Surface Detail - Iain M. Banks If you’re not already a citizen – if only in dreams – of the Culture then Surface Detail is not your path to naturalization. This is not to say that this isn’t a worthy part of the Culture mythology – it is. I enjoyed reading it, meeting a few more of the Culture’s citizens and learning a bit more about how its nonhierarchic, anarcho-communist civilization works. But that may be why non-Culture aficionados shouldn’t start off with this book. It’s heavy with unexplained Culture jargon (e.g., Sublimed races, the Ulteriors, Special Circumstances, the Idiran War); info dumps appear but they’re about new aspects of the milieu (e.g., Quietus, Restoria, the Nauptre Reliquaria and the Gespetian-Fardesile Cultural Federacy (mercifully shorted to GFCF)) and won’t help the novice. The best introductions to the Culture are still the earlier novels like Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games (my favorite).

Surface Detail takes up the Culture’s stance toward death and what happens to your “soul” when you die. Even the less advanced space-faring civilizations of the galaxy have the technology to store the brain states of their citizens. The Culture uses such tech to back up personalities that can be downloaded into new bodies (“revented”) whether in the event of death or simply because a person is tired of the current incarnation. Other civilizations, however, more religiously minded than the Culture, have created virtual Heavens and Hells to which their members migrate upon death. At the time the book opens, a virtual war (a “confliction”) has been waged for 30 real-time years between coalitions of pro-Hell civs and anti-Hell civs to decide the Hells’ ultimate fate. The anti-Hell forces are losing and plot to bring the confliction into the Real by destroying the physical substrates where the virtual Hells are hosted. The Culture, anti-Hell by nature and sympathy, has held aloof from the “war in Heaven” because it had been felt, at the war’s beginning, that its presence would have overbalanced the forces in play and made the anti-Hell coalition’s victory a surety. This doesn’t mean that the usual Culture suspects - i.e., Special Circumstances – aren’t trying to manipulate a win for the anti-Hell forces.

The existential dilemma for the Culture (at least for its biological citizens) is to live lives of meaning and consequence. Most manage to find some hobby or role that satisfies this need. Others find satisfaction by joining Contact (the lucky ones getting invited to join Contact’s black-ops bastard offspring Special Circumstances) or similar organizations (like Quietus). For the less group oriented, there’s always the options of the Ulteriors or the Forgotten. There’s a constant tension between not interfering with other civs and juggling affairs so that its neighbors come closer to the Culture’s ideal.

Against this backdrop, Banks weaves together the stories of six characters: Vatueil, a leader of the anti-Hell forces whose real identity links this novel to Use of Weapons (which is as spoilerish as I’ll get in this review; read the book to find out who); Prin and Chay, two inmates of one of the Hells; Joiler Veppers, the principal “bad guy”: Yime Nsokyi, a Quietus agent; and Lededje Y’breq, Veppers’ former slave. There’s a host of secondary characters as well, including Jasken, Veppers’ chief of security and the Culture Minds Me, I’m Counting (avatar Himerance) and Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints (aka FOTNMC, avatar Demeisen).

As I mentioned, I enjoyed this novel but I can’t help but feel that it would have been better focusing on fewer characters – I would opt for Lededje and Yime – and exploring the issue of death a bit more deeply. A case in point is the Veppers’ thread: He’s a disappointing villain because he’s a one-dimensional, mustache twirling figure. You know he’s loathsome and Banks piles on the loathsomeness until Veppers becomes a parody.

Another weakness chronic to the series is that humans are often just gilding – the super advanced tech of the Culture makes its biological citizens irrelevant. Which Banks recognizes: There’s a short subplot about the Culture’s efforts to contain a smatter outbreak* where Auppi Unstril, the human “pilot,” acknowledges that her presence aboard the ship limits its effectiveness. She’s there because it’s exciting, something to do and will make a real difference as opposed to a virtual adventure. Or that the FOTNMC single-handedly takes on the entire GFCF fleet and wins – and the FOTNMC is just a Limited Offensive Unit. Or that Lededje is murdered, resurrected and spends a good chunk of the novel trying to return to her homeworld to murder Veppers, only to have Demeisen deliver the coup de grâce. Banks is at his best when exploring the motivations of the Culture’s biological citizens or those who are reacting to its presence in their lives, and I think the book would have been better had he stuck more with Lededje and Yime.

I think with the last few Culture novels, Banks has been more focused on having fun with his universe than seriously exploring weightier themes, even though – as the jacket blurb says – “and it will not end until the Culture has gone to war with death itself.” He only tangentially raises the issues of consciousness and the meaning of death, and that’s primarily in the Prin/Chay thread, where the implicit conclusion is that the virtual Hells are cheats. They are constructed versions of what a particular species thinks is Heaven or Hell. Their denizens, copies of individuals whose “real” souls (whatever those might be) are forever lost to the perceptions of non-Sublimed cultures (and even then…).

To sum up, while Banks is more than capable of serious fiction, if you’re looking to find an in-depth exploration of consciousness (a la Blindsight) and life and death, you won’t find it here. You’ll also be disappointed if this is your first Culture exposure since you’ll need some background to fully understand what’s happening. However, if you’re already into the Culture and/or Banks, I think you’ll enjoy his latest space opera. In terms of quality, it falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum – I liked it more than Matter or Look to Windward but not as much as his more focused, weightier efforts like Consider Phlebas or The Player of Games.