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Literature / Surface Detail

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Surface Detail is a 2010 novel by Iain M. Banks set in The Culture, taking place 800 years after Look to Windward (and far after the earlier novels in the series). It tells the story of Lededje Y'breq, an Intagliated slave (covered in tattoos, even on the level of DNA- hence the title) who after being murdered by her master Veppers, is resurrected by the Culture and begins to seek revenge. The story also deals with an online war whose outcome reflects reality that's being fought over the continued existence of a virtual reality Hell in which a copy of an unfortunate person's consciousness endures horrific punishment. The Culture is on the anti-Hell side, but not directly... at least at first...

Surface Detail provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Alliterative Name: Bettlescroy-Bisspe-Blispin, the GFCFian admiral.
  • Always Save the Girl: Averted. Prin realizes that Chay has lost her mind in hell, so she would be unable to give testimony, defeating the point of their ordeal. This makes him prioritize his own escape. The version of Chay that is recovered from a backup considers that he makes the right choice.
  • Artificial Afterlife: The VR hells.
  • Back from the Dead
    • Lededje Y'breq. Not a spoiler, it's pretty much the starting point for the book.
    • Vatueil, a soldier in the War in Heaven, comes back from the dead over and over during the book; he loses count. The deaths are simulated, and he's aware of this, but this being Hell, it feels real enough. Of course, the much bigger reveal is that Vatueil is actually Zakalwe, working for and/or against the Culture once again, and atoning for his sins in the only manner in which he's capable.
  • Badass Boast: From the The Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints through its avatar Demeisen: "Conscience can be a terrible thing. So I hear. Not if you're something like me, of course. I don't give a fuck."
  • Batman Gambit: It's not spelled out, but the late reveal that Veppers is providing the processing power necessary to run the VR hells brings up the question of how much involvement the supposedly neutral Culture had in Lededje's part of the story.
  • Battle Butler: Jasken for Veppers.
  • Bio Data: It provides us with the Intagliated, slaves whose bodily tattoos contain information detailing their pasts, why they're Intagliated and the markings go right down to the DNA.
  • Blood Knight: The Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints. As one character comments the only reason it doesn't employ a tactic which ends a particular battle far more quickly is because it's enjoying itself so much.
  • Bodyguard Crush: Jasken is revealed to have been secretly in love with Lededje, but not enough to forsake his duty. Becomes a Bodyguard Betrayal however when Lededje informs him that the powerful alien race that Veppers double-crossed knows about this and will kill him — given that he's already disgusted over how his boss is saving his valuables at the expense of his employees, Jasken takes the flier to rescue them instead, leaving Veppers to Lededje's tender mercies.
  • Brain Uploading: The main contention with the Virtual Hells. Two characters even copy their mindstates into the Hells to prove they exist, but fall in love during their time together. It becomes an issue when only one of the mindstates can be brought back and integrated with the real version of themselves. The copy left behind becomes its own distinct being when it isn't brought back to the original.
  • Continuity Nod: The Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly mentions the Sleeper Service at one point.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Veppers, who is kind of like a futuristic, evil(er?) version of your Murdoch or Gates type given an insane amount of power. And he wants more...
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints against a GFCF flotilla. The GFCFian ships were annihilated without the FOtNMC even breaking a sweat.
  • Determinator: No price is too high for Prin when it comes to ending the virtual hells. He starts literally going through hell and back. From then on every one of the very hard choices he has to make is just another chance to prove his commitment to the cause.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: For several characters but notable for being one of the few Culture novels to have an overwhelmingly happy ending. Lededje gets her revenge by proxy and then goes on to live a happy life in the Culture. The practice of virtual Hells becomes reviled throughout the galaxy after the incident at Vepper's mansion and gradually stops. The Pavuulien characters get their own happy endings, albeit in very different forms and in the very distant future. Furthermore, Vatueil is revealed to be at the end of an extremely long term one.
  • Distant Finale: Not the novel as a whole, but the epilogue is a Distant Finale/resolution to Use of Weapons.
  • Expendable Clone: Vatueil is duplicated, deleted and re-integrated so many times over the course of the book in virtual reality that even he loses count. Demons in the Pavulean Hell are also mentioned to be all copies of a few sadistic people.
  • Fire and Brimstone Hell... IN VIRTUAL REALITY
  • Hope Spot: Ouch. Very much a plot point in the Fire and Brimstone Hell subplot.
  • Ignorant of Their Own Ignorance: Veppers — CEO of a multiplanetary MegaCorp, owner of hunting estates the size of a small country, schemer, ruthless business mogul, and self-made man — is part of a conspiracy. He's the fall guy. He's so far out of his depth that at one point when he tries to bypass all the machinations and just buy what he wants, an alien outright tells him that all his money is useless in the circles of the Involved, and he still doesn't get it.
