Profoundly Superficial.

One of the Creator’s attendants in this incarnation happened to mention that there was a marvelous Iain Banks out called Surface Detail. The book was brandished before the Creator’s eyes and praised by all present, particularly those who had not read it. The blurb on the back of the volume assured the Creator that the Culture was about to go to war with Death itself. This seemed like a fitting thing for the Culture to do, and in a sense might begin the disintegration of that appalling convocation of fictional self-opinionated blowhards, so the Creator trundled off to an Exclusive and duly returned with the necessary doorstop.
Big mistake.
Recycling is a very good thing. The world’s resources are known to be finite and, contrary to the opinions of right-wing psychopaths, plundering the rest of the solar system is no solution. We must, therefore, do what we can do use things over and over. But not, please, intellectually. The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce – all right, you can get away with that if you are Napoleon III. But, please, not again and again. It grows dull. This is why U.S. foreign policy is so utterly uninspiring.
It would be tedious to enumerate all the ways in which Surface Detail recycles elements of earlier Banks texts. There is the sinister quasi-Sublimed race of unknown power lording it over a dead relic of a former civilization, which goes all the way back to Consider Phlebas. There is the surface detailing of the spaceships in Excession, as well as the unexpectedly-powerful-because-concealed spaceship in that same text, as well as the waffling intership communications in that same text. There is the unconvincing central character of Use of Weapons. There is the afterlife of Feersum Endjinn, somewhat modified via the afterlife of Look To Windward. There is the attempt to put one over on the Culture in Look To Windward and in Excession.
That will do for a beginning.
It should be possible for recycling not to be disastrous. Very few new ideas are born in science fiction, and therefore most science fiction depends on making new ideas appear new when they are not. This often entails taking old ideas and placing them in new contexts. Unfortunately for Iain Banks, his Culture novels are conceptually twenty-five years old and the context within which they appear is thus thoroughly stale. It has been possible for him to take more detailed looks at some of his ideas, or bring them into a contemporary context (after all, the work began in an era when socialism was still taken seriously by some of the public and is now being generated in an era when liberalism is considered equivalent to thoughtcrime). However, this is rather tricky, especially since he began doing this as early as The State of the Art. The danger with this is that “making it new” itself becomes formulaic, and therefore one needs a new way of making it new. Meanwhile, of course, the fans want everything just as it was before, if not more so, and someone like Banks can’t afford to ignore his public.
But unfortunately, the recycling which Banks undertakes here is not just intellectual recycling; it is also a recycling of everything that Banks has ever done to appeal to his nominal public. There is the Bad, Bad, Sociopathic Businessman (although, as usual with Banks, it is not quite clear what his business is or how he really makes his money, since he appears, like most Banks characters, completely without coherent motive). There is the Beautiful Asskicking Spy, and the Beautiful Asskicking Victim, and we have seen both these characters before ad nauseam, rather as if Banks were trying to relive his teens again through a sort of recreation of his first experience of Tomb Raider. There is the Representative of the Culture who is Weird (ho, hum) and the Representative of the Culture who is Scarier than you Think (yawn) and the Cruel and Heartless Alien Mistakenly Considering Himself a Goodie (bleah). All these characters are presented very much as they have been presented before, and therefore the reader is not encouraged to see them in any kind of novel context – they instead slot smoothly into the formulaic view of the world which has become Banks’ stock-in-trade.
Very well. What about the story? The story is about War In Heaven, or rather War Between Heaven And Hell, which ought to be interesting. Unfortunately, it isn’t actually about this at all. Some civilizations have decided to create an electronic afterlife of eternal punishment and carefully store the bodies and personalities of those who die in order to plunge them into this afterlife. A moment’s thought reveals that this is rather good grounds for revolution and the massacre of the people responsible. The point about the human Hell is that it was supposedly created by God as a result of our bad behaviour at some point in the past. You could blame your ancestors, or you could blame the Supreme Being, but there was nothing to do about it. But Granny and Sis frying in eternal flames just because some televangelist paid off a politician to organize it – that’s something you could do something about, and undeniably something would have been done about it. Banks fails to notice this because, frankly, he hasn’t thought the issue through – or, more troublingly, because his aliens, which after all represent alien people in the real world, are extremely stupid and fanatical. (That is, in a disquieting sense, Banks is buying into the genteel racism of British pseudo-left Islamophobia, of the kind displayed by various London novelists.)
Ow – that’s worrying. It means not only that Banks is disturbingly prejudiced in a way that affects his writing (this was what made Dead Air such a waste of woodpulp) but also that it affects the intellectual integrity of his science fiction – makes his story astonishingly implausible.
Well, what are we going to do about it? The Culture, famously, had tended to intervene against genocide. Obviously, plunging billions of people into eternal torture is a stage beyond genocide, even though Banks’ Hell appears to be derived largely not from Dante but from Disney. Fortunately, because the whole thing is run on a series of giant computers, it would not be difficult to transform the computer simulations into Heavens, and because the aliens building the Hells are in fact all technologically primitive, this could be done without their psychopathic leaders ever knowing. Alternatively, the psychopathic leaders could be told what has happened, and be told that they would no longer be allowed to manufacture artificial Hells, and also be told that in the event of their ever trying to do so again, the public would be notified of exactly what had happened, and why.
But all that would be much too conventional and normal for Banks, so instead, for no particular reason, he has his aliens institute a war within the computers (a very dull war without end or significance) and, when that doesn’t work out, has them institute a slightly wider war in the real world (again, a ridiculous one, fought with clumsy and transparent attempts to conceal the nature of the war and Blame Everything On The Culture). Why they feel the need to blame the Culture is uncertain. Very possibly, this blame game is an attempt to exonerate the West for its crimes by showing that the lesser breeds are always accusing the West of everything. If this is what Banks is trying to say, politically speaking he has really gone over the edge into utter absurdity.
Anyway, nothing which happens in the book is of any great significance. One of the diseases of space opera is pointless giganticism, and this is very evident here. There is a battle between the good guys and the bad guys, and the gorgeous bimboes and the bad (but spiffily-dressed) males, much of which seems rather like a narrated description of a Beyonce video.
There are one or two sentences in the book which have entertaining aspects (as when a character awakes hanging upside down and wonders whether there are any circumstances when this would be a good thing). Apart from this, truthfully, there is little or nothing in the book worth reading which hasn’t been done much, much better by Banks. The only reason for writing this book is to milk the value of the Culture franchise – meaning that Banks is no better than the vile businessmen whom he denounces, a writer stacking up bad literary debts hoping that the intellectual credit-default obligations will never be called in.
After reading the book, one must hope that they will. Banks is no longer a writer; he has become a disease.


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