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Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

01/02/2011. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy Surface Detail (The New Culture Novel) in the USA - or Buy Surface Detail (The New Culture Novel) in the UK

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Surface Detail (The New Culture Novel) by Iain M. Banks. pub: Orbit. 627 page hardback. Price: GBP 18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-893-5).

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‘Surface Detail’ is a novel about death and after-life.

There are many writers of Science Fiction that have postulated longevity in some form or another. Peter F. Hamilton has kept characters going for centuries with a regular rejuvenation treatment. He also has them periodically back up their memories electronically so that if they die physically, they can be rebooted in the body of a specially grown clone. A kind of belt and braces approach. Other writers, such as Alastair Reynolds, puts his characters into stasis so that they do not age as the centuries pass, especially during long journeys through space at less than light speed. They problem with this approach is that they miss out on intervening events. An alternative is to have the intelligences housed in robotic bodies then, as long as the machine continues to function, the character lives. Metabolic changes can increase longevity. The faster the metabolism, the shorter the life so to live a long time, metabolism must be slowed down. The problem is that faster living sentients may not realise that you are alive and conversations may take millennia.

The methods used in ‘Surface Detail’ may not be novel but are effective for the purposes of the plot. The Culture is a galaxy-wide co-operation of races who get along without the use of money. Not every race or political grouping belongs to the Culture but it is acknowledged as powerful. Most of its citizens have a method of backing up their memories on a regular basis so that if the physical body dies, they can be revented in to new one which does not have to be a clone. Some have a neural lace running throughout their body which will transmit the memories elsewhere at the moment of death. Most of the Culture’s spaceships are the outer shell of a complex AI Mind which may have one or more avatars which are effectively independent extensions of the Mind and can take on whatever appearance the Mind wishes. Ship Minds are extremely long lived and it takes a lot to kill them.

Not every society agrees with the Culture’s way of doing things. There are a number of races that have developed virtual hells. After physical death, the mental entity may find themselves in a hell. There they may be tortured and the experience will seem as real as if the body was flesh and blood. The Culture and some of its allies would like to see the end of the hells and a virtual war has been raging for a number of decades. If the anti-hell faction wins, all the hells will be dismantled.

The plot interweaves several stories that cover untrustworthy periods of subjective time but culminate near the same point. Lededje Y’breq is the intagliated property of Joiler Veppers. He has become the richest man in the Sichultian Enablement, an area outside Culture jurisdiction, but within its influence. People of their race do not have any form of back-up. Death means extinction. When Veppers murders Lededje she finds her revented because the avatar of the ship, Me, I’m Counting, has implanted a neural lace without her knowledge in repayment for being able to make a 3D image of her tattoo. This, the mark of her family’s debt to Veppers, is scrawled on every surface of her body, internal and external. She has an unexpected second life and is determined to use it to return home and exact revenge on her killer.

Prin and Chay are members of a sentient, quadripedal race with two facial trunks as manipulators. Their race owns hells but they belong to an anti-hell faction and in order to produce the evidence of the iniquity of such places have agreed to enter one. These are virtual places but the torment seems real. Prin manages to escape back to the Real, leaving Chay behind as her experience has removed any hope from her and she has begun to believe that nothing else exists. Die in this hell and you are resurrected for more torment.

Vatueil is a combatant in the hell/anti-hell war that has been raging in virtual space for decades. If the anti-hell faction win, all hells will be scrapped by the terms of reference of the confliction. We meet Vatueil first as a sapper undermining a castle. He is killed and resurrected in another war zone, gradually working his way up through the ranks.

Yime Nsokyi is a Quietus agent. This organisation within the Culture does not have the same kudos as Special Circumstances, the latter being essentially an espionage section. Quietus deals with the dead. Yime is sent to try and intercept Lededje before she has a chance to kill Veppers.

They way that the characters react to potential danger depends of their prospects of being resurrected. Vauteil is prepared to throw everything into a fight, certain that his next life will be another battlefield, whereas Chay expects to be resurrected to more and probably worse pain. Lededje did not expect any life after her death but Auppi Unstril, part of the team trying to deal with a smatter (sentient matter) outbreak, expects to be revented but with the memories of her death missing. Lededje’s neural lace records the moment of her death with all its terror.

Just as Lededje’s tattoos are only on the surface of her body, surfaces also lie inside everything. Situations that look simple are convoluted and causes and actions run deeper than anticipated. For many of the characters, the boundary between the Real and virtual worlds is uncertain. They are not always sure which side of it they are on.

This is an excellent and imaginative addition to the Culture demographic. Although many of the techniques are shared with other writers it does not matter as the overall effect is ultimately what matters.

Pauline Morgan

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