Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
Sometimes the eye can be seduced and not understand the reality of what it sees. Indeed, perhaps that’s the real point of Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks. In our mundane world, people can wear different uniforms or be decorated with tattoos to suggest membership of one group yet, under the skin, they may be wolves dressed up as sheep, or vice versa. A novel based on this theme should come as a cautionary tale, encouraging the reader to look beyond the obvious to find the real beef (as Walter Mondale might say).
So we open up for business with the outside of the package. The jacket and endpaper designs by Lauren Panepinto are actually exploiting one of those mathematical things that we’ve adopted as art. Those who have the right computing power start off their machines with a Mandelbrot Set and then stand back with a critical eye as the equations propagate into infinite fractal patterns. Then it’s just a matter of waiting and, with the reflexes of a trained hunter, the trap is sprung just as the right visual effect walks into view. In this case, the eyes have it and, for the benefit of those who like a bigger image, I’ve posted one of the wallpaper versions from the Orbit site.
This is not a distraction from the book itself because, like much of the fiction by both the standard and the M-enhanced versions of Iain Banks, the book is very much about both the need to look beneath the surface of reality and the rich patterns that form the tapestry of life, or death, for that matter (pun intended). Looking back through time, there’s always been a stick and carrot approach to controlling people while on Earth. You have a great place everyone could go to when they die. The price of entry is to do whatever keeps the priests happy. But, if these poor supplicants step off the straight and narrow path devised by their priests, there’s a place of terrible punishment waiting. Well, in primitive times, this kind of threat system works rather well. As we grow a little more sophisticated, the potential for manipulation becomes more obvious and this can inspire us to a more cynical view. If we choose, we can look for evidence of what might be real.
Now the SFnal idea: everyone knows about the possibilities of virtualisation — a system that allows us to create a virtual rather than an actual version of reality. Modern technology is limited, but let’s suppose we can develop immersive systems where a user’s awareness of their surroundings is limited or excluded, leaving all the senses perceiving the virtual as real. With massive processing power, we could create entire artificial environments that users could experience as if physically there. So here comes the justification for the title. Without a helpful label floating somewhere in the mind’s eye saying “simulation”, there might be no way in which to see beyond the virtual surface to the real. It all comes down to the metaphysical paradox explored by many philosophers, writers and film-makers. How do we know we exist? We could just be dreaming this life, or death, for that matter (still punning).
Perhaps entire civilisations might decide to create virtual hells and, on death, personalities that had offended local behavioural norms could literally be transferred into a purgatory. This then changes the balance of power within the civilisation. When there was no evidence to show a heaven and hell existed, religion would slowly wither as rationality replaced faith. But suppose you could actually organise visits to the virtual hell. It would be a really dramatic, not to say traumatic, experience for the living to be presented with a short experience of what it could be like for them if they are disobedient.
So now we have a major ethical debate across star systems and the civilised universe. The pro- and anti-Hell camps square off but, with no obvious way of resolving such emotional issues in a real way, perhaps they might agree some kind of contest. Not quite along the same lines as a chess match to decide the winner, but champions could be nominated. They could fight it out over a predetermined period of time in virtual space.
Yet what would happen if one side felt they were losing in this virtual conflict. Might they attempt to hack back into the real world to find some advantage to tip the final scales in their favour?
So we set off on another Culture novel and, from an early point, we meet one of the best and most engaging villains I’ve experienced in quite a long time. Veppers is a complete delight. He’s the key stimulus forcing the other characters, both real and artificial, to react. We can say approving things about Leddedje, an “owned” human, magnificently tattooed to demonstrate her status. Veppers murders her in the first chapter — unbeknown to him, she’s rescued by Culture technology. Or the wonderfully enthusiastic Demeisen, avatar of the appropriately-named ship, Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, who revels in the chance to relive the excitement of being able to fire off all his weaponry in anger. But they are all slightly pallid shadows in pursuit of Veppers who, for various reasons that become clear as the plot unwinds, is at the centre of the debate about the virtual hells.
This is Iain Banks at his very best with a sly and engaging fable in which we can rehearse old arguments about superstition and its role in society, while enjoying full-blown space opera with AI ships blasting enemies without caring too much about the casualty rate in the various species that might be operating said enemy ships. For once, this is science fiction with a real sense of humour. While not laugh-out-loud, it certainly brings smiles of appreciation as wit positively crackles across the many worlds, both real and imagined. Whereas the last two Culture novels, Matter and Hydrogen Sonata, were a bit dowdy, this is a bright and hugely enjoyable romp through all the major SF space opera tropes. It’s definitely worth seeking out and reading.
This is a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.