This is easily the longest of the Culture books, and arguably the weakest too, but we’ll come to that in due course. In the meantime I must confess that what I was planning to write about this has been unfortunately (and depressingly) overtaken by events in the real world.
Surface Detail is the one about the Hells. It turns out that certain galactic civilizations are still quite keen on the idea of damnation and, what with being able to transcribe personalities perfectly into virtual environments, have both the will and the ability to make eternal torment following bodily death an actual/virtual thing. There is, of course, a lot of room in this concept for a fairly nuanced exploration of morality, absolute and relative ethics, and the nature of self. And it’s not like Banks was unaware of this; there are enough little nods in these directions to at least acknowledge them as issues, but that’s not really what Culture books are about or why we read them. It’s taken as given that the Culture is right and, while the methods might be imperfect, the ultimate goals are sound.
I think that’s part of what makes this one of the lesser works in the series; there really is no attempt to question the rightness of the Culture’s position (anti-Hell, obviously) or to try and invest the opposing side with any kind of validity at all. Compare this to the bleak moral greyness of Consider Phlebas, or even the more nuanced conceptions of Us vs Them in Excession. Indeed, once it’s all been nicely wrapped up to the satisfaction of our favourite pan-galactic metacivilisation, we’re told that the absence of Hells quickly became ‘accepted almost without question as part of what constituted being civilised in the first place.’ I’m fairly certain that this was all intended as a proxy for capital punishment in our own world, and as someone who’s very much against that sort of thing I’m certainly not going to argue with the validity of that stance, but such an absolute position doesn’t really make for much in the way of a story-driving conflict.
There’s a bit of an attempt to muddy the waters, with one of the anti-Hell civs being a bunch of conniving traitorous bellends, but Veppers, the main antagonist, is the most cartoonish bad guy in the entire canon. The narrative starts with him murdering the heroine and ultimately revels in his slightly gory demise, a revelation that doesn’t count as a spoiler because it is entirely obvious from the moment we meet him that he’s going to get what’s coming to him. The fact that this is essentially an extra judicial execution is not without irony, and one of the few moral complexities the book allows (even if apparently by accident). The characterization is also unusually weak and the plotting rather random and diffuse, both issues that exacerbate each other as characters and plot strands appear and disappear without really contributing to or driving the overall story.
The Contact agent Yime Nsokyi is the worst of these extraneities, closely followed by the activist Prin, who enters and then escapes one of the Hells as a form of protest, abandoning his partner Chay in the process. This is where I feel overtaken by events, because at this point I was going to bang on about how, while Prin’s story is unnecessary, Chay’s experiences of Hell are grisly imaginative and help frame the wider conflict – this is what they’re fighting over, this is what these people do, this is what it’s worth breaking the rules to defeat – but in the light of the recent CIA torture report from America all of this feels at best academic, and at worst trivial and trivialising of actual real life abhorrences. Suddenly it’s all a little too close to home.
In all honesty I don’t have the mental fortitude to properly engage with this train of thought right now, though it is clearly one with which engagement is due. So I’ll just leave it here for your contemplation (you’re very welcome) and say that, for all I’ve been labelling this the weakest Culture installment I still got through most of it in three days, and Banks’ writing remains stylish, imaginative, thought-provoking, and funny. Banks on an off day is still superior to many others at their best and it’s another one of the ironies of this book that, as the end of this reread approaches, I can’t help but feel slightly saddened by that.