Surface Detail

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Surface Detail (2010) is the eighth novel by Iain M. Banks in his ‘Culture’ series. You can read chapter one on Banks’ web site.

I found it a frustrating read. Much of the novel is slack and self-indulgent, but every so often there’s a flash of the Banks that keeps me reading—a vividly written description or a breathtaking piece of imagination.

Part of the problem is that the ‘Culture’ series is showing its age. Consider Phlebas was published in the mid-1980s, but Banks had conceived the universe and written much of Use of Weapons in the mid-1970s (eventually published in 1990, in a much revised form). Science fiction marches on, and the kinds of elements that readers expect to see in particular kinds of stories have changed. Some authors of long-running series have allowed their universes to fossilize the historical period in which they were first published: for example, Connie Willis’s “Fire Watch” (1982) posited a mid-21st century without networked computers or mobile phones—entirely excusable for the time—but as she has chosen to write further books in the setting, the failure to revisit this aspect seems increasingly bizarre. Banks has been keen not to let his setting wither in this way, but retrofitting modern science fictional conventions onto a thirty-five-year-old universe while trying to maintain continuity has left some holes in the plausibility of the setting that are nearly as bad.

In real life a feature of powerful technology is that it doesn’t just get used for one thing: as technology becomes cheap and ubiquitous it gets co-opted to many uses, and society changes as a result. If you can build bodies from scratch and then inhabit them, surely lots of people would experiment with different configurations: wouldn’t it be nice to have more arms—a bigger brain—sharper eyesight—photosynthesis—wings—gills? If uploading, copying and merging of minds were possible as portrayed in Surface Detail, people would use the technology for more than just backups in case of death. You could solve difficult problems by forking many copies of yourself to work on it in parallel, then merging them when done. You could study multiple subjects, travel to different places, have relationships with different people, all at the same time. You could modify your personality to be more intelligent, more dedicated, more talented, more fun.

No single writer can imagine all the plausible consequences of some piece of invented technology, but over the whole genre a lot of possibilities can be explored, a consensus can develop, and stories can get left behind. Once you’ve read Stanislaw Lem’s ‘The Twenty-first Voyage of Ijon Tichy’ (in The Star Diaries), then every time you encounter a setting in which drastic body modification seems to be technologically possible, you will wonder why everyone seems to choose to stick to the ancestral number of legs, arms, and heads. Once you’ve read Greg Egan’s Diaspora, then every time you encounter a setting with mind uploading, you will wonder why large numbers of people continue to limit themselves to using biological minds and bodies.

It’s implied in the early ‘Culture’ novels that the majority of biological Culture citizens are broadly similar biologically to modern-day humans, and have broadly similar pursuits and pastimes. There are a few significant genetically engineered changes, to be sure, but nothing that takes people very far from Banks’ 21st century readers. But now there’s a general consensus in science fiction that technology of a level indicated by Banks’ artificial Minds would also permit the copying of biological minds onto electronic or other substrates. Banks duly added mind-uploading technology to the Cultureverse in Excession, and in Matter he indicated that bodily form is a matter of choice and fashion for citizens of the Culture, with people inhabiting every kind of body from robots to stellar field liners. But the result is that the general picture of Culture society is not really coherent across the series. The liberal university campus of The Player of Games doesn’t seem to be part of the same society as the transhumanist playground hinted at in Matter. (You can try to paper over the cracks—a lot of time passes in-universe between the books, so maybe we’re seeing technological progress; perhaps these technologies pass through periods of unfashionability; perhaps Chiark was wildly atypical; perhaps the older stories simply passed over some aspects of the setting—but I think that kind of post-hoc rationalization is rightly known as “fanwank”.)

Douglas Adams and John Lloyd (in The Meaning of Liff) coined the term zeerust: “the particular kind of datedness which afflicts things that were originally designed to look futuristic.” Any long-running science-fictional series ends up either suffering from zeerust, or from the accretion of incompatible details to the point where it becomes impossible to imagine a consistent universe to which they could possibly belong. The only way to avoid the forks of this dilemma is to start again with a new universe.

The plot of Surface Detail imagines a very nasty consequence of the uploading of minds. Previous novels, notably Look to Windward, explored the idea that a sufficiently advanced society might reify its religious beliefs in the form of a software ‘heaven’ in which the uploaded minds of its dead citizens can spend an afterlife. Now Banks considers the flipside: might a sufficiently advanced but cruel society create a software ‘hell’ to torture the software personalities of its sinners?

It’s an extremely unpleasant idea, presented with shockingly vivid description and cruel imagination, but it’s by no means outside the bounds of plausibility—it’s not all that long, in civilizational terms, since Thomas Aquinas was explaining in his Summa Theologica (1265–1274) that one of the joys of heaven will be to watch the torment of the damned in hell:

“Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.”

One of the narrative strands of Surface Detail follows the descent into hell of Prin and Chay, two anti-Hell activists who believe that a public exposé of conditions in Hell will lead to its abolition. Prin escapes but Chay is left behind, and successive chapters describe her fate in gruesome detail.

Meanwhile, coalitions of pro- and anti-hell civilizations are fighting a war to determine if the Hells should be turned off and the inmates released. This war is described through the eyes of a solder called Vateuil, who fights battles in a variety of environments and at many different levels of technology.

A third strand follows Lededje Y’breq, a debt slave on the planet Sichult. Murdered by the villainous mogul Joiler Veppers, she is resurrected by the Culture and goes on a journey in search of revenge.

