Surface Detail (2010), the penultimate CULTURE novel, is another wild ride in Iain Banks’ far-future universe. Interestingly (or at least I think so), this novel deals with the afterlife, as does the final CULTURE novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, which was published several months before Banks’ unexpected death of gallbladder cancer in 2013.
Though speculation about what happens beyond death is a heavy subject, Banks deals with it flippantly in Surface Detail (and also to a lesser extent in The Hydrogen Sonata). The premise here is that Hell is simply a virtual reality computer simulation. That’s an interesting idea that becomes pretty funny when you consider that if hell is an MMORPG, then someone must be “hosting Hell” and others are trying to hack it. The many characters in Surface Detail are connected to the hell simulations (there’s actually more than one hell) in some way, though they don’t all know it, and some characters turn out to be more connected than at first we believed.
There are several main characters in Surface Detail. The most likeable, I think, is Lededje Y’breq, a black-skinned woman who has silver tattoos all over her body to signify that she belongs to Joiler Veppers, the richest and most evil rogue in the world they live in. When Lededje tries to escape, Veppers kills her, but then she wakes up in a virtual reality, which surprises her until she figures out how that happened. She is eager to get a new body and get back to “The Real” so she can get revenge on Veppers. She gets some help from a Culture ship.
A couple of non-human characters, Prin and Chay, belong to a society that uses hells as a way to threaten their citizens into good behavior. Prin and Chay manage to hack into a hell with the plan to escape and report to their fellow citizens about what actually happens in hell. (Banks’ description of the hell they visit is quite disturbing!) Things go awry when they have trouble getting out.
Gyorni Vatueil (who we have met in a previous book under a different name) is a soldier who’s been fighting in the digital “War in Heaven” for years and has been rising in the ranks as he continues to die and be reborn in the game. Everyone, even the Culture, who hate the idea of Hell, have agreed that the outcome of this game will determine the fate of the hell simulations. But, of course, the Culture knows what’s best for everybody and decides it doesn’t want to abide by its promise to let the game decide the fate of hells. The Culture plots to get rid of hells their own way, using the greedy Veppers as part of their plot. So, Yime Nsokyi, a Culture agent, is trying to find Lededje so she can prevent her from killing Veppers, at least until their plot succeeds.
It’s all pretty complicated and may be confusing to readers who are new to the CULTURE books. This story can stand alone, but will probably go down a little easier if you’re familiar with Culture philosophy, Culture denizens such as the eccentric ship avatars, and Culture terms such as Special Circumstances, Contact, knife-missiles, and sublimation.
The ideas in Surface Detail are intriguing and the story contains all the features that make a CULTURE story — sassy eccentric sentient ships (one of them in this book has named itself Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints), cool technology (including “neural laces” that allow characters’ brains to be uploaded elsewhere), chases in space, glamourous scenery (Lededje’s escape attempt in an opera house was fun), exotic locales (I love the orbital where the buildings are made up of spaceships), strange species, imaginative games, and the occasional explosion. And, of course, nearly every character and every spaceship is eccentric in some way. There are so many characters in this book that they’re spread rather thin. I wish there had been just one or two characters who I could relate to. As it is, they’re all strange and we don’t spend enough time with any one of them to feel like we know them. This will bother some readers more than others.
While Banks spends a little time speculating about Hell — its purpose, its effect on a culture, its effect on individual human behavior — it is rather shallowly done. It doesn’t really go much beyond “Hell is an awful idea and I hate it.” Readers hoping for a more substantive discussion about consciousness, virtual reality, death, punishment, retribution, and justice will be disappointed. Clearly that’s not Banks’ goal in Surface Detail. This is imaginative and intellectual space opera, not a philosophical treatise.
I listened to the audiobook version of Surface Detail which is 20.5 hours long. It was excellently narrated by Peter Kenny. I particularly love how he portrayed Veppers. Despite being a loathsome greedy rapist, Veppers still comes off as charismatic, which, according to an interview I read, was Banks’ intention. At one point, Veppers has his nose injured and Peter Kenny adjusts his voice appropriately. It was a brilliant performance.