New Iain M. Banks novel - Surface Detail (review)

More randomness!

I just finished reading Iain M. Banks' new(ish) book, Surface Detail - on my new ebook reader, since I managed to leave mine on a plane. Sigh. I was actually really disappointed in it, and after seeing tons of positive reviews online, thought I should lay into it like the miserable contrarian bastard I am (and also, it's a nice change of pace from laying into Canonical, huh?)

I'm going to review this in a way that involves tons of spoilers and sort of assumes you've read the other Culture books, because I'm lazy and it's easier that way. If you haven't read the others or are worried about spoilers, you'll either be bored or annoyed, so you can stop reading now.

Okay, then. So, the positive reviews of Surface Detail (SD) seem spectacularly weakly justified: the mainstream press reviewed it in the way they usually do when they send a non-specialist journalist to review a science fiction book, i.e. poorly. They either pan it because it's too confusing or praise it for its incredible ideas and originality (which usually appear incredible and original to the journalist in question only because their entire previous experience with sf was seeing Avatar). In this case, the reviews tended overwhelmingly to the latter.

What are the big ideas in SD? The only one that's new in the context of the Culture books is the book's maguffin (the conceit that drives the plot): Awesome Future Processing Power makes near-perfect virtual reality possible (and relatively trivial) - this is nothing new, and has been in previous Banks books - and, new twist!, some silly cultures decide to use it to create afterlifes. Including realizations of their cultural equivalents of Hell, where people who've behaved badly are sent to be punished.

As noted, the idea of perfect virtual realities is frankly humdrum by sf standards, it's a common trope. I haven't come across the concept of virtual hells before; so let's give Banks credit for something new (or at least unusual). Okay. That's about as far as the good news goes, though.

The biggest problem with the idea is that it's just not fundamentally interesting or incisive. I happen to believe that no version of hell actually exists - I'm not going into my personal religious views here, it's not really relevant - and I'm fairly sure Banks thinks the same. It's at least a defensible point of view, even if it's not true. The key thing here is that you can do all the psychosocial extrapolations you like from the concept of Hell without the added conceit of technologically-sophisticated cultures making them sort-of-really-real. The fact that the human (or, in Banksian terms, pan-human) psyche seems to come up with the concept with depressing regularity is the interesting thing here, and you don't need the device of virtual reality hells to consider its implications. The best sf uses speculation to illuminate things in ways that are difficult or impossible to do without invoking speculation; the fact that SD's only really Big New Idea doesn't illuminate anything that can't be discussed without the need to invoke speculative futures doesn't bode well for the book.

There's several other problems with the idea, too. The second biggest is that it really isn't terribly plausible, at least in the terms of the Culture universe. One of the idiosyncracies of sf is the classic idea-trap: creators get to make up parameters more or less on a whim in their early works, but if these become popular and they either want to continue within the same universe (or continuity or whatever), or are pressured to by fans / publishers / whatever, they get hemmed into the parameters they made up willy-nilly to serve the narrative needs of earlier works but now can't vary. They develop gigantic encyclopedias of races and tech specs and predispositions and distances and locations and so on and so forth and blah blah, so do a bunch of obsessive fans who will delight in pointing out where previously laid-down 'laws' are being infringed, and everything gets leaden and contrived. SD shows definite signs of Banks getting dragged into this trap. The main plotline of the book, involving the Hells and a contrived fake war being fought over their future and various intrigues surrounding that war involving various species of vastly differing tech levels, forces Banks into spectacular contortions to try and fit everything into the parameters he'd previously established for the Culture universe, which really don't succeed. The cracks become painfully visible. Even worse, the contortions involve large chunks of dull exposition which serve no purpose and fail to interest the reader. Various characters - mostly Minds - pop in every so often to explain regulations about technological transfer and suchlike things which have never cropped up in the series before (do correct me, annoying fact checkers) and have clearly been hastily introduced when Banks thought through various potential objections to the plausibility of the storyline. Even with this, loose ends and vastly implausible bits hang around all over the place.

Perhaps the biggest of these is the ending of the book centring around Veppers' estate housing the virtual Hells; this seems unlikely in the extreme. Veppers is a member of a civilisation which barely counts as an infant in the terms of the Culture universe; it's laughably technologically backward and vanishingly tiny in terms of actual size and influence over the greater galactic meta-civilization. Why would anyone trust a member of such a kiddy-pool species to run its terribly-culturally-significant virtual afterlives? How would such a deal even have happened? Why wouldn't they just run the things on computers stuck in some random out-of-the-way corner of one of their solar systems, or more likely, someone else's, or an uninhabited one? That would make them a lot less detectable and save the trouble of entering into apparently secret and, by the rules established in the book, highly illegal (on the galactic scale) technological agreements with a far inferior civilization.

