Fiction Reviews

Surface Detail

(2010) Iain Banks, Orbit, £18.99, hrdbk, 627 pp, ISBN 978-1-84149-893-5


It does not seem like a decade since we have had a full-blown 'Culture' novel but it is. Now do not get me wrong, I liked Matter (2008), which was also a 'Culture' novel but it was largely set in an 18th century equivalent society even if the physical location was an artificial shell world and even if there were characters from the Culture knocking about.   The 'Culture' novel before Matter was way back in 2000 and largely set on an orbital (see Look to Winward).   Of course Ian Banks has written other SF, mundane (non-SF) fiction as well as non-fiction in between, so he has been reasonably productive. But what we have with Surface Detail is a right, out-and-out 'Culture' novel complete with: mind-numbingly large spacecraft; the oh so droll minds (artificial intelligences); continental scale orbitals, a number of space battles; plus Banks' penchant for some gritty horror; black (as well as white) humour and a few fine characters in the mix of a large cast.

Before going any further it is necessary to reassure those not familiar with Banks' 'Culture' novels that knowledge of any of his other books in the sequence is not necessary: they are all stand-alone novels so new readers can jump in anywhere and this one is as good as any with which to start, in fact better in that – as indicated – this is a full-blown 'Culture' story with all the trimmings.

Again for those new to the Culture, a word of explanation is perhaps necessary.   The 'Culture' novels are set in this universe in the present day but away from Earth and without Earth characters or reference: well there was one Banks short story in which a ship did reach Earth but this is not germane to the thrust of these stories. In our Galaxy, a number of the sentient species have convergently evolved into broadly human form (much like the cephalopod and mammalian eye have evolved to a similar structure even though mammals' and octopuses' evolutionary lines diverged way back around the time of annelids (earthworms and their ilk)). One of these human-like species has developed ultra-advanced technology and society complete with giant spacecraft many kilometres long, continent-sized space habitats (orbitals) in many star systems and artificial high-intelligence minds which seem to do quite a bit of their own thing and have some sort of pastoral relationship with the society's biological citizens.   This is the Culture.   It seems to be some sort of democracy, though who is in charge is unclear even though there are what in effect are governmental agencies but without any obvious government. (Which, incidentally, does make me wonder how the Culture would deal with any coup attempt?)

Banks has referred to the Culture as 'hippies in space' as their citizens (other than those who have undertaken some voluntary work) seem to spend a lifetime largely of hedonistic leisure.   In Banks' universe there are a few other societies as advanced as the Culture, many less-advanced and the remains, dotted about the Galaxy, of other long-gone civilizations both less-developed, and even more advanced that the Culture and its few top dog peers.   Apparently, civilizations advance to a point where they decide to sublime, leaving our space-time continuum.   However, those in the Culture seem to be having too good a time to want to do anything else.   This then is the backdrop but new readers will pick it up as they go along and there is really little more to the backstory than that.

Surface Detail begins with a young woman, Lededje, trying to escape from Veppers. She is hiding high among the gantries of an opera houses stage scenery with Veppers and his bodyguard searching for her.   Lededje, it transpires, was bonded to the fabulously wealthy Veppers due to a huge business debt owed by Lededje's father.   Part of being bonded meant that Lededje had been born with intricate tattoo-like designs all over her body, in the whites of her eyes, and even on her internal organs and bones: this surface detail on her skin signalled to others her proprietary to Veppers.   They belong to an advanced society (by our present-day Earth standards) but, of course, nowhere in the league of the ultra-advanced Culture.

As with most of the Culture novels, there are separate plot strands that only later come together. Another beginning of Surface Detail features Vatueil who is a soldier besieging a castle armed with swords and pikes.

