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Posts Tagged ‘Surface Detail’

The Hydrogen Sonata (not to be confused with The Seth Rogen Sonata) is a Culture novel – a tale of Banks’s trademark galaxy-spanning meta-civilisation. This one focuses on the end days of the Gzilt (a civilisation that passed up the opportunity to be a founder member of the Culture ten thousand years ago) as they prepare to ‘Sublime’. Subliming is a process that involves an entire race (usually) deciding that they’ve had enough of reality and transporting themselves to mind-boggling, paradisiacal higher dimensions.

The thing about the Gzilt is that they have a holy book that – unique in galactic history – has turned out to be correct in its prophecies. The story kicks off when a ship arrives in Gzilt space with a message from the Zihdren Remnant (the remains of a long-Sublimed civilisation called the Zihdren) that may shed light on said holy tome’s provenance. This ship is destroyed by a Gzilt faction. As inveterate galactic busybodies, the Culture – an ad hoc committee of interested ships, at any rate – decides to investigate.

Much of the cast consists of the vastly capable artificial intelligences that control Culture ships – Minds. One Gzilt woman, Vyr Cossont – artificially four-armed because of her desire to master an almost unplayable piece of music on an almost unplayable instrument called the Antagonistic Undecagonstring – is recruited to recover the stored memory of a man (a ten-thousand-year-old Culture citizen) who may know the truth. A Culture woman is similarly (well, quite dissimilarly, actually) recruited to find the man himself. A Gzilt politician schemes with increasing desperation. A Gzilt general battles with the Culture and wishes he were a machine.

If you’ve read any Iain M Banks, you know what you’re getting with these characters. The book’s heroine is particularly reminiscent of the main character from Banks’s previous Culture novel – a non-Culture woman rescued and guided by a Culture ship. She doesn’t have much of a personality herself and is mostly a foil for what’s going on around her. Her limited human capabilities are rendered pretty much pointless by the hi-tech puissance of her ship mentor. The ships are the usual quick-talking, perceptive, cocky bunch. The politician is a fairly two-dimensional, unscrupulous smooth-talker.

The most interesting characters were some of the non-viewpoint characters. Like the Gzilt artist Ximenyr who conducts body modification. When he’s first encountered, he has dozens of penises grafted all over his body (and multiple hearts to pump enough blood to get them erect) and he conducts regular self-centred orgies. Or the android Eglyle Parinherm who is brought online to protect Cossont but who believes (because the technicians haven’t had time to reprogram him) that he’s in a simulation; he informs Cossont at one point that her reactions are unrealistic and advises the simulation designers (who he assumes to be listening) to have a rethink. Both are sadly underused. Sadly overused is Cossont’s sentient but stupid flying scarf, Pyan, which interjects nuggets of less than funny comic relief.

The previous Culture novel, Surface Detail was an examination of the idea of Hell – an idea that could be made real by uploading prisoners’ consciousness to gruesome, eternal simulations – while this book supposedly looks at Subliming. Except that it doesn’t – you don’t really get any insight into what it’s like except that it’s indescribable. When, at the end of the book, the Gzilt finally take the plunge, they do so (the humans, anyway) using basically the same method that Dorothy used to get home from Oz. This is certainly a joke on Banks’s part, but not a very satisfying one. (Humans declare their intent to Sublime and are transitioned to the higer dimensions by beings already there; AIs can do it for themselves.)

All of which may make it sound as if I didn’t enjoy The Hydrogen Sonata – I did, actually. It’s highly readable, if a little confusing in places – the various Minds and what they’ve been up to blurred together a lot. But it’s also pretty much more of the same, albeit from a great writer.

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I think Iain Banks’s latest science fiction – and Culture – novel demonstrates both his mastery of the single-volume space opera and also highlights some of his deficiencies as a writer.

