Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Iain M. Banks - Surface Detail

The war was amongst the Heavens, between the Afterlives, if you wanted to be pedantic about it. And it was over the Hells. (p. 117)

Like a lot of Iain M. Banks’s works, the greater part of Surface Detail is spent on the journey. The core of Surface Detail is the gathering in Sichultian space and the real world climax of the hells, but the majority of the pages are spent wheeling the various players into place, only actually addressing the physical result of the hells after a huge number of pages has passed. Unlike Matter, however, the characters are interacting almost right from the starts, the various factions and groups of characters almost immediately established. As a result, the characters grow, jostle, and play off of one another throughout the book, leaving the actual arrival at Sichultia to be almost as much capstone as climax, the events already predetermined and obvious as a result of everything that came before.

There’s a lot of meandering and slowly building tension here, and it’s there that Banks excels. The hells are the core of the book. Does a culture have the right to maintain order through the threat of post-death punishment? And, more importantly, do those who find the custom barbaric have the right to stop those who find it necessary? Banks approaches the topic from several different perspectives.

The two sides – galactic do gooders and cybernetic demon-supporters – are both too civilized to outright blow each other up in the Real, at least not while things are going their way. To settle the issue, the two factions have been waging a virtual war for decades, millions of soldiers on both sides killing and dying dozens of times in a simulated war.

Vateuil is one of these soldiers. We first meet him in a pseudo-medieval theater of the war, where he’s a sub-grunt soldier expected to help tunnel into the enemy’s castle. Everything here, looking back, fits perfectly into the idea of a simulation. The little details that one uses as a grounding in reality are all there – the multitude of complaining workers, the superior officers, the grit of the subterranean air in one’s throat – but there’s a sense of wrongness running through it all, not the least of which is the contrast between the last chapter’s behemoth space ships and this one’s stone-throwing war machines.

When we next meet Vateuil, and in all of our subsequent meetings, he’s moved up in rank and, soon, Vateuil has proven himself sufficiently to join his side’s virtual war council. So which side’s that? Good question. With each reincarnation – or, at least, with the first few – Vateuil finds himself sans memories, only aware of the direct battle in front of him. As a result, exactly which side of the whole thing he’s on is a bit of a mystery for most of the text. As things start to go badly for…whatever side he’s on…Vateuil is placed on the forefront of the mission to circumvent the hells by whatever means necessary. Hacking the simulation, if they can manage it. Or, if it comes down to it, taking the war directly to the Real.

It’s not enough, however, to see the hells from a distance, a moral wrong that’s most certainly something worth fighting against. No, Banks introduces us to the hells firsthand, subjecting us to torments unimaginable through the eyes of two Pavuleans, Prin and Chay. The two snuck into hell to try and prove what’s there, but Chay was left behind and is now subject to the continual, everlasting tortures of a place designed to do nothing but extract pain for as long as inhumanly possible.

Chay, however, proves to not be such an easy victim, not due to a rather fighting spirit but rather because of a defeatist attitude that leaves her utterly hopeless, numb to the pain. Though the opening chapters of the subplot are predictable – and, from a pacing/chronological perspective are introduced long after they should have been – the storyline soon manages to put the reader in the same state of mind as Chay, knowing that the upturns in fortune are not real but still praying that they are. Though the hells are vibrant, this section is a great deal more somber than the more colorful sections set in the Culture and elsewhere. For the most part, the change in tone further accentuates the content, but rapid switches between the two styles do jar in places.

The hells are the thematic core of the book, but the emotional center lies with Lededge. Killed in the opening chapter by the rich and influential Veppers, her quest for revenge is larger than life every step of the way, from the operatic backdrop of her murder to the warship that she rides back to her home planet. Using an abominator class warship to get to where you intend to get revenge on one guy is, apparently, the rough equivalent of taking an aircraft carrier to the other side of New York City where you plan to shout at someone for a bit, and the reader can’t help but wonder what the ship’s real purpose is – or if it’s just that the ship’s as insane as it looks. That abominator class warship, Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, is one of the hands down best parts of the book, a mixture of earnest and sadistic that’s electrifying on the page – but the true marvel of the sequence is that, almost absurdly overblown circumstances packed into every pore, Ledege’s quest is still a human one, her emotions still real and vulnerable to the reader.

The characters and their interactions with the Culture are a joy to read. There are a decent number of Culture books by now (this is, by my count, the ninth), and the setting has become beautifully rich. And yet, despite the amount of background material available, Banks continues to play a light dance around the things we’ve come to expect. Endlessly packing your own setting with element after element, many of them seeming contradictions, is a dangerous game, but when your writing’s got as much charisma as Banks’s has, you’re free to do what you want.

Enter Yime. She’s a Culture secret agent of sorts, but not a member of Special Circumstances. Her hopes and successes were and are, instead, focused on Quietus, the more dignified step-brother of those SC cowboys. Quietus focuses on the relationship between the living and those in the various afterlives.

Unfortunately, with Yime comes the fairly obvious downside of meandering to and fro. It’s not that the stuff that we see with Yime is uninteresting; like just about everything in the novel, it’s fascinating and well written. Almost none of it, however, comes to really affect the plot. Take the bulbitian, for instance. The time spent aboard it is mysterious, well described, and filled with the same epic grandeur that infuses so much of Banks’s writing. What our time with it never does, however, is do anything but take a miniscule step towards ruling out a possibility that wasn’t introduced until the section started.

Still, it’s hard to get mad at Banks for his digressions, because, regardless of how direct your route is, his imagination is a great place to spend some time. Banks has the kind of far flung ideas that most science fiction writers would kill for, and he has the ability to write clearly and powerfully enough to bring those images from his imagination to yours, unsullied – or even aided – by the translation:

Intagliates looked like ordinary people only in silhouette, or in lighting conditions so poor you could hardly see them at all. Turn on a lamp, come out into the daylight, and they were revealed as the fabulous creatures that they were. An intagliate was covered, head to foot, in what was called a congenitally administered tattoo. Lededge had been born tattooed, emerging form the womb with the most fabulously intricate patterns indelibly encoded at a cellular level onto her skin and throughout her body.

Cut [an Intagliate] open and you would find similar designs on the surfaces of their internal organs, their designated motif carried into their heart and guts. Bleach their bones; the design would be stamped on the pale surface of their very skeleton; suck out their marrow and break their bones open, the ornamentation continued. At every possible level of their being they bore the mark that distinguished them from the blank sheets there other people, as well as from those who had merely chosen to have themselves in some way marked.
(p. 69)

So, after all that build up, when the plot threads finally coalesce, what do we get? The ending seems simple until one gets to the epilogue, where pieces fall into place and new layers seem to come into focus and an alternative interpretation of events opens up, a twist that Banks actually entrusts with the main thematic thrust of his novel.

And yet, even with the cool twist, there’s something about the ending that is, if not quite unsatisfying, at the least very expected. There are a hundred shifts in motivation and cause in this book, but none of them even go so far as to put the ultimate outcome in doubt. Yes, exactly how they got there is interesting, but when you’re going to a place that was marked out on the first page of the book, and your arrival has never once been really questioned, it’s hard to slacken a bit of a well, duh feeling to the climax itself.

Surface Detail is an Iain M. Banks novel with everything that implies. The author’s strengths are generally here, and there aren’t any really debilitating weaknesses, but the book does lack the wow factor of Use of Weapons, making it a good – very good, even – Culture novel, but not a great one.

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