and anti-hell factions and gone to war. In these vast technological utopias, politics continues after death.
The factions agree to settle their differences with a virtual war, arbitrated by a race of natural referees. But when the anti-hell side starts losing they decide to cheat. First they try hacking the simulation, and when that doesn’t work, they decide to build a fleet of warships and settle the question in Real Space, destroying the hardware that Hell runs on.
The dead come “back to life” and threaten to intrude on mortal politics, while the “Level 8” societies choose up sides. The Culture is determined to stay neutral in this conflict, even if their sympathies tend to lie with the anti-hell side.
Readers will find it impossible to stay neutral as Banks brings us into a virtual Hell and chronicles the depravity in soul-numbing detail. Banks has always been fascinated by the dark side of human nature. He has such a gift for observing and describing human evil, I can only assume he created the Culture as a Utopian antidote, to soothe the nightmares in his own brain.
This flair for darkness, this balancing of perfect good with unspeakable evil is what keeps these novels from descending into Roddenberry territory. The Culture is never too sweet, never too cute, never too simplistic to be overwhelmed by the requirements of mundane reality, even if they have abolished money and turned their society over to a ruling class of benevolent AIs.
The Culture is run by its Minds – artificial intelligences so advanced they are as far above “normal” AIs as a super-computer is from a Commodore 64. The machines are remarkably human — as quirky, emotional and flawed as the humans that spawned them, even if they do have the literal power of gods.
There’s something very Greek about The Culture – a feeling of wry anticipation as machines take on the roles of Athena, Zeus and Aphrodite – alternately tormenting, toying with and rescuing mortals from their folly.
The Minds may toy with their human instruments, but you know it’s ultimately for the best – that all wounds will be healed and all indignities will be rectified, if not quite in the way you’d expect.
Banks’ vision of The Culture is becoming more complex and more organized as his stories progress. What started as a vague technological utopia is becoming more accessible and more “realistic” as Banks nails down the details.
Surface Detail introduces us to a variety of Culture factions, each specializing in a different aspect of alien society; the way branches of the military specialize in different kinds of threats. And just like in a conventional military, inter-service rivalry can be the worst enemy.
Banks rebels against his own sickly-sweet Culture stereotype by focusing the action on the avatar of an Abominator-class warship – a kind of trickster Ares who maintains a core of decency, even as he torments and murders mortals who get in his way.
The ship’s avatar revels in destruction and cruelty the way a child enjoys burning ants with a magnifying glass, but always within the Culture’s benevolent framework.
The ship really is a god in the Greek sense, cheerfully explaining things to his human champion as he fits her with tools, weapons and magical armor for the fight ahead.
That’s what surprises me most about these novels. You’d expect the Culture to be a stagnant society, but there’s a real sense of technological progress here, as the Abominator explains why he’s superior to the poor old Torturer class he’s pretending to be.
Iain Banks is famous for his dark humor, emotional complexity and light-fingered social commentary, but there’s a bit of gadget porn thrown in here too. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world of gelfield suits and intelligent tattoos?
There are plenty of sci-fi tropes in here, but the Culture books don’t read like space opera. They read like mythology, with technology filling in details that used to be described as magic. Surface Detail is an epic novel that actually seems more light-hearted and accessible than Banks’ previous efforts. This isn’t the first Culture novel you should read. (Start with The Player of Games.) But this is a fine sequel to Excession and Use of Weapons.
And yes, I’ll confess to making a little squee sound when I saw the first Mind-to-Mind email exchange in here. Banks may be stingy with the fanservice, but he gets to it eventually, if you wait long enough. He even gives us a solid ending, wrapping up the far flung plot threads in a way that doesn’t seem forced or tacked on.
If humans ever do figure out how to create a technological afterlife, I hope they will remember this book, and leave Hell on the drawing board.