Surface Detail is a story about the afterlife – or afterlives. Not in any mystical religious sense, but technologically enabled post-death virtual and physical existences. There are several plot threads that explore this issue. The main character, Lededje, dies in the first chapter, but her brain state is conveniently copied and ‘revented’ in a new body. Another strand of the story sees Prin, a campaigner against hells, escaping from a mission to investigate one such hell – a mission that his wife, Chay, fails to return from. In the Culture universe, some races have chosen, based on their religious convictions to create real hells, simulated environments in which miscreants’ brain states are brought back to life after death – or sometimes before – in order that they may live an eternity of agony. (Many other, less disturbing virtual afterlives exist, too.)

Many of the galaxy’s advanced races object to these hells, so there has been a virtual war raging for some years in a specially created series of simulated battlefields to settle the issue of whether the hells should be stamped out. The war is not going well for the anti-hell side. The narrative follows another character, Vatueil, through a number of fights in this war that usually end with his own death.

As usual, Banks’s writing is crisp, intelligent, playful and a pleasure to read. Any fan of his science fiction novels will be swept up in the continuing history of the Culture – a hedonistic, pan-galactic meta-civilisation whose interactions with less advanced peoples and the machinations of its Special Circumstances branch form the bulk of Banks’s sf adventures. The novel can be read in isolation, but there are lots of references to previous narratives, and there’s an extra special little Easter egg in the epilogue.

Surface Detail is a pretty hefty volume, but it packs an awful lot into its pages. There is the War of the Hells, Lededje’s quest for revenge aided by a joyfully psychotic SC ship, the plottings of the man who killed her, Prin’s legal battle, Prin’s wife’s existence trapped in hell, the investigation of a Quietus operative, Yime Nsokyi (Quietus is another Culture branch introduced for the first time in this book). All these threads seem disparate at first, but increasingly come together into a pleasing whole. Once I’d finished the book, however, it seemed that the story of Prin and his wife, while providing a vital and gruesome context to the rest of the novel, didn’t really affect the conclusion in any way whatever.

While the writing was great, the story intriguing and the characters engaging, there never really felt like there was a huge amount at stake. Lededje has already survived death and anything she achieves afterwards can only be a bonus; the ship she travels on to get back home is a top of the line military craft that is capable of severely embarrassing the lower tech of the world it heads towards. This is one of the problems with the Culture as a dramatic setting: its technology surpasses almost all other civilisations, its main operatives are AI-controlled ships with vast capabilities; in the Culture universe, the only races that can really threaten the Culture are ones that are so advanced that they aren’t even really interested in galactic affairs. In this light, one of the best parts of the book involves the Yime and her ship nearly being destroyed by a sentient remnant of a long-gone civilisation. This is merely a detour, however, and doesn’t have much relevance to the rest of the story.

While the characters are likeable and believable, I found it difficult to really care that much about them. This is a book to savour for its grand sweep of narrative and the detail of its world-building rather than the force of its character arcs. But that’s OK, because visiting the Culture universe is an immersive and inspiring joyride, borne along by the zippy vehicle of Banks’s writing.

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From Iain M Banks’s new novel, Surface Detail:

Almost every developing species had a creation myth buried somewhere in its past, even if by the time they’d become space-faring it was no more than a quaint and dusty irrelevance (though, granted, some were downright embarrassing). Talking utter drivel about thunderclouds having sex with the sun, lonely old sadists inventing something to amuse themselves with, a big fish spawning the stars, planets, moons and your own ever-so-special People – or whatever other nonsense had wandered into the most likely feverish mind of the enthusiast who had come up with the idea in the first place – at least showed you were interested in trying [to] provide an explanation for the world around you, and so was generally held to be a promising first step towards coming up with the belief system that provably worked and genuinely did produce miracles: reason, science and technology.

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On the subject of books, this autumn looks like being a great season for book releases from some of my favourite authors. In addition to Against All Things Ending (see below), there’s Towers of Midnight (book 13 of The Wheel of Time) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson,

The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions, by Robert Rankin,

and I just found out that there’s a new Iain M Banks book coming out – a Culture novel, no less – called Surface Detail:

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