a review by Nalini Haynes
Surface Detail begins with Lededje hiding from Veppers, her owner, who finds and subsequently murders her. Lededje awakens to find that her memories were captured in a neural lace so that she could be resurrected in a virtual world. Once restored to physical form, Lededje decides to return to her home, the Sichultian Enablement, a neighbour of the Culture (a high tech society), ostensibly to murder Veppers. The Culture has objections to murder so, while helping Lededje return, also takes steps to prevent murder. Meantime Veppers discovers the technology that enabled Lededje to be resurrected, leading him in search of answers while he continues his primary business activities.
Elsewhere Prin and Chay, two academics from a different species and culture, infiltrate Hell, a virtual reality in which resurrected dead people are tortured, murdered and resurrected endlessly. Prin and Chay intend to experience the reality of Hell so that they can return to the Real, then expose Hell in order to have it closed down. Things don’t go according to plan for Prin and Chay.
Vatueil is a soldier in the War of the Heavens, where the pro-Hell and anti-Hell factions have entered Virtual Reality to have a war to decide whether Hell will be closed down. Vatueil lives and dies repeatedly in this war, learning and being promoted, while continually dying and being resurrected.
Surface Detail is a hard core science fiction novel, delving into philosophy, politics and sociology rather than technical science. Banks uses the conflicts to examine cultures, attitudes to Hell, motivations and possible outcomes. This is a ‘Culture’ novel, part of a series of books based on the Culture, a futuristic society. I read this novel as a stand alone book. At times Banks delves into ‘history’, which followers of the series would probably be fully aware. There are two main issues with reading this as a stand alone book. Firstly, at 627 pages it isn’t a light read to start with. Without the background developed by reading the previous books, it becomes more challenging to follow both the plot and understand the setting. Secondly, the very last sentence of Surface Detail is obviously meant to be a revelation, which meant nothing to me as I haven’t read the other books.
Veppers and Lededje were two-dimensional characters lacking plausibility in their roles. This was particularly the case for Lededje, who had been repeatedly raped and yet had no sign of trauma after being a victim of sexual abuse for years. Veppers was a villain with absolutely no redeeming characteristics; there were no shades of grey in his personality or actions. This was a stark contrast to Prin, Chay and Vatueil who all engaged with issues and developed through the course of the story. Each of the latter three characters also served as a vehicle for philosophical exploration, more than compensating for the lack of depth in the central characters.
Surface Detail is food for the intellect. If Surface Detail was a game, it would be chess, possibly even 3 tiered chess. Read this if you enjoyed the Dune trilogy and Stranger in a Strange Land.
Now, I need the rest of the Culture series so I can start at the beginning, then read Surface Detail again…
This review was previously published in Dark Matter issue 2, January 2011, and predated on this website to reflect the original publication date.