Reviews: Surface Detail

Starts with a wondrous conjuring trick, ends by nullifying the middle.

Spoileriffic review.

Surface Detail starts with four radically disparate storylines. Iain M Banks respects his audience. He assumes we have the patience to accumulate narratives and await enlightenment. The author also sets himself a challenge; how the hell does a resolutely defiant slave being hunted in a a high-tech theatre link up with a medieval siege? How does the siege link up with a viscerally disturbing vision of virtual Hell? How does Hell link up with Yime, a Culture citizen caught in a forsaken last stand to defend an Orbital?

He does it. Mr Banks links all of these strands in a way that makes it seem all so integral in retrospect. Wonderful. Then the narrative goes astray. The problem is they lack consequence. Lededje Y'breq goes a long way, and is present when meaningful events occur but ultimately does nothing. Yime Nsokyi is even more ineffectual — the story is unchanged without her.

It's entirely possibly this is deliberate. In the modern world most of us don't count. Surface Detail is a sadly mature book: the very Culture is hemmed in by other powers, unable to do what is right by morally grey neighbouring superpowers. Sometimes dark grey, but who wants total war?

In this climate it is little wonder that individuals can do little. Atop this is the ghastly realisation that a intelligent purpose-built device is always gonna eclipse a human. Utterly. Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints is as pure as realisation of this unpleasant idea as has been seen. And doesn't he love it?

The war in cyberspace for the fate of Hell is without resolution. The cause is vivid. The vile potential implicit in a virtual environment has only rarely been so gut-wrenchingly realised. But we never see Vatueil turn the tide. In either direction. The battlefield set pieces are woven from fine prose. But they go nowhere. All these arcs are water running into sand — they do not end, they fade.

There is a resolution, but it builds from other arcs. The opening doesn't lead to the middle that the ending concludes. A novel well worth reading, but an oddly frustrating one.

A warning of sorts?

I caution not to read this book lightly.

That isn't to say that unlike Bank's other works this isn't beautifully written and amazingly imaginative and so on, however, as the reviewer before me put it, it's a 'sadly mature book', and, I think, not only in the ways they talked about. This book very much brings up the existential dilemmas of existence, particularly those of hopelessness and futility, of unending suffering and the sheer release of death into nothingness; and makes a ghastly display of what I'd have to say is one of the most gory portrayals of cruelty and atrocious psychopathy that I've come across in fiction. The Hells presented in the virtual afterlives of many of the sophisticated civilisations are beyond horrific, and considering that a good significant chunk of the book is set in Hell, it's fair warning of what you're getting into.

Reading through the journeys of 2 academics and their individual experiences in the backdrop of Hell was a slough through murder, rape and torture - with each soul being infinitely reincarnated upon death - that changed the entire context of the book. Don't get me wrong, their stories were necessary and their depiction brilliant, but... it felt like too much of wading through Hell changed the fabric of this book drastically from what it would have been had only half the content been present. Everything became saturated with the horror of what is going on behind the closed doors of the galaxy while all of the other characters play out their various parts in the Real. It's like watching a play of marionettes acting out a Shakespearian drama of manipulation and intrigue while the backdrop is a man with a chainsaw hacking live humans to pieces, the cast and crew pretending that it's something minor they'll address later. You end up with a treatise on the cruelty of sentient beings, where even simulacra are designed to torment beyond despair.

I'm not saying don't read this book, because I have very high opinions of it and like a lot of it - particularly the Culture ships Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints and the Me, I'm Counting. But be very well prepared to invest in a book with very dark elements.

By the way, for familiar followers of the Culture novels, beware The Stinger. It'll have you scrambling back through the book facepalming!