How daunting it can be to plunge into a novel that’s the latest in a long-running series. How much more so if we’re talking science fiction.
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That’s assuming, of course, you can handle the vertiginous leap into Banks’s universe in the first place. The borders between the real world and virtual reality, and between organic life-form and artificial intelligence, are so fluid here as to be almost meaningless. It’s commonplace for people (“people” being members of any number of sentient races) to download their consciousnesses into a virtual realm – temporarily, permanently, or while a new corporeal body is being grown for them. And artificial intelligences, like those which control Culture starships, are so advanced that the dividing line between them and the real consciousnesses stored in virtual space is hard to define.
And what about a stored, dead consciousness? For millennia, species have been preserving their brain patterns in computers to the extent, it’s claimed, that the dead now outnumber the living. There are even different levels of death, all the way up to the Sublimes, who don’t get out much at all. The lucky ones have the option of existing for eternity in whatever palatial splendour they fancy – it’s all just digital code, after all. However, a disconcerting number of civilisations create virtual Hells (really, seriously nightmarish places) for the disembodied minds of their late citizens to spend the afterlife. It’s a way for traditional religion to be kept alive via technology.
The Culture thinks this is a barbaric practice and wants it stopped. But the pro-Hell societies won’t give up without a fight. So, at the point the book opens, they’ve been waging a cyberspace war for three decades. But there’s increasing pressure for the fighting to spill out into the real world, where real people will be killed by real weapons.
Against all this, the story of Lededje might seem fairly insignificant. A young woman tattooed so profoundly, at the genetic level, that even her organs and bones are patterned, Lededje was made the property of the mega-rich Joiler Veppers to satisfy the terms of a debt. Trying to escape his lascivious clutches, he kills her. But at the moment of death her consciousness is transported and she’s reborn in a new body, ready to wreak revenge on her killer. This might not be such a big deal were Veppers not so important that he can exert a considerable influence over matters like an impending galactic war.
Banks, clearly enjoying himself, is a garrulous guide through this tortuously complex universe, and seems to sneak a little bit of himself into the book’s most engaging character, Demeisen, avatar of the ship Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints (ships get to pick their own names), a foul-mouthed, devil-may-care thrillseeker who, when a situation is getting out of hand, likes nothing more than to give it a gentle prod in the wrong direction.
Arguably, there are extraneous characters and at least one sub-plot which could have been excised entirely without harming the story. And Banks’s verbosity, which may well be a deliberate cranking-up of the clunky dialogue of space opera just for the hell of it, leads to some sentences that would require special training to read aloud. Not only does he know his setting intimately, Banks likes to tell us all about it too, so rather than just having Lededje don a special suit to cope with the stresses of space combat, he has his characters discuss it for several pages.
But these are faults Surface Detail shares with thrillers in other genres. And a thriller is what it undoubtedly is, with murder, revenge, pursuit and subterfuge taking place against a backdrop of escalating tension. On that level, it stands up very well, and makes the prospect of further books in the Culture series somewhat less imposing.