Saturday, 27 August 2011

A bit more Culture

It's been quite a while since Iain (M.) Banks last had an outing for (probably) his most famous creation, the Culture. But after a non-M. title that was patently science fiction, his book-writing cycle has definitively rolled back into M. territory with Surface Detail, novel number 8 in his Culture oeuvre (for those who're counting).

Opening with the murder, at his hands, of Y'breq, the indentured, and heavily tattooed, "companion" of the malevolent industrialist Veppers, the events of Surface Detail take place against the much grander backdrop of a "War in Heaven". For countless millennia, civilisations have constructed virtual realities in which to pleasurably immerse themselves, but a few have constructed virtual Hells in which punishment is meted out to those who are outcast, for whatever reason, by those societies. But the continued existence of these barbaric torture chambers is being challenged, and a virtual War is being bloodlessly fought to decide the outcome. But the War isn't going well for those who favour abolition and, contrary to the rules agreed upon by both sides, they are considering opening it out into a conflict in the real.

The Culture, who have grudgingly elected not to join the abolitionists, are watching the War from the sidelines with more than a passing interest. Their attention is focused by the unexpected resurrection of Y'breq in a distant Culture starship, and her unsurprising desire for revenge on Veppers, a player at the centre of the War. Meanwhile, Veppers is secretly finessing both sides in the War, promising to deliver destruction of the Hells to the abolitionists, and their continued secret operation to their owners. Alongside these (and other) strands in the real, several others play out in the virtual: academics Prin and Chay have hacked into their society's Hell in order to publicly expose its horrific purpose; meanwhile, Marshal Vatueil fights (and repeatedly dies) for the abolitionists through a series of radically different military campaigns.

As the Culture, as well as several other civilisations, become gradually aware of both Veppers' duplicity and of the plan to spread the War into the real, they are drawn into a quickly-evolving, and deadly, stream of events.

The first thing to say is that, as ever, this was a great read. I raced through its 600 pages, and more-or-less thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. It's perhaps not quite as richly baroque a tale as his last Culture outing but, much as with that novel, it still manages to pleasingly embellish the Culture universe. So here we have a slew of new civilisations, Culture-level and below; a considerably fleshed out and detailed virtual plane of existence; and a vast, mothballed system of factories built by a now-absent elder civilisation. Some of these aspects have been touched on in earlier novels (or in Banks' A Few Notes on the Culture), but I certainly hadn't expected a deeper delve into virtual reality to do so via anything like simulated Hells and a "War in Heaven". Chay's journey through Hell stands out as particularly striking. Regular readers can be assured that Banks is still keeping his universe unpredictably fresh, quite a contrast with another blog regular (and Banks wannabe), Neal Asher, who seems, instead, be intent on tying up all of his universe's loose ends.

That said, it's difficult to discern any deep theme in this Culture novel. Previous books have dealt with more weighty issues that (as much as science fiction can) parallel some from our own world, but there's nothing here that seems to fulfil a similar role. Focusing on Y'breq's desire for simple revenge, the novel seems more straightforwardly personal. The portions that deal with wider politics either don't have analogues in our world (at least ones I can perceive), or are too weakly fleshed out for them to be taken seriously. On this latter point, I think Banks missed a trick a bit by so briefly dealing with the politics of the pro-Hell civilisations. That, I suspect, would have been worth pursuing for its parallels with contemporary religious societies (whether Islamic or Christian), and would be right up Banks' street as a card-carrying socialist atheist. But, surprisingly, it doesn't get nearly enough attention.

Also, I am getting a little tired of the degree of hyper-threading in Banks' Culture novels these days. While he's never really told things in an entirely linear or straightforward fashion (The Player of Games comes closest; Use of Weapons is where he uses threads best), his use of a large number of typically loosely connected strands is getting to the point where it over-stretches my memory. It still works here, but it can be quite troublesome remembering who, exactly, all of the strangely-named aliens are, and it's certainly getting difficult to keep track of all of the plot convolutions and political machinations. I certainly lost track of some of the more minor players this time around, and I certainly struggled working out the various allegiances by the end. Banks may just be trying to keep readers on their toes, or perhaps simply illustrating the real complexity of events, but at times I thought he was instead being wilfully obfuscating.

Another curious malaise is that, increasingly, Banks makes his visits to the Culture a little too flippant. In earlier novels, serious events occurred and were discussed seriously, if with dark humour, by serious characters. While this still occurs, I find the tone a lot more uneven. Particularly so with the Culture Minds, which are now often a bit too "blokey" for the kinds of characters that they are (= benevolent, god-like AIs). There were a few places in Surface Detail where I found Banks dawdling a little too close to the line that separates him from the likes of the aforementioned Asher. While it can be enjoyable to read, it mostly just comes across at Banks playing to the gallery, and undercuts any more interesting points that the novel is trying to make (which, being science fiction, it might not be).

There's also a couple of odd conclusions to the novel. The first has the Culture essentially engaging in revenge after steadfastly sticking throughout to its humanitarian position abhorring it. While the Culture has some form on retribution from earlier novels (Look To Windward closes spectacularly on this point), it's done with more purpose and justification than here. While Veppers is deeply unpleasant, and is responsible for quite a number of deaths (including, of course, Y'breq's), his crimes don't seem on quite the right scale. The second is Surface Detail's epilogue which, while pleasing (for reasons I won't go into), is a little bit too much of playing to the fanboys. I liked it, and in fact had suspected it, but I just thought it an unnecessary extra detail that felt like Banks was trying to appropriate some of the fame of a certain previous novel for this one. One of the more distinctive aspects of Banks is that, while revisiting the same universe, he has largely resisted the temptation to return to previously crowd-pleasing settings or characters - long may it continue.

Anyway, notwithstanding my criticisms, which serve mostly to quibble about Surface Detail's ranking in the Culture pantheon, I'd thoroughly recommend the novel to Banks fans. Not the best of introductions to the Culture, and certainly not the most significant of them, but a very enjoyable tale, solidly told.

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