    • Subverted later when it turns out he does have one ace up his sleeve that even the higher level conspirators could do very little to leverage against without rumbling themselves. His plan would have still fallen through though, due to a combination of internal betrayal and the Culture giving Ledeje a license to kill him if he didn't come with them quietly.
  • Jerkass: The Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints straddles the line between this and Jerk with a Heart of Gold. Often between sentences. Examples of his dickery include the outright sadistic usage of one of its avatarsnote  to generally be incredibly rude and foul mouthed to almost everyone. On the other hand, it is capable of acts of disproportionate altruism (which may or may not have ulterior motives attached) and generally treats Lededje well. It's worth remembering that it is one of the Culture's most powerful type of warship, the Abominator class. Being personable is not a high priority.
    • The abused human avatar turns out to have experienced nothing during his period of being controlled by the warship... he had no memory of anything that happened, and his body was fully repaired before return. Basically, the FOtNMC was trolling the other Minds and humans observing it at the time.
  • The Mole: Vatueil, who was hired by the pro-Hell side to cheat, infiltrating the anti-Hell side and make them lose. Along the way, his outlook changed; he decided to genuinely help the anti-Hell side and screwed over his employers. Of course, taking into account the Culture's stance on the Hells, Zakalwe's past connection with them, and their knowledge of how he would react, he might have been working for the anti-Hell side all along.
  • My Master, Right or Wrong: Jasken's attitude toward Veppers.
  • Power Born of Madness: Chay goes mad in hell and loses hope, even denying the existence of any reality other than hell itself, this makes her immune to any Hope Spot the demons try to throw at her, and forces them to get creative when dealing with her.
  • Robotic Psychopath: Like most Culture warships, the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints falls into this, and might be the most extreme example to date, in that while most of the other warships express their sadism in a Pay Evil unto Evil context, what it does to the poor sucker who foolishly volunteers his body to temporarily take the place of that of Demeisen (one of its robotic avatars)note  was just nasty. On the other hand, the ship later releases his control over the guy's body with it apparently no worse for wear other than having lost weight. When the guy regains control of his body, he discovers the ship has wiped his memories of the experience to his disappointment (The ship reveals later to Lededje that it made point of not leaving him with Self-Serving Fake Memories). Also, this trope comes with elements of Heroic Comedic Sociopath.
  • Significant Anagram: One of the characters' names hints at their true identity. "Vatueil" is an anagram for Livueta, Zakalwe's sister from Use of Weapons, and the person whose forgiveness Zakalwe craves — and Vatueil is Zakalwe, as revealed in the epilogue.
  • Space Whale Aesop: Now, readers, don't go and download people's consciousnesses into a virtual Hell after they die! Though this is somewhat more relevant to reality than most examples of this trope, as this is a scenario that a number of real life transhumanists and singularitarians are genuinely concerned about, and whether the lesson itself is directly applicable, there's something to be said about the cost of pursuing retribution for its own sake.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Prin and Chay get separated while escaping hell, and while a version of Chay is brought back, the trauma and survivor's guilt make Prin unable to continue the relatioship. Near the end it's revealed that Lededje and Jasken were also lovers, but their relationship is even more hopeless.
  • Stock Phrases: The GFCFian admiral has to blow up a friendly ship to cover for a False Flag Operation, so naturally choses one belonging to an officer he dislikes. Moments before his ship is obliterated, the admiral informs him of this fact saying, "This pleases me much more than it will hurt you."
  • Two Aliases, One Character / Tomato Surprise: Occurs in the epilogue. Vatueil, a high ranked soldier fighting on the anti-Hell side is revealed in The Stinger to be Zakalwe from Use of Weapons.
  • Wham Line: The last word of the book. See Two Aliases, One Character.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The epilogue tells us how each of the main characters ended up, in one case going as far as telling us how his virtual afterlife (which can last for thousands of years) ended.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: The virtual reality Hells all make use of this trope, to maximise the suffering of those condemned to them. After becoming trapped in the Hell she is investigating, Chay lives out an entire lifetime over the course of the novel's real-time weeks. First as a nun in a convent, spending decades in quiet contemplation and recovery from her earlier trauma. After her second encounter with the Master of the Hell, she becomes an Angel of Mercy, travelling the Hells freeing souls from their torment, at the cost of her own suffering.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: Sort of. In the virtual war, you don't die or get injured in reality if that happens online, but you do feel it. The Hell is the same way with the interesting twist that the person might be alive elsewhere while that copy of them is being horrifically tortured, and it doesn't affect the "real" person.