The book teems with these problems, though. To pick another gaping one, the subplot involving two characters who are involved in a sketchily-drawn conspiracy to 'reveal' the existence of one of these Hells is deeply flawed. These sections include some of the best writing in the book, but the whole subplot just doesn't hang together. The book relies on the existence of the Hells being an apparently established fact, at a galactic scale, to the extent that two big bunches of civilizations decide to have a fake war to decide whether they should be allowed to continue to exist, which is galactic news and much discussed by all the 'in-play' civilizations. Yet we're asked to believe that two members of one Hell-having civilization would be able to cause huge shockwaves within their own society by exposing the existence of its Hell. This isn't remotely logically consistent. Banks makes a half-hearted attempt to wriggle out of this glaring inconsistency by suggesting that the members of the society sort of know on some level that the Hell exists but think that it's not as bad as it really is, or very small, or dormant, or something; but this really fails to wash at all, and the author doesn't even seem particularly committed to it. He puts the final nail in the coffin by later realizing that in the society he's drawn up, the pro-Hell political forces would easily be able to discredit the anti-Hell cabal's 'revelations', and quickly inserting an appeal to higher authority - some kind of ill-defined galactic level tribunal or review; if the society in question is in-play to the extent of being part of this galactic-level process - and indeed apparently submitting to its judgments - how can it be unaware or somehow in denial of the existence of its own Hell to the extent Banks suggests it is?

It just fundamentally doesn't work. In a way these criticisms sound like nitpicking, but when the implausibilities in question lie in major plot points, the effect is much more than to make you stop and scratch your head a bit; it causes the whole book to appear contrived and unconvincing.

The problem of the Hells allows me to move right into the next major problem with the book, which is its excruciatingly bald political polemic. There's clearly a heavy metaphorical element to the Hells of the book; especially in the Prin sequences, they're meant to represent Guantanamo Bay and, more generally, the icky things societies tend to condone by inaction and then (the contention appears to be) conveniently forget about. The metaphor fails, though; in the case of societies in general and the U.S. and Guantanamo Bay specifically, it would be nice to believe that people just don't really understand what goes on and if some heroic crusader were to expose the truth, everyone would recoil in horror and the injustice would be ended, but it's not true. I'd say it's fairly clear that most people in the U.S. actually have a reasonably good idea what goes on at Guantanamo Bay - and, again, in the more general case, in many cases throughout history, people have been pretty well aware of fairly horrible things agents of their societies are doing to others - and broadly approve, in a 'well, it's nasty, but it's justified to prevent Jihadist terrorism / whatever' kind of a way. Banks (and anyone else) is perfectly free to disagree and to push their side of the argument, but to suggest - as the metaphor of the Hells does - that anyone who supports a society breaking the rules it claims to abide by within itself in order to defend itself from a perceived outside threat is simply in denial or misinformed is dubiously supported by any kind of hard evidence and, frankly, somewhat patronizing. In the horribly pat epilogue to the book, Banks draws a rosy picture of a galactic future in which the concept of Hell is abhorred forever and indeed used as a measuring stick of a society's fundamental level of maturity, which is nice, but glib and unconvincing...

...much like the even more glaring political polemic element of the book, in the 'main' storyline involving Veppers, the incredibly powerful member of a comically backward society who creakily contrives to have The Future in his palms, and the woman he kills at the start of the book and (this being sf) who shows up again to kill him at the end of it.

Banks is a good old Scottish socialist, to an extent a member of the weirdly prominent strain of old-school Scottish socialist sf writers in British sf. The Culture has long been a vision of socialism, so vilified at present, winning out utterly in the (very) far future of humanity when we're so damn advanced that there's no scarcity of anything any more, and no-one actually has to work for a living. It's fun because it's daring, at the time it was genuinely new, and it's very plausible, if you take a long enough view of events (though it's hardly the only plausible future vision). Not content with using this as a kind of background for much more complex and nuanced stories as he generally did previously, though, in SD Banks decides to take obvious pleasure in beating us around the head with the innate superiority of the caring, sharing Culture and the hideousness of all go-getter capitalism, ever, as conveniently personified in Veppers.

Veppers, you see, is incredibly rich, and powerful. We are constantly and unsubtly bombarded with cues as to how rich and powerful he is. When this isn't enough, we get a couple of pages at a time of teeth-grindingly dull exposition about exactly how rich and powerful he is. He's rich and powerful, you see. Just in case you didn't get that, he's rich and powerful.