A fourth strand features Culture agent Yime who visits the ‘Balbitian’, a sentient Big Dumb Object, that’s rumoured to be the location of the physical substrate of the hells.

Banks is very fond of using the multi-stranded approach to give a variety of perspectives on a situation or conflict. But in Surface Detail the technique goes wrong because the force driving the plot is so strong—when one of the plot strands is the fate of billions of souls being tortured in hell it becomes hard to take the other plots as seriously as they would deserve in another context.

The other problem is that nearly all the plots go nowhere: that is, they have no effect on the liberation of the souls in hell. Lededje isn’t concerned with the hells: she has a different agenda, and as far as the war is concerned is just along for the ride. The Balbitian is a red herring and Yime’s mission achieves nothing. Despite their bravery and suffering, Chay and Prin contribute nothing to winning the war. Vatueil’s plotline is particularly pointless, because it turns out that all his battle scenes are in fact rounds in some kind of massively multiplayer online game. Instead, it’s the ostensible villains of the piece, Veppers and the Geseptian-Fardesile Cultural Federacy, who achieve the destruction of the hells, and all the alleged heroes have to do is stand back and let them get on with it. Of course this is a kind of cynical anti-heroic realism on Banks’ part, but on the other hand it’s disappointing for the reader because when it becomes clear that the supposed protagonists aren’t going to achieve anything, it becomes hard to care about them. I found myself skipping pages on my first read through.

This lack of focus on what ought to be the important issue leaves other aspects of the plot underexplored, and in some cases incomprehensible.

For example, we are presented early on with a solar system that has been scattered with millions of orbiting mothballed factories by a departed civilization. A sort of Chekhov’s munitions factory, you might say. It comes as no surprise whatsoever to the reader when these factories are turned on and produce an instant war fleet, especially since a similar instant war fleet featured in the dénouement to Excession. As the events of Excession are apparently well known in the Culture, you’d think that with the passage of time everyone would be at the business of instant war fleet production, or at least aware enough of the possibility to take appropriate precautions.

Similar implausible lack of preparedness applies to one the main mysteries of the book: the location of the physical substrate that the virtual hells are running on. Surely this would be the first and most important thing for the anti-hell alliance to discover, rather than (as presented) their last resort? It hardly bears credibility that the Culture wouldn’t have figured it out, given its importance and the relative levels of technology involved. Maybe there are good reasons why they would be hard to discover, but Banks offers no hints in that direction.

It also hardly bears credibility that the Geseptian-Fardesile Cultural Federacy would prepare and launch a military assault before they have the slightest idea of where or what that assault is supposed to be against. Here Banks’ need to keep the location of the substrates a secret from the reader gets him into considerable difficulties, the only way out being to portray all the characters concerned as total idiots.

Banks displays a funny kind of attitude to the ontological status of software personalities. Software is easy to copy from one substrate to another. We know that Culture citizens can easily back up their minds, and that minds can be copied from one simulation to another. It’s also explained that the demons in hell are multiple copies of particularly cruel and sadistic beings. So once the possibility of a Hell is raised within the fiction, all sorts of nasty thoughts become thinkable. How can the participants be sure that there is only one set of Hells? There could be a million backups running in different locations in the universe. How can the characters be confident that the destruction of the substrates, as presented in the novel, has been effective?

And not least, what happened to all the souls released from the hells? Banks dispenses with them in a paragraph or so, but I wanted to know more. The implication is that Chay is profoundly psychologically damaged by her relatively short ordeal (three months of real time). But what about the other billions of occupants, some of whom have suffered there for centuries? They must be in a very bad way. Can they be restored to mental health? It must have taken a civilizational level of effort just to look after them.

It looked to me for a while as though the theme of the book was going to be that justice for the many has to take precedence over retribution on behalf of the few: Lededje’s desire for revenge on Veppers can’t be fulfilled because Veppers’ co-operation is needed to save the billions of souls in Hell. But Banks like to eat his cake and have it too, so with the assistance of some Culture personnel Lededje gets her revenge too in the last pages.

This kind of murder goes against the whole ethos of the Culture as described in several of the novels (particularly The Player of Games), but it appears so often in Banks’ novels that Rich Puchalsky coined the term Obligatory Deadly Vengeance:1

Nearly every Banks book has an Obligatory Deadly Vengeance scene (ODV, for short). The ODV has the following invariant structure:

1. The protagonist is presented as, ordinary, a good guy. 2. But there is a villain. We know he’s villainous because he does exaggeratedly villainous things, far worse than most real-life evil people do. 3. After we’ve been regaled with stories of how bad the villain is, the protagonist kills the villain, often in some “poetic justice” fashion, often with torture. 4. But the protagonist’s murder or torture/murder is fine, justifiable, and good—because the bad guy is such a villain.

I have no idea why the ODV is there, really, but Banks loves it. It exists in Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look To Windward, and in lesser form in The Player of Games and The Crow Road. Complicity is based on it.

Of course revenge as a driver of plot is commonplace, but the difference with Banks is that revenge goes against not just his own political ideals, but the explicitly stated ideals of the society he his depicting.

Maybe it’s just a case of Pandering To The Base? There is a group of fans who lap up many of the things I find most annoying about Banks’ Culture novels,2 and maybe the obligatory deadly vengeance is just another piece of fan service.


  1.  From a post to alt.books.iain-banks about The Bridge; the series of posts is collected here.

  2.  Michael Duff: “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.”