Surface Detail - Iain M. Banks

First things first: does anyone else picture Demeisen as David Tennant? Gaunt, gangling, fast-talking, humorous, with a tendency to switch within moments from cheerful to scarily intense, and with a jaunty enthusiasm for sharing viewpoints that...uh...have a tendency to fall outside the usual moral constraints? Every time Demeisen talked, I heard David Tennant.


Now the actual plot. Surface Detail centers around the concept of afterlives, and hell--well, hells-- in particular. Many "civilized" cultures had some basis for hell in their faiths, and when digital afterlives became a reality, they projected these beliefs onto the new realities. Without Hell, they argue, there is no moral center, no consequence for evil actions. Other civilizations--the Culture in particular--consider the idea of entombing sentient beings into eternal torment to be barbaric. And this is something that the reader, presumably, agrees with. But the interesting aspect, to my mind, is the logical extension into the Judeo-Christian belief system: if it's not okay to lock people up in Hell for all eternity, (1) why do we believe a loving God would do it, and (2) if we have some doubt about the reality of our own Hell, is it morally acceptable to threaten to people with that fate? How can we accept that an ultimate being would perform an act we find so repulsive in the virtual? The major distinction between our world and the one Banks creates--and one that Banks doesn't even discuss--is the power of the decision. Hell becomes marginally acceptable in the believer's mind because the ultimate decision is made by an all-perfect, all-knowing, all-forgiving(ish) God. But if your Hell is a piece of software, how can any fallible panhuman have the right to send someone there?


And then there's Interesting Issue Number Two, which again goes mostly unexplored by Banks but which, despite its familiarity, kept me fully preoccupied during the reading of the book: do the ends justify the means? Battlelines have been drawn up between the pro-Hell and anti-Hell factions, virtual battles rage throughout the afterlives, and Hell is winning the war. So the anti-Hell side decides to cheat, and, when all else fails, forswear their oaths and bring battle to the Real. The question: how is that possibly okay? Does the noble task of freeing the inmates of Hell overturn the respect for the rules? If the pro-Hell faction decided to cheat, we would see them as despicable. So why do we accept it when the good guys betray morality? The sum total of recrimination the pro-Hell guys receive is about a page's worth, but the irony echoes throughout the book.


The ideas of Surface Detail are fascinating; the plot and characters, not so much. The whole plot seems to me to be a vehicle for the ideas, to the point that I don't think Banks ever looked back and realized just how futile the characters' actions actually are. Looking back, I think there is exactly one character with meaningful agency in events: Demeisen. Who is awesome, in a David-Tennantish variety of creepy-but-awesome, or possibly awesome-but-creepy. Everyone else?

Let's go down the list.
--Lededje: we spend most of the time hearing about her as a victim, and then she comes up with a half-baked, ill-conceived idea to kill Veppers (and to throw recriminations at her lover), which requires assistance from basically everyone around her, which is foiled by the Culture saying no, and which is sort of reinstituted only with their help. And even then, she is an abject failure and would be dead if Demeisen didn't use trickery (which completely passed her by) to save her life. She is a victim; she is incompetent; she is utterly, utterly without agency, before or after her "escape" from Veppers.
--Jasken: grow a spine. He could have done something, but was too conditioned and too constrained by duty to a madman to actually do much of anything.
--Yime: seriously, what is the point of Yime, other than to be a casualty of all the various pieces of violence around? As far as I could tell, she didn't even make it past Veppers. Just another victim who is traumatized and injured over and over and over.
--Chay: wow, that whole sequence is just wrong. I understand that Chay basically exists to give us the viewpoint of Hell, but she is so passive, so utterly broken, that her her entire storyline feels like yet another victimization, the wallowing in the abject misery of a character broken before the story even starts. She has the least agency of any character in the story, and that's saying something.
--Prin: For all that his storyline seemed promising, the whole Pavulean court bit turned out to be utterly moot, making his sacrifice and agony ultimately pointless. His sacrifice--and Chay's--was ultimately utterly futile.
--Vatueil: wow, those sections were a drag. We're introduced to him when he gets caught and snitches on his cohort, then goes batshit and kills everyone at random. Hardly endearing, and in my opinion, it doesn't get much better from there. Ultimately, his actions are pretty futile as well, given that Veppers was already in the scheme to bomb out the hells. Also, I didn't like Zakalwe before, and this book did nothing to endear him to me.

(show spoiler)

And the villain of the piece is so utterly one-dimensionally evil that his very presence strips the book of nuance and complexity. In the end, only the Minds have real roles in the plot, which, given some of the issues brought up, may be the intent.

I have no idea if Banks was attempting to show the flaws in the Culture or if he genuinely thought their way of doing things is the best way. A few things that come out in this book: first of all, as one of the Minds cheerfully explains to Yime, Minds' lives mean more than human or drone. So everyone in the Culture is equal; it's just that ship Minds are more equal than others. And then there's the socioeconomic side. As another Mind tells Lededje, while SC has been known to off people at will, power and influence make them hesitate. Power and influence make their deeds have consequence in a way that simple life does not. And then there's the touted Culture "Court of Public Opinion.," where decisions regarding right and wrong are decided via peer pressure and social norms. It's absolutely not a democracy: as the Minds carefully point out, different groups' opinions have different weights, with Minds, of course, holding the lion's share. Again, everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others. Majority and "gentlemen's agreements" have been proxy to law for much of history, often notably in times of horrific injustice. Such concepts of honor were highly respected in the American South, for instance, and few saw hypocrisy in maintaining honor with one's peers and enslavement of one's subordinates. And that's leaving out the issues of popularity, presentation, skew, and every other aspect of communication that turns objective fact into subjective experience. Before you assume that openness equals fairness, remember some of the great internet pile-ons and lynching sessions that turned out to be completely unjustified. Whenever anyone starts touting the fairness of the court of public opinion, I get a bad taste in my mouth.


Every scifi author eventually seems compelled to write a book challenging religion and the constraints it puts upon society, and Banks' contribution is certainly thought-provoking. Even though its characters and plot may be superficial, the ideas and questions of Surface Detail have depths worth fathoming.