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- Banks, Iain M. — Inversions (407 pages)
- Banks, Iain M. — Look to Windward (403 pages)
- Nouwen, Henri J. M. & Yushi Nomura — Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers (136 pages)
- Gaiman, Neil — The Sandman, Volume 1: Preludes & Nocturnes (217 pages)
- Banks, Iain M. — Matter (600 pages)
- Banks, Iain M. — Surface Detail (627 pages)
- Page count
Surface Detail is a novel about life, death, and afterlife (not, or at least not by definition, in a religious sense). It's about reality and virtual reality. It's about what is right or wrong and what right cultures have to impose their sense of morality on other cultures.
Many advanced techs have learned how to copy a person's mind state, so that when he or she dies the personality, experiences, etc., can be transferred to a new physical body, stored in stasis, or kept "alive" in a virtual environment. An established "fact" about the Culture, for example, is that people can choose to back themselves up (a form of life insurance, if you will) and, in effect, live for hundreds of years. However, not all civilisations go this route. In Look to Windward, the Chelgrians do not reincarnate their dead but rather keep them in stasis unless they are deemed worthy to enter a virtual heaven.
In Surface Detail we learn that many civilizations, some quite advanced, have virtual hells. Banks graphically describes one of them in luridly imaginative detail: it is a place of great suffering and sorrow, and it is here we follow one of the most touching storylines in the novel. Pro- and anti-hell factions are waging a virtual war over the existence of these hells, but when things don't go so well for one side, hostilities spill over into the real. The Culture gets deeply embroiled in the conflict, seemingly by circumstance. To say more would be spoilerish.
Surface Detail features more of the usual Banksian delights: great inventiveness and humour, important and thought-provoking questions, and so on. The first four chapters had quite unexpected endings (which later make sense in the context of the novel, but again I can't say more without spoiling) which provided a lovely stylistic twist. The descriptions of the grotesque were moving and memorable. And Surface Detail contains my favourite Culture ship Mind by far, the borderline psychotic and delightfully sadistic Abominator-class picket ship, Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, who exhibits childlike glee when he is forced to engage an opponent in battle and finally gets to flex his muscles.
But for all the fun, the novel seems flatter than other Culture novels. One of the hallmarks of the series is the "big questions," complex issues and dilemmas, which the novels raise, but in Surface Detail there is less ambiguity about one in particular. Hells are definitely evil places and pro-hell factions are unquestionably baddies. This lack of moral ambiguity is very un-Banksian and, while I don't disagree with his conclusions, it made for a less satisfying read. A lot goes on in the novel, but it feels complicated more than complex. But then maybe this is intentional, a focus on the surface details — the fractal tattoo covering the protagonist's body which marks her as property, not the whole person; the visual appearance and tangible effects of the virtual environments, not the moral morass that lies beneath; the Culture's stance of non-interference, not the machinations which influence favourable outcomes in other civilisations. The question of the morality of hells has a clear answer, but there is greater complexity beneath the surface.