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Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Surface DetailI found this novel mildly disappointing in the end, but up until the climax I found it completely riveting. This is another in the Culture series, and Banks delves into a couple of aspects of the Culture that I don't recall his going into so deeply before: virtual realities and self-backup and "reventing," which is the Culture term for re-embodying a backed-up (or recorded) self. My sense is that Surface Detail also increases the complexity of points-of-view that are interweaved into the narrative -- something he'd already amped up at least one level in the previous Culture novel, Matter. Unfortunately, as amazing as some of the interweaving is, I think this complexity is part of what undermines the resolution, as he has too many balls in the air and doesn't seem to know what to do with them all.

The story revolves around two nodes. In one, a non-Culture pan-human woman named Lededje Y'breq, who is a sex slave, is murdered by her owner and then revented by a Culture ship. Her ambition is to return to her home planet and wreak revenge on her owner. In the other node, a virtual war (called, ironically, the War in Heaven) is being waged over whether civilizations will be allowed to continue to create virtual hells where virtual souls are subjected to extreme torture for religious reasons. Eventually these two strands of the narrative coincide, although not in the most compelling way. Which is perhaps to say that I didn't feel a dramatic connection between the two threads, despite the fact that they end up connecting to the same character.

Still, as a travelogue through the Culture and through various interesting scientific, philosophical, and religious questions, the book is entirely engaging. Banks was a master of exposition, and I could read his background histories of various aspects of the Culture (and other civilizations) all day long. I feel as though as the Culture series progressed, he got more and more interested in the religious aspects of things, including Sublimation (in which civilizations move beyond a physical substrate into something like virtual reality, except, well, not physical) and the correspondence between the idea of the recorded self and the idea of the soul and between the idea of reventing and the idea of reincarnation, not to mention questions about the purpose of pain and suffering. On some level Surface Detail can be read as a long meditation about how the Culture deals with pain, and I think the emotional high point of the story for me was a sequence in which a Culture ship with one of the human protagonists on board it is attacked by a superior technology, the punishing nature of which is conveyed along one axis by the extreme (and extremely effective) measures the ship takes to detach the human from the pain of severe injuries.

Banks has always been fascinated by violence, and there's another thread to this novel that's about the pleasure of violence in a civilization that theoretically abhors it. This thread runs through all the Culture books, in fact. It's one I have mixed feelings about, partly because I'm so terrified of the atavistic side of human nature (a fear which finds the instinct toward violence as depicted by Banks all-too-real), and partly because there's a gleeful side to it that I just don't get. So the blood-thirsty Culture ship Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints who is such a source of humor and good cheer in this novel was a challenge, shall we say, for me. I'm never quite sure that the conflicted feelings about violence in Culture novels make sense on a philosophical or world-building level or whether they are more an expression of Banks' own personal obsessions.

Somewhere in the middle of this novel I was thinking about what kind of writer Banks was, and what kind of books the Culture novels were. They are adventure novels -- romances -- for the most part, but with serious ideas presented and explored. They are wildly exciting, and yet they raise complex moral questions. I was thinking Banks was like Alexandre Dumas, but maybe Victor Hugo is a better point of comparison. I don't really know who to compare him to, honestly. Rollicking adventures and Big Ideas. It's amazing, heady stuff, but I still think his aliens are basically humans with odd appendages tacked on.

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