Then there is Yime who is a volunteer with a Culture orbital defence force. Her orbital seems to be under attack by an unknown force of equivalent technology to the Culture and the battle is not going well…

The final plot strand features Chay who, with her spouse, is in hell. Of course, this hell is not real, well not in the Real (reality): it is a computer simulation.   In it biological sentients have been uploaded to undergo lifetimes of suffering (there is no death for some in cyberspace unless someone in the real literally pulls the plug).   Chay and her spouse have made an electronic copy of themselves, while their real bodies lie in a coma, so that they can enter cyberspace to gather evidence that these barbaric and sadistic places actually exist so that the campaign to outlaw hells can best present its case.

It soon transpires that the political activist campaigning Chay and her spouse are undertaking is being paralleled by a mega-battles across many fronts in cyberspace by the pro and anti-hells (there are more than one) factions, with these battles being a proxy for proper war in the Real, as that would involve a loss of real lives as opposed to electronic manifestations of soldiers.   Vatueil, we soon learn, is one of these soldiers who is battling in cyberspace for the anti-hell forces and is continually being reborn into new military scenarios that range from the afore-mentioned medieval-like battles to engagements in planetary orbit using Heinlein-like (cf. Starship Trooper) battle armour amidst space stations.

The problem is that the anti-hells side is losing the war in cyberspace and so are contemplating the desperate measure of going back on their word (and interstellar treaties) to take the war into the Real.   With the pro-hells side winning, will Chay get to escape her hell? How exactly is the very wealthy Veppers mixed up in all this? Will Lededje escape Veppers or will she die before the story even gets going? And if so, exactly how does the Culture get to be involved, and what will their response be given their predilection for being (largely) above the grubby goings-on of lesser societies?   All this and more are answered in Surface Detail.

Needless to say these plot strands come together, and we begin to get a feel for what might be going on midway through the novel.   During this first half, we get the necessary background in story lines that are laced with more than a little dash of dry humour counter-balanced (as is common with Banks' SF) some gruesome black humour: the descriptions of hells do make one wonder as to whether part of Banks' mind is a little sick, but then you could make that charge against virtually every horror writer worth his or her salt.   But there are more palatable touches too.   One of the minor throw-away ones that I liked was the small fish swimming in the cocktail glass, but then my fancy tickles easily and there are plenty more to give even the most dead pan of readers at least the beginnings of a smile.   For me, though, it was the Culture's ships minds that stole the show.   Not only do we learn a little more about them, why some of them are deemed eccentric and go off for ages to the middle of nowhere in particular to do nothing anyone else can particularly discern, but we get some marvellous dialogue as the Culture ships do what they do best and run circles around heavily armed, state-of-the-art-technology military craft of lesser societies: you really do not want to get on the wrong side of a small Culture ship even if you think you can out run and out gun it.

The first 'Culture' novel (Consider Phlebas) came out 23 years ago in 1987 and there have been several in between even if we have only had a couple in the past decade. If anyone thought that this slowing down of 'Culture' output was a sign of Iain Banks running out of steam for this series, then Surface Detail demonstrates that the man still can generate rich veins in this strata to mine.   Of course the past three decades have seen somewhat of a renaissance in British wide-screen space opera (cf. Baxter, Reynolds and, indeed, Banks himself) and some might be tempted to ask whether Surface Detail offers anything new? This is a charge I would personally reject given that distil down any plot and you come to just a handful of archetypes (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl wins boy back etc) and so true originality is somewhat a moveable feast.   What Surface Detail does do is demonstrate that there is plenty of life left in 'Culture' stories and that Banks' SF continues to be saturated with sense of wonder (sensawunda).   In this sense, Banks' SF is a modern presentation of traditional wide-screen space opera whose roots can be traced back to folk like E. E. 'Doc' Smith and Asimov.   Yet while the latter may seem a little dated to recent genre readers, the font of those 1950s and '60s writers is clearly one at which Banks has supped and so equips the man to slake present-day readers' thirst.   Yes, just in case you had not guessed, I liked Surface Detail and it will certainly satisfy Banks' longstanding 'Culture' readers, so this commendation is really aimed at newcomers to modern gung-ho space opera.   More please.

Jonathan Cowie

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