Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Iain M Banks: Surface Detail - Death arrives at the party?

I have got the sense in Iain Banks last few novels - both sci fi and traditional he has been struggling a little bit. Not with their scope or even the art of writing which he still maintains at a high standard but mainly with running out of things to say. Even where his sci-fi has such a grandiose scale literally creating his own universe there seems to have been a limit of ideas. I thought that his last traditional novel, Transition, though very good repeated a lot of its concepts from Banks' own science fiction. However this is not something that can be levelled at this work.
 Surface Detail is a very impressive novel which wrestles with the ultimate question of mortality albeit through the advanced prism of the Culture - the utopian communist intergalactic society which surely is Banks greatest literary creation. Banks has along with nearly every other artist confronted the ultimate question before but never in such a systematic way as he does here.

 The saga starts with a death of a painted slave at the hands of a cruel master but surprisingly and without her knowledge she has been "backed up" using Culture technology and can be re-entered into a new body or "re-vented". This is one of the core problems examined in the work - death has no real meaning in the Culture has people can be downloaded and kept - their consciousness a constant. Yet this can cause problems as their is no real consistency. People get tired and want to just disappear. There is even a new section of the Culture outlined here the Quietus whose role is to intervene with the "dead".

The "micro" story of the death, re-birth and journey of Lededje the murdered woman forms the backdrop to the big "macro" story and inter-galactic battle where the big ideas stomp around. This takes the form of a "Virtual" war between civilisations over the existence or not of Hells. That is in this time period of the Culture most societies even not directly linked with the Culture have managed to transcend death particularly with the use of Artifical Intelligence. Some though want to keep the threat of an evil After-life and to use it to keep societies in Check. Other advanced societies disagree - the Culture, perhaps surprisingly, are neutral or are they? So when God is dead essentially why have a Hell - even if it is only virtual?
 The picture which Banks presents of specific inter galactic hells are very impressive particularly that of the Pavulean civilisation which is like a Breugel painting in its grotesque vision. The Pavuleans are a quadraped race with two trunks with fingers at them (!) - a bit of an echo of some of Alistair Gray's fantasies I thought. There is a constant exploration over the Hell of this society and the internal battle against it. It never integrates with the main plots which tie the macro and micro together ultimately and it has the oddly disconcerting tone of the reader ascribing human emotions to a species who look a bit like Mr Snuffaluffagus in Sesame St. 

One of the pleasures I have in reading Culture novels is as a socialist rooting for the way-advanced civilisation in its battles against lesser and more arrogant exploitative groups. In that sense Banks has adapted this literary trope from series of fiction which rely on the reader identifying with the central repeated character - like detective or spy novels. But there is not one person or one Artificial Mind who are the essence of the Culture here (though Banks gives a knowing wink to readers in a twisty reference to an earlier Culture book) it is literally a way of life that we are celebrating and "rooting" for. It may explain why I enjoy it in this setting and dont enjoy repeated characters in other fictions or maybe Im just a hypocrite.

 The big ideas and the plot integrate and culminate in a big and little war centred around the Sichultian regime dominated by the arch - baddy Veppers who is a neo-liberal (intergalactic equivalent) exploiter of planets, resources and people. Banks also does villains very well as he seems to focus all his hate he has for what' going on in this planet in one person. And for the times we are living in with a rapacious Capitalism reliant on state bail outs and sticking its claws into public service Veppers does this role very well. It is he who carries out the murder of his indentured slave Lededje in the first chapter and he plays a critical role throughout.
 The big problem that people have with these sort of novels from Banks is that they are in some ways traditional sci-fi - it's not because of the ideas which are intriguing and radical or for the writing which in general is of a very high quality. But there's also a lot about space ship design and descriptions of things blowing up. So you have to deal with sentences like this: " the space - marshal here, on behalf of those forces known as the anti-Hell side, now taking part in the current confliction being overseen by the Ishlorsinami, requests that we - the Veprine Corporation and the currently constituted and here configured sub-section of the Gestepian- Fardesile Cultural Federacy..." and so on - that's not for everyone! But I always think this stuff is balanced out enough with the ideas. The problem is there needs to be an exposition when you are describing a completely new universe and the political tensions within - there are always a few key passages in a IMB novel that you need to keep flicking back to. But he always does this in a original narrative way.
 And he definitely is a master of the form of running several scenarios alongside each other - making passages shorter as the climax of the work approaches. One criticism of the structure which I noticed is he introduces a couple of new characters in quite a complex battle setting two thirds of the way through - this noticeably jarred for me and was a bit like a speed bump in the work. I was also not sure about elements of the "micro" story which is about the death and the rebirth of Lededje and her revenge on Veppers. Lededje is a tattooed human who is majorly abused by the horrific figure of Veppers - this seems to be a bit of a nod to the publishing phenomena and pretty poor Dragon Tattoo novels. It is turned around though because tattoos in Lededje's culture are a sign of slavery and ownership by the rich elite - not a liberating thing at all : part of the "surface detail" of an oppressive society. The skin paintings are literally bred into the genes of her type. Yet the Culture's take on a tattoo proves a useful thing later on, not to give away too much. The revenge element (which contrasts again with the Larsson novels) is dealt with in a slightly more satisfying way - with a bit of a dilemma and discussion about whether one abused person's revenge is more important than the liberation of billions of abused people. But ultimately I think it's discussion of abuse and sexual violence and its effect on Lededje even though she is in literally a different body could have been more developed though it is more sophisticated that the Dragon Tattoo book.

 There is so much more here - interesting species including the Culture's own Facebook fan group the GFCF who cause a lot of problems, the exploration of the minutiae of the Special Circumstances part of the Culture, people's struggle with mortality and the complexity of the Artifical Minds to name a few. It is a big book in a way that Banks has not done in either element of his fiction for a while. Death is looked at up close here albeit in a galaxy far far away and I think the reader can take much from it if they want to give the scifi a chance.