It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


The devil is in the surface detail

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.


Double Scots

I know, it’s a terrible title. And it took me ages to come up with it. But since it’s reasonably descriptive of the contents of this post, I’m sticking with it.

The two Scots in question are Michael Cobley and Gary Gibson, both of whom have had New Space Opera novels published this year. Cobley’s The Orphaned Worlds is the second in his Humanity’s Fire trilogy, and Gibson’s Empire of Light is the final book in his Shoal Sequence.

Last year, I said of Seeds of Earth, the first book of Michael Cobley’s Humanity’s Fire trilogy (see here), that it was “a pure hit of the purest space opera”. The Orphaned Worlds is no different.

The Sendrukan and Broltruan forces occupying the lost human colony of Darien have tightened their grip, and the freedom fighters have moved into the various historical Uvovo strongholds. Meanwhile, Earthsphere ambassador Robert Horst is hunting through the many levels of hyperspace to find the Godhead, a powerful machine intelligence. Theo Karlsson has been captured by Ezgara mercenaries – who are from another lost human colony – but these are good Ezgara mercenaries, and they discover something shocking in their history. Julia Bryce and the other Enhanced have been captured by a mercenary working for the Spiral Prophecy, who have sent a vast invasion force to Darien. The Knight of the Legion of Avatars has reached Darien, and sets about taking over the warpwell so he can free the millions of Avatars imprisoned in the hyperspace Abyss. And Kao Chih learns what happened to his home world – the third lost human colony – after his grandparents left…

The Orphaned Worlds is, in fact, not an easy book to summarise. There’s a lot going on in it. Middle books of trilogies are notoriously difficult, and too often feel like extended set-ups for the grand climax in book three. Cobley manages to avoid this trap by ensuring there’s always plenty of action, and by doling out small revelations which explain more and more of the trilogy’s story-arc. The Orphaned Worlds also features an admirably diverse cast. Cobley’s protagonists are engaging characters and he handles his various nationalities with skill. He has a good eye for describing scenery, and there’s a level of detail in the prose which makes every facet of his universe clear.

Having said that, the book’s not without some faults. In Seeds of Earth, I thought Cobley had “over-egged” his universe, and so too in The Orphaned Worlds – it feels too rich for the trilogy. Sometimes, in fact, it seems it should belong to a role-playing game, and so should be explored over several years through scenarios and campaigns and sourcebooks. The profusion of alien races and planets also means there are a lot of made-up names in the book. The Orphaned Worlds walks a tight-rope over a chasm of smeerp – mostly successfully; although there’s the odd section where it feels as though it might fall. But Cobley certainly deserves a slap for using the word “youngling”.

Gary Gibson’s Empire of Light is the third book in his Shoal Sequence trilogy, and neatly wraps up its galaxy-spanning story. Like the earlier books in the trilogy, Empire of Light often reads like a long sequence of special effects shots. Admittedly, they’re pretty impressive special effects – there aren’t many books, for example, in which wars are fought by exploding the stars around which the enemy’s planets orbit…

Dakota Merrick finds the Maker, creator of the caches which gave the various races of the galaxy faster-than-light travel, and discovers what it is. She also learns of the Mos Hadroch, a weapon which could be used to defeat the Emissaries. She joins up with Lucas Corso, who’s having trouble with his political rivals on the Freehold colony on Redstone. In a stolen frigate, they, and a handful of others, travel across the galaxy to the Perseus Arm to strike a blow against the Emissaries with the Mos Hadroch. But someone aboard the frigate is not exactly what he appears to be…

The bulk of Empire of Light‘s story is taken up with that long flight to the Perseus Arm and the goings-on aboard the Mjollnir. Much of the Long War – the exploding suns – takes place off-stage. Which is a bit of a shame, as the Emissaries were very funny. Nor do the Zarbi-like aliens of Nova War, the Bandati, figure much in Empire of Light. Given the enormous canvas of the trilogy’s story-arc, it makes for a curiously claustrophobic story. As a result, the the book’s resolution feels a little anticlimactic because its impact is chiefly focused on Merrick, Corso and the others.

There’s still much to like in Empire of Light. Those special effects shots, for one. Gibson also manages a nice demolition of the politics of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Trooper. On Redstone, only veterans have the franchise, and everyone has the right to determine the outcome of a dispute using a duel. Gibson uses Corso to point out how ineffective and corrupt such a regime would be. The sheer scale of Empire of Light‘s story also impresses. Where Cobley sets his story in a galaxy-sized “world” populated with hundreds and thousands of alien civilisations, Gibson’s universe feels more like a real galaxy – with vast empty spaces, and a history stretching back billions of years. There’s a sense of great antiquity to Gibson’s universe, more so than there is to Cobley’s. Yet Gibson still manages to keep his plot firmly focused on his characters.

The two books are excellent examples of the current state of British New Space Opera. Gibson provides excellent sfx, and has a better handle on the size and age of the universe. Cobley’s prose is more detailed, and his ability to evoke place is better. Cobley also has the more diverse cast, which he handles well. On the other hand, Gibson’s aliens feel like they belong in a New Space Opera novel, whereas Cobley’s occasionally feel like they should be in a RPG. Nonetheless, both trilogies – even though Cobley’s is as yet unfinished – are definitely worth reading.