Now, if you're a good socialist this is reason enough to hate him already, but if you're not, Banks makes it easy for you by making him utterly repellent personally, morally, ethically and in every other way he can come up with. He's a rapist, a murderer both personal and on the grand scale, both active and passive, a guy who manipulates everyone around him for the sheer fun and pleasure of it, a narcissist, a philistine, and utterly devoid of any personal charm. Well, Banks tells us when it's convenient to the narrative that he is (or can be) terribly charming, but this is never evidenced anywhere in the text at all. The best he manages are extremely brief periods of 'horribly oily' between the long stretches of 'downright hideous'. This is a guy that Ayn Rand couldn't root for. Well, possibly Ayn Rand, but just about nobody else, ever.

This is, frankly, infantile, and a terribly disappointing climbdown from the deep personal complexities of characters in classic Banks books like Consider Phlebas and my personal favourite, Use of Weapons. It's not just Veppers, though. The disease extends to virtually every human character in the book. Each of them can be summed up in a line, or even a word. None of them convinces as a person. The most interesting, Vatueil, is more or less wasted and dissolves into virtual incomprehensibility by the end. They're all ultimately just boring representations of some single quality or idea for Banks to push around to promote his personal ideology. It's worth noting here that, personally, I'm quite sympathetic to Banks' beliefs - probably more so than to what he perceives to be their opposition. It's not as if this sticks in my craw because I don't agree with him; it sticks in my craw because it's basically simple-minded politicial propaganda, which isn't a lot of fun whether you agree with it or not.

The main narrative concludes with Lededje, who is a sort of lazily-drawn avatar whose motive for revenge is the engine for the narrative but is never interestingly analyzed or utilized, hunting Veppers down and killing him in his own grand estate's folly, a miniature battleship maze. This is a typically Banksian flourish, but it feels more like he's going through the motions than anything else. The vaguely similar conclusions to books like Use of Weapons or A Song of Stone were vibrant and compelling in their metaphor and narrative tightness; the conclusion of SD somehow contrives to be pat, flabby and pretentious all at the same time. The same ingredients could have produced a finale as compelling as those, if better handled and at the end of a better book. Here it just feels like a bunch of failed story ingredients lying around while the plot happens between them.

Lededje doesn't even kill Veppers, not really; her sentient tattoo, which was provided for her by a Mind (one of the fabulously smart artificial intelligences that more or less run the Culture) does it when she can't, because she's just too damn decent and of course not at all inclined to, or trained for, argy-bargy. If she were actually to kill him, there may - God forbid - be some strand of complexity introduced into her character. We know this because Banks-as-narrator and then Banks-through-the-voice-of-a-Mind, tells us about it, explicitly. Awkwardly. The Mind explains that it's doing the killing for her, via the tattoo, so she can live with a clear can we, as we get to rejoice in the death of Veppers without our avatar, Lededje, having actually done the evil deed. Well, whoop-de-freaking-do. In fact, it turns out at the conclusion of the book that Lededje has been essentially a passenger all along, just a game piece being played by various ship Minds who have been entirely in control of her actions the whole time (like several other characters in the book). This could almost be a clever ending, with the apparent grand revenge narrative of the book subtly undercut - if only Banks left it implied, as he would have done in vastly more elegant works like Inversions, and didn't beat us over the head with it by having the Mind in question explain everything in explicit detail. Well, in fact, even if he had, it wouldn't have worked, because he uses the same idea extensively in another section of the book, in a much more ham-fisted way. Other characters spend most of the book being carted around the galaxy by various ship Minds (stop me if you've heard this one before) as helpless cargo. Just in case this isn't obvious to the reader, both the Minds in question and Banks-as-narrator remind us of it. Repeatedly. In one particularly ham-fisted sequence, one character is in a Mind-ship as it fights a big space battle; for several pages the character in question tries to make sense of the vastly simplified (Banks makes extra-specially-sure we know it's vastly simplified) summary of the battle the Mind provides for them. In the end - ho, ho! - it becomes clear (well, it doesn't become clear, the Mind tells us so straight out) that the battle actually happened in half a picosecond or something, and the character is actually watching an action replay, on a timescale which is almost incomprehensibly fast to them but painfully slow to the Mind. We get it, already. Minds are massively superior to people and see them as something between toys and pets. The idea isn't even new to the series; it's been brought into play more elegantly, especially in Excession, before. Previously Banks imaginatively engineered situations in which (pan) humans could still be influential and important, to make the books more involving and, more cleverly, to examine the things that might still be unique to humanity after our raw intellectual power is overtaken by the artificial intelligences we initiate - again a fairly common sf trope, but one that's very fruitful and which Banks has previously been a master of. In SD, he doesn't bother. He just sees the idea of humans being vastly inferior to Minds and essentially useless to them as some sort of joke, and/or some kind of vastly insightful point of its own, and brings it into play repeatedly, unsubtly, and inelegantly.

The vehicle Banks used to navigate this tricky Mind/human interface in previous books was SC - Special Circumstances - a sort of formally-informal covert action group for the Culture. In SD he appears to have got bored of Special Circumstances and invents a bunch of new agencies. One deals with the inhabitants of artificial afterlives. One deals with post-physical (Sublimed, in Banksian terms) civilizations. One deals with semi-intelligent Von Neumann-type artificial life, another creaky plot device I won't go into in any detail. All of these new agencies just sort of sit there, not doing very much. They are introduced in more creaky early exposition. One of the allegedly-main characters, who really does very little and whose personal arc (well, it's more of a very short and almost-straight line) we are supremely uninterested in, is supposedly a member of the first of these, but at the very end of the book, turns out to be an SC plant - only she doesn't know this. Banks apparently thinks this is a shock twist on the level of the utterly stunning shock twist that ends Use of Weapons; in fact it's a dead letter, a twist that exists simply to be a twist. The fact that she actually did join SC, and then had her memory wiped to become an unknowing plant in Restoria - rather than being offered a post in SC and turning it down to join Restoria, simply to make a point to SC, as she believes - is indeed a twist you probably don't see coming, but so what? It means nothing. It doesn't spin your perception of the whole story on its axis as Weapons' twist does. It's just a twist that tries to make you think the author's being clever. Ultimately, the new agencies could have never existed at all and the character could have been a member of SC and nothing significant to the plot or the points Banks is trying to make would be changed in the slightest. Agents of the other two new agencies show up very briefly, to similarly minimal effect.

There's other stuff I meant to write about, but this very messy review is getting terribly long. Ultimately there's flashes of something good in here. Buried mostly in the Vatueil, Prin and Chay sequences there's the potential for one of Banks' beautifully dream-like and narratively elegant books featuring multi-faceted and interestingly flawed characters, a Use of Weapons or a Song of Stone or a Walking on Glass. This is emphatically not that book, though. It's a flabby, poorly-constructed, deeply flawed, poorly plotted mess populated by badly drawn characters, which ultimately signifies very little. I very much hope it proves to be a one-off aberration.

Any other Banks fans out there reading this? Think I'm on crack? Do let loose in the comments.

(oh, the super-shock-twist ending, in the 'epilogue'? Felt trite and tacked on. Same problem as the other shock twist: it doesn't mean much. So Vatueil isn't who he thought he was. So what? Again, it doesn't change our understanding of the story. Vatueil as a new character without this twist does the same work as Vatueil-as-secret-guest-star-reappearance; the fact that he's someone else doesn't shed any particular light on his actions or change the overall meaning of anything in the story. It almost cheapens it, by making his part in the story the result of our long-time friend toying about, almost, with his own personal issues.)


graeme wrote on 2010-11-18 19:11:
Given that Banks wrote a book in which there was a virtual heaven, run by the sublimed of one species, the idea of a virtual hell is not a huge jump. Concepts of hell are very varied (from place of imposed punishment to place of self-chosen punishment, to state of lost self-fulfilment to "and this is hell, not am I out of it").
adamw wrote on 2010-11-19 06:09:
graeme: a good point indeed. my favourite take on Hell is from Red Dwarf... Rimmer: Wasn't it Sartre who said hell is being locked in a room forever with all your friends? Lister: Yeah, but Rimmer...all of his mates were French.
eagleton wrote on 2010-11-21 09:47:
Wow, thanks for taking the time to write down all of this (and you even managed to give Canonical a cursory appearance :)). I've read the majority of the culture novels apart from "Consider Phlebas", and so far the only one which has really impressed me is "The Player of Games". Its main character and the different dilemmas he faced throughout the book, combined with the incredible cruelty of his opponents really kept my interest. I've always been amazed how Banks manages to be so successful, considering the complexities of his books and all the technical and biological detail he sports. For sure he's not Asimov but hey, it seems to work for him. at lease, watching the fantasy section in my local bookstore continually growing at the expense of the SF section, it's great to see that there are still some good SF authors selling a decent amount of books.
DonnieP wrote on 2010-12-07 00:56:
Thank Heavens I finished reading the book before indulging this Damned review.
adamw wrote on 2010-12-07 01:23:
Donnie: hey, I did *warn* you. :) Do you disagree?