Iain Banks’ latest Culture novel, Surface Detail, may be about a War in Heaven, but it is definitely not an eschatological novel.
In the universe of the Culture, there are races which have transcended to a higher plane of existence, the Sublimed – via, it is assumed, technology, or great intelligence / knowledge of the secret physics of reality. There is no mention of individuals achieving a similar transformation on their deaths. In other words, there is no Heaven. And conversely, no Hell. But what doesn’t exist, or can’t be proven to exist, people will invent. And in the universe of the Culture, they invented Afterlives. These are VR worlds populated by those who have, willingly or unwillingly, ended their corporeal existence. They are heavens created by technology. And conversely, there are hells. Because not everyone deserves a reward for a life well-lived.
The War in Heaven which makes up the plot of Surface Detail is a decades-long conflict between those who believe hells are immoral and should not exist, and those who believe they are necessary. The war is being fought entirely in simulation, so there is no damage or loss of life, and both sides have agreed to abide by the result. But the anti-Hell side is losing…
Lededje Y’breq is the property of Veppers, the richest and most powerful man in the Sichultian Enablement. She is an Intagliate, which means she has been genetically engineered to display tattoos from crown to toe, and on all her internal organs, eyeballs, teeth, bones, etc. These tattoos, which indicate her status, are punishment for a family debt. Her father died owing Veppers huge amounts of money, and in Suchultian law descendants can “pay off” these debts by entering into slavery. In the first chapter, Ledeje tries to escape, but is killed in the process by Veppers. To her great surprise, she finds herself reincarnated – “revented” – on a Culture GSV. This is not a technology the Sichultians possess. Lededje determines to return to her home world to kill Veppers. She travels there aboard a Culture Picket Ship, Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints.
Yime Nsokyi is a member of the Culture’s Quietus, the service which deals with those inhabiting Afterlives. She is tasked with preventing Lededje. En route she detours to the Tsungarial Disk, an ancient alien artefact comprising millions of asteroid-sized factories orbiting in a ring about a gas giant. There has been a “smatter” outbreak on the Disk, a swarm of von neumann machines, and the GCU Bodhisattva aboard which she is travelling has been diverted to help meet the threat.
Vateuil is a soldier in the War in Heaven. He plays a number of parts in a number of different types of simulated wars, working his way up the chain of command. He is also a member of a conspiracy of senior officers who are intending to take the battle into the real world. A conspiracy involving Veppers and a couple of alien races plans to build millions of ships with the intention of destroying the hardware on which the hells run.
Prin is a Pavulean, an alien, who has infiltrated his race’s hell in order to blow the whistle on it. He was sent there with his fellow researcher and mate, Chay, but she failed to make it back. He presents his findings to the Pavulean government, but meets with resistance – not only are there those who don’t believe the hell exists, but there are also those who know of its existence and believe it is necessary. This last faction attempt to discredit or silence Prin.
These plot-threads all contribute to the novel’s resolution. Except… some of them don’t quite convince. Ledeje’s narrative is relatively straightforward and offers, perhaps, the most direct route from beginning to the story’s climax. Prin and Chay are there to show just how reprehensible the hells are. Vatueil is the reader’s eye on the war, and its final desperate gamble. Yime is part of the solution to preventing the attempt to bring the War in Heaven into the Real. And Veppers… Veppers knows the location of the hardware on which the hells run. But why does he wait thirty years before putting into place the plot to destroy that hardware?
But if the conspiracy which drives the plot of Surface Detail doesn’t quite convince, a more pressing problem is that the moral argument at the heart of the book is fixed. The hells in the novel are made places, and so most certainly exist. The argument then becomes over whether they should exist. But through Prin’s eyes we see just how reprehensible those hells really are. There is absolutely no ethical or moral argument which can be used to justify their existence. But Banks has a pro-Hell Pavulean senator attempt to do just that to Prin; but it’s empty blustering. Either Banks is spoofing the empty rhetoric of the right-wing when they attempt to rationalise military adventures like the invasion of Iraq. Or he is showing that there is no acceptable argument for morally repugnant acts – the pro-Hell side, in other words, comprises only lies and evasions. They have taken the moral high ground on an empty argument, and are about to win the war to cement their position. And so the anti-Hell side has to cheat, has to break a solemn agreement, because – as the Culture so often does in other novels – the right outcome justifies any means. Even, apparently, in an argument over moral and immoral activities.
If there’s one thing Banks does well in his sf novels, that’s “blow shit up”, and Surface Detail is as satisfying in that regard as the best of the Culture novels.There are also some excellent set-pieces: the Tsungarial Disk, the cavern city, and the elevator-diving spring to mind. But there also appears to be more exposition than in Surface Detail than I remember from other Culture novels.
On reflection, I think I liked Matter better. It had a more interesting structure, it had a cooler BDO, it had more interesting characters. Which is not to say that Lededje is not – she’s a typical Banksian heroine, just like the Lady Sharrow from Against a Dark Background. Veppers, unfortunately, is another pantomime villain – cf the Archimandrite Luseferous – and reads as little more than a caricature of an evil plutocrat. As for Demeisen, the avatar of Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints… About halfway through Surface Detail, he started to come across as Matt Smith’s Dr Who. And that just spoiled it for me.
Nor was I entirely convinced by the resolution. The treaties between the principles didn’t quite add up when scrutinised, the sudden reveal of the hells’ hardware’s location made a bit of a mockery of the decades-long conspiracy of the story, not to mention feeling like a bit of a cop-out.
And then there’s that final line… Yes, it’s a hoot. Yes, it’s going to please fans of the Culture novels. But it also feels a bit, well, unnecessary. It’s an Easter Egg, but nowhere near as substantial as the one in Matter‘s epilogue.
For a story so concerned with detail, so much so that the title uses that very word, Surface Detail seems to perversely only really succeed when focused on the big picture. Like a Mandelbrot, it makes a pretty picture; but get too close and those fractal edges start to blur and appear indistinct. It is a Banksian space opera, with all that description entails. It is a fun read. But its story also pretends to a weight it does not actually possess, and that I found disappointing.