Surface Detail represents Banks’ best work since The Player of Games. It’s the latest novel in his long running Culture series. Every Banks books is full of big ideas, brutal violence and exotic adventures. The best of the series also enjoy a large cast of characters and complex plots. When it works, it’s amazing, heady stuff. When it doesn’t the books get bogged down in convoluted plot twists and long tedious passages and violence for violence’s sake. While a good chunk of readers liked The Use of Weapons, one of his most well known novels, I thought it showed a lot of marking of a first novel worked and reworked a bit too much. This book bears the markings of a well establish author in his prime.
What is the Culture? The Culture is a vast, Utopian, anarchist, post-scarcity society formed by various humanoid races and AI’s. There is little need to work inside the Culture and even less need for laws or enforcement. Its members live mainly in spaceships and other off-planet constructs. Most of the society is run by highly advanced and generally benevolent AI’s called Minds. You can read more about it in Banks’ A Few Notes on the Culture.
Of course, you can’t really write about Utopia easily. At their core, stories are about conflict. Because of that most of the Culture stories take place outside the Culture, as the mighty civilization works to secretly intervene and influence various less advanced societies. Most of this is done through the brilliantly named ‘Special Circumstances’ division of Contact, a sort of CIA/diplomatic arm of the galactic civilization.
What’s fascinating about this book and to a lesser degree The Use of Weapons, is that we get to peer inside the Culture for a bit, before the story spirals out to less enlightened societies. Even better we get to see some of the Culture’s military technology in action. Because the Culture is intensely progressive they do their best to stay out of fights. You can think of the Culture’s military as a massive, cold war style deterrent. Its weapons, like the modern U.S. nuclear arsenal, is something nobody wants to go up against. As one of the characters notes, “you don’t fuck with the Culture.”
Yet for the first time in a Banks’ book, we really get to see some powerful military tech go to war. The advanced warship, called Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, battles it out with an overwhelming swarm of enemy ships, taking them all on Rambo style. You can feel Banks’ glee as he figures out how to finally unleash some of the power of his war machine, which lay dormant for most of the series. That glee is reflected in the ship’s AI when it realizes its finally going to get to do what it was designed to do, after centuries of not firing a shot. Even more fun is when the ship replays the battle for a one of its passengers and says “you’re going to love this part.” When the passenger says how do you know what’s going to happen, it responds “oh, you don’t think this is happening in real time do you?” Good stuff.
Each chapter of Surface Detail covers one or more of the six main protagonists. The most powerful pieces in the story revolve around virtual reality Hells, run by various races around the galaxy and the war to stop them. As the book begins, a simulated war game—the “War in Heaven”—is running to determine whether to allow or to prevent societies from running their Hells, gruesome, and brutal simulated afterlives where the uploaded minds of the deceased are viciously tortured. The Culture is, of course, fiercely anti-Hell, but nevertheless opted to stay out of the war and accept the outcome as binding. Not surprisingly though, that’s only the surface detail and what the Culture wants the galaxy to think. While the Culture can’t be seen as directly interfering with the war, as the outcome would look biases, they of course can’t resist influencing it through Special Circumstances. Some of the best set pieces in the book revolve around various simulated battles taking place in radically different times and places, from the medieval to far flung, barely biological alien worlds.
Yet, by far, the most resonant and engaging plot for me concerns Prin and Chay young lovers and reporters from a species called the Pavuleans, who risk their lives to enter a Hell so they can bring back the story to a populace that’s doubtful the Hell even exists. In a daring and brilliantly written escape sequence, Prin makes it out, but is forced to leave Chay behind, where she is subsequently tortured and left to her own devices. Her story evolves into the most fascinating and poignant of the entire book, as she endures unspeakable horrors, that make Dante look tame. When one of the great devils makes her an Angel of Hell and gives her the power to permanently kill one soul a day, in essence deleting them from Hell, her story really takes off. The twist is that she must take on a little of other’s pain as she does it, so that over time her pain builds and builds offering no relief to her, even as she brings it to others.
Overall this book is a fantastic read and good entry point for anyone looking to jump into the Culture novels for the first time.