Iain M Banks: ‘Surface Detail’
This book has been languishing near the top of the unread pile for over a year, almost constantly usurped from its place by exciting new publications by up and coming authors. Such is the eventual fate of long-running series. You know you will enjoy it, and you know what to expect, and because of this, in some strange way you almost can’t be arsed to read it anymore.
But read the latest installment of Banks’ long running ‘culture’ series I did, and enjoy it I did, but know what was going to happen… Well, I had an inkling, shall we say.
This novel is Banks’ long overdue look at uploading in his universe. The ‘sublimed’ have been mentioned time again in the series, but no thought has been given to them other than accusations of being bloody selfish. However, instead of looking at the sublimed, Banks takes a different tack and creates digital ‘hells’, places where the minds of dead persons are sent after their physical death and where they suffer all the torments normally expected of hells. Thus is the novel not an investigation into his own creation, but an analyses of the moral implications of post-mortem conciousness up-loading and a stark warning about the ownership of the hardware that your mind may be running on, come singularity day (hallelujah, oh happy AI), itself, again, not a novel theme in Banks, as in excession we find the ships making sure to ‘take care of the housekeeping’ in the real lest the physical basis for their digital fantasy worlds is endangered.
All a bit heavy duty for a Space Opera writer with a penchant for hollywood action scenes? Not at all. The premise for the book may be heavy, but the action is light all the way with only one or two really deep moralizing scenes. The actual plot itself is, um, thin. The bad guy thread works well, and the irreverant attitudes of the ships are always amusing (especially the rather louche uber-warship), but most of the novel hinges on two of the protagonists travelling to the final confrontation in surroundings of extreme non-peril and safety. it all reminds me a bit of excession only without the good bits. I’m sure travel-time is always going to be an issue when you are dealing with interstellar distances, but lets face it, if you are going to do away with relativity and time dilation, you can probably find some kind of device that means we don’t have to watch our hero riding in an gunned-up interstellar limo for 200 pages.
I’m a bit loathe to give a Banks SF an iffy review, but I am somewhat dissapointed in this novel. I have been waiting for Banks to deal with this subject for some time now, and I find it lacking, both in its discussion of its underlying premise, and in the execution of its overlying plot. I’d rather go back and read Player of Games or Excession again, and that makes me sad.