Friday, April 20, 2012

Review of "Surface Detail" by Iain M. Banks

Virtual hell.  It’s an expression used everyday, from street fighting in the Middle East to an awful day at work.  But what if it were actually possible?  What if a person’s psyche could be inserted into a virtual hell as punishment for an immoral life in reality?  Bringing Dante’s Inferno into Stardate 55.673, virtual hell is just one of the ideas shaping Iain Banks’ eighth Culture novel, Surface Detail.  Rounding off the pile are Banks’ usual assortment of intriguing AI ships, fantastical set pieces, techy space battles, and individual tales of honor, revenge, and duty.  There comes a point, however, where the book is about what was excluded, not included.

Surface Detail tells of the decades-long war the opponents of virtual hells have been waging against its creators.  The moral rectitude of civilly controlled hells the main point of contention, the “War for Heaven” is being simulated inside a neutrally-controlled virtual environment and is drawing to a head as the novel opens.  With factions and sub-factions on both sides beginning to take their subterfuge into reality, bloodshed is about to be for real.

Standing on the sidelines of the war at the book’s opening is the entrepreneur, overseer of the planet Sultucht, and planet’s richest man, Joiler Veppers.  Nothing ambiguous about him, Veppers is grade A evil.  Cementing his position at the top of the bad-guy heap is the treatment of his chattel, the omni-tattooed Lededje.  The unspeakable crimes he commits against her, obvious to say, set one of the themes of the book from the very first chapter: revenge.  Lededje’s travels on this path provide the second main storyline.

And there are additional stories to be told.  Along with Veppers and Lededje, the story of the soldier Vatueil appears - again, and again. A fighter in the “War for Heaven”, he is re-inserted into the virtual environment every time he dies, culminating in perhaps the first experience of reincarnation blues in literature.   The mysterious Yime likewise plays a part in the overall story, keeping the Culture abreast of not only Lededje’s progress, but Veppers and the advances he makes in society.

While previous Culture novels have been uniquely inventive, Surface Detail sees that brightness of imagination fade.  Banks borrowing more than creating, the tours people are brought on of hell as an incentive to live morally upright lives run easy parallels to Dante.  The neural laces acting as soul-catchers, able to digitally capture a person’s persona for later restoration in another body, are firmly in the footsteps of Greg Egan and Richard Morgan.  Under-ice missions, miniaturized ship battles, and armored suits are just more examples of worn ideas.  And so while Banks includes many Culture tropes from previous books, the remainder point at a weary imagination in need of a refresh. 

On that note, virtual hell is a great idea; but Banks dresses it in nothing less than pan-Christian clothes.  The visual cues, though more visceral, are very much of the demon and devil, hellfire and brimstone variety the pope warns of.  As a result, Surface Detail’s hell feels like an ornate vase sitting on the shelf without flowers: all form, no function.  By utilizing such a familiar and morally charged plot device, the reader expects at least a minimum of overt or between-the-lines discussion on the nature of good and evil.  Banks, however, never moves in that direction, using the hells instead to motivate the larger war, fiery proceedings pushed to the background. 

And there are other wasted opportunities.  While Inversions sees Banks touching upon poignant human issues, at no time does he delve into the authoritarian notion of hell as retributive justice (the rational, post-enlightenment variety) in Surface Detail.  Instead, he remains fixed on the less ambiguous, more morally transparent religious view of “hell as punishment”.  As a result, the book does not go into any of the ambiguity regarding who goes and who doesn’t, who judges, and how long eternity is, exactly.  None of these questions are examined, disconnecting the idea of virtual hell from the theme.  It is sensational, but plays no deeper role.  Thus, by turning a blind eye to the sticky moral and social aspects, Banks simply plays off the more easily digested religious/cartoon side of hell.  To the author's credit, however, Vatueil’s story does cut at something deeper in Buddhist beliefs of the afterlife.

In the end, Surface Detail is a safe novel, but one wherein the reader feels a little cheated that virtual hell ended up playing second fiddle to a larger but more standard sci-fi war.  Despite utilizing commonly understood notions of Buddhist and Christian afterlife, Banks never takes the time to unpack the moral and social implications of having a network of virtual hells, instead using these ideas as mere plot devices, minor in comparison to a war which climaxes in a rather pedestrian, been-there-done-that space battle.  Good and evil deserve so much more with hell in play.  That being said, Banks’ usual flair for language, fantastically realized scenes, singular take on space tech, and relatable characters are once again on display.  Though not able to fill the shoes it wears, Surface Detail at least remains able to get you were you’re going.

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