Wednesday, 9 January 2013
Surface Detail by Iain M Banks
The main theme here is punishment. Not that this is ever an issue in the Culture, where it's an almost impossible concept. But for some other civilisations in the galaxy it's a very big deal - so big that digital hells have been created. The trope of uploading your personality at the end of your biological life (or before) is very common in SF these days, but the idea of this being used as eternal punishment in the afterlife is new, disturbing and interesting. It's certainly a dig at religion, given Banks' strident secularity, but when faith is replaced by technology - is it still a religion? One character from the pro-Hell side does say it would be the ultimate sacrilege to take eternal damnation out of the hands of God. He's lying of course, but surely he's right? Lots to think about.
Punishment also comes to the fore in the main plot line in the book - a slave girl who's murdered by her owner, the richest man in a society a few steps down from the Culture (though still well advanced of us) and who somehow reappears in virtual form on a Culture ship many light years away. Her revenge is what drives much of the book, and it's possibly the most successful part. This is largely became the tycoon Veppers is such a colossal bastard you can't wait for his murder victim to get even, despite the Culture's best efforts. Banks does seem to love these kind of characters, and Veppers does stay just on the right side of panto villain.
The other stand-out character here is a machine - again not a surprise from Banks. This is the Special Circumstances ship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints which does exactly what it says on the tin, or whatever Culture ships are made of. Lots of fun and very badass.
I did find the book as a whole a bit sprawling and confusing though. Too many storylines going on for my taste, and I never did quite figure out what was going on towards the end. Still definitely worth a read, but not what I'd recommend for a first time Culture reader.