If you can create an immersive virtual reality indistinguishable from the Real then you can build Heaven ... or Hell. Inevitably some civilizations will build their own Hells, to punish sinners and encourage the virtuous. Equally inevitably, other civilizations will want to abolish these virtual arenas of unending torment.
In “Surface Detail”, Iain M. Banks’ new Culture novel, there is a war in progress on this very issue. Waged for decades in virtuality, the losing side is preparing to cheat and move the war into the Real. Suddenly this issue could drag everybody in.
This novel of 627 pages provides plenty of space for a multitude of story lines to develop and coalesce as the big picture comes slowly into focus. We start, mise en scène, with the tattooed girl Lededje fleeing her overbearing boss. We cut to the conscript Vatueil, part of a mediaeval army besieging a castle in an opaque war. We cut to an overwhelming ‘equivalent tech’ assault upon a Culture Orbital and meet Yime Nsokyi fighting in the last ditch. Not all of these events are happening in the Real.
It’s a challenge to write compelling descriptions of Hell: how many words for torment are there in the language? How many gruesome tortures do you need to describe? How can you get the reader to empathise with suffering? Banks’ solution is to apply a paced plot-driven structure to excursions into the netherworld: we encounter agonies from repeatedly unexpected directions.
Towards the end, as battle fleets assemble, the novel picks up pace and Banks has a lot of fun with the Abominator Class General Offensive Unit “Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints”. This is a ship which could probably destroy a whole galactic spiral arm without really trying and boy, does it waste the bad guys!
So: exuberant, satisfyingly complex, interesting characters, quite a few surprises and a weird echo of “Use of Weapons” on the final page. What’s not to like?
If all SF is really reflection on the here-and-now, what’s the issue being explored here? No-one is going to feel too surprised that Iain Banks feels that torture is wrong, that virtual reality Hells are a poor idea, that sociopathic plutocrats ought to get their just desserts. So where is the subversive take on received bien-pensant opinion? The nearest I could find is that sometimes being talented, high-ranking and self-important doesn’t make you the automatic centre of attention – a somewhat underwhelming truth.
So read it as intelligent, sophisticated entertainment: it’s worth the money.