Iain Bank’s Surface Detail is a gnarly, detailed, superb book full of juice and texture. It was very satisfying to come back to it after a few years.
The book takes a long look at Hell. In the following book, the Hydrogen Sonata, Banks looks at heaven. It’s a pity he died before he could write any further culture novels. I like to think perhaps he’d have addressed purgatory—or perhaps he already did with the title story in State of the Art.
Anyway, Surface Detail: in the Culture universe, some non–Culture civilisations still not only believe in Hell, but create them in technology to keep naughty poor people in their place. By making the punishment for being uppity against oppression even more horrible than completely horrible in life, so the conservative reasoning goes, poor people will stop being quite so objectionable to starving and brutality and all those other things necessary to allow rich people to keep a decent supply of essentials such as lemon–scented napkins.
There are stronger scenes of class oppression in The Player of Games. In Surface Detail, that’s more background detail, referenced in speeches by conservative politicians.
In the galaxy as a whