Book review: ‘Surface Detail’ by Iain M. Banks

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Special to the Los Angeles Times

My apologies that you must learn the awful truth from a book review, but you are actually dead and in hell. These facts will begin to manifest very soon, if they haven’t already.

Or, at least, you can imagine a similar message being delivered to those sent to virtual hells in science-fiction writer Iain M. Banks’ “Surface Detail,” a new novel in his Culture series.

What is the Culture? A human-based galactic civilization that, in its attempts at progressive, benevolent rule, sometimes gets it chillingly wrong. Through the course of nine novels, including the brilliant “Use of Weapons” and “Excession,” Banks has used mind-bending space opera to explore the Culture and tell ripping-good adventure yarns with large casts of characters, while also commenting intelligently on issues related to war, morality, philosophy and religion.


In “Surface Detail,” the murder on a distant planet of the indentured servant Lededje Y’breq by the powerful robber baron Veppers — followed by Y’breq’s mysterious resurrection aboard a far-distant Culture ship — sets off a series of fateful events. Y’breq’s quest to exact revenge on Veppers and discover the secret behind her rebirth form the novel’s central storyline.

That quest may also be related to the virtual hells mentioned earlier. The Culture and its allies are fighting against a coalition of other civilizations that send their dead (presumably only those judged as severely lacking) and, sometimes, living criminals, to virtual hells, there to endure an infinite period of torment: “The Hells existed because some faiths insisted on them, and some societies too, even without the excuse of over-indulged religiosity.” Banks dramatizes these efforts by following the avatars of military commander Vatueil in various virtual reality situations. On a more personal level, Banks documents the torments of two alien Pavuleans who enter their species’ virtual hell to expose it to average citizens who have little knowledge of what it is.

Part of Banks’ point is that in the future, the experience of the virtual will be indistinguishable from the real. Banks, for example, does a shudder-inducing job of describing the Pavulean hell: “Far beyond, beneath boiling dark skies, the stream gave out onto a great blood marsh where sufferers, planted and rooted like stunted trees, drowned again and again with every acid rain and each fresh wash of blood.” At first it appears this is just Stygian eye candy, but gradually the characters stuck in this horrible place become so real that the virtual nature of their adventures doesn’t reduce your fears for their well-being.

The intersection of all of these elements — along with some exciting space battles, and the threat of a virtual war over the hells spilling out into “the Real” — constitutes classic Banks, and at the level of surface detail much of it will satisfy the reader. Still, the most resonant parts of the book concern the Pavulean hell. A section in which the character Chay refuses to give up hope and is banished by the head demon to the Refuge, a kind of virtual monastery, is especially poignant. In altered time, she lives out an entire life at the edge of a desert: “She had become wizened. Her face was lined, her pelt was grey, and her gait had stiffened and become awkward with age.” Her stripped-down experiences, her interactions with the other nuns, convey pathos lacking in other parts of the novel.

Working against this complexity, Veppers is a stock villain of the proverbial mustache-twirling variety; if he were an actor you’d say he chews up the scenery, but not in a good way. With no complexity or nuance to Veppers’ character, he quickly becomes boring. Vatueil’s exploits, meanwhile, become recursive and draw too much attention away from the Real.

Banks has certainly imbued “Surface Detail” with excitement and energy, but ultimately the novel seems too long, and too virtual. It’s hard not to compare the layering of realities here with the work of Philip K. Dick or a novel like Stepan Chapman’s “The Troika,” in which “virtualness” is so intrinsically tied to character that it becomes transcendent and moving. Culture fans will enjoy “Surface Detail,” but others may wish for fewer layers and a little more depth.


By the way, in case you were concerned, you are not truly dead. Nor are you in hell. Probably.

VanderMeer’s most recent books are the novel “Finch” and the story collection “The Third Bear.”