With the ability to create any kind of world imaginable in perfect virtual reality, some civilisations have created their own Heavens. The mind-states of citizens are uploaded to the VR upon their deaths and they’re able to enjoy their ‘afterlife’ forevermore. However, certain civilisations have used VR to create ‘the other place’. Virtual Hells are used to fulfil the promise of eternal torment for criminals and ‘sinners’. And, of course, the Culture takes issue with such unthinkable barbarity.
I found this an incredibly imaginative way of dealing with the idea of death and the afterlife in sci-fi without making the story supernatural. It’s even believable. It’s depressingly easy to imagine the justifications people would present for creating a Hell to punish others. They sound very similar to justifications for the death penalty: deterrent, revenge, ‘justice’. It’s also interesting to imagine the ways religious fundamentalists may justify artificially creating the afterlives of their religions, something that Surface Detail unfortunately doesn’t touch upon.
The Culture isn’t the only civilisation to take issue with the use of virtual Hells. The galactic community has separated into two camps, those who make use of Hells and those who abhor the practice. In order to prevent the brewing conflict a ‘Confliction’ is agreed upon. This is a way of preventing war in the ‘Real’ by fighting a war in virtual reality, with both sides swearing to abide by the result. Should the anti-Hell side win, the Hells would be abolished. However, this arrangement can only work when both sides are certain to accept the result. Consequently, the Culture decided not to take part in the Confliction in order to deny the pro-Hell side an opportunity to call foul: “Of course you won, you had the Culture on your side!”
This spectacularly imaginative and utterly enthralling premise is the best thing about an otherwise disappointing novel.
There are six main characters. The antagonist of the story is a cartoonishly evil capitalist called Joiler Veppers, whose lack of emotional depth makes his POV chapters a real slog. The book opens with him murdering his chattel slave when she attempts to escape. The murdered slave, Lededje, is then unexpectedly reincarnated aboard a Culture ship because of sci-fi stuff. She immediately decides to return to her home to kill Veppers. Lededje is an enjoyable enough character, and her journey back home with the Culture warship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints has to be my favourite human/ship-Mind pairing of the series so far. But even so, my complete lack of interest in Joiler Veppers made it hard for me to care for her, either.
Vatueil is a soldier who has fought the Confliction for several lifetimes, slowly working his way through the ranks until he became a commander. When his side seems set to lose the Confliction he decides to break the agreement and cheat, first attempting sabotage and, when that doesn’t work, planning on bringing the war into the Real. And you can bet that if real war breaks out over the Hells then the Culture won’t take a back-seat as the did in the Confliction. Knowing the Culture, they may even have been planning for (read: orchestrating) it from the beginning.
Yime Nsokyi is this novel’s resident Culture agent. She spends most of the book attempting to reach Lededje to prevent her from killing Joiler Veppers: killing the most powerful man in the region without carrying out the proper calculations isn’t the way of Culture interventionism.
Chay and Prin are academics belonging to an elephantine-esque herd species, and they abhor their society’s use of a virtual Hell. However, they’ve been unable to mobilise public opposition because their leaders deny the Hell’s very existence, claiming it’s simply a myth, albeit a useful one for keeping the population in line. Chay and Prin decide to enter the Hell in order to return with evidence and expose it to the wider public.
Surface Detail uses these interweaving strands of the story to gradually reveal the novel’s main plot but I’m not convinced it needs so many. Yime Nsokyi was a mildly interesting character but she had very little to do and spent the majority of the novel simply attempting to reach Lededje. Veppers was disappointingly unambiguous, especially in comparison to villainous characters from other Culture novels, who are usually so well-rounded they become as sympathetic as the protagonists. Often those characters are the protagonists. But there’s absolutely nothing redeeming about Veppers. Lededje was… ok, but the most interesting part of her story was the warship she travelled with. The last line of the book reveals something about the Vatueil character which either casts the book in an entirely different light or only proves that that character has a lot more potential. I’m not sure I can know without rereading it.
The only story I consistently enjoyed was Chay and Prin’s. Hell has driven Chay to madness and she’s convinced there was never any life before Hell, and that the ‘Real’ was just a myth in order to keep them hoping, and thus making their torment worse. It’s therefore down to Prin to break them both out of Hell, as per the original plan to get back to the Real and expose its existence to the public. But something goes wrong and only Prin gets through, leaving Chay in the Hell alone to face even worse punishment for their escape attempt.
If you’ve read much Banks, especially books like The Wasp Factory and Use of Weapons, then you know he takes a sadistic pleasure in the obscene. He must have been in his element thinking up what horrific punishments he could dish out in Hell. One particularly horrific segment describes how the demon’s semen would burn their rape victim’s insides like an acid, and that it could lead to the conception of some kind of parasitic monster which will agonisingly bite and claw and rip its way out of your body. Conception can happen to both men and women, no womb required. Hell doesn’t discriminate.
So yes, despite the barrage of negativity I did enjoy quite a few elements of Surface Detail. Some of the side characters are fantastic and I as I mentioned at the start, the overall concept – the virtual manifestations of afterlives – is outrageously imaginative and certainly captured my attention. But many of the main characters are one-note and the gradually revealed conspiracy isn’t all that interesting. Overall I just didn’t enjoy the book very much.
So, after reading seven-out-of-ten Culture novels, the score sits at 3-3; I loved The Player of Games, Use of Weapons and Look to Windward but didn’t enjoy Consider Phlebas, Excession or Surface Detail very much. However, one of the best things about the Culture series is I can dislike a book, or even several books, and yet find that my love for the series as a whole is more than the sum of its parts. I’m still excited for the last three: Inversions, Matter and The Hydrogen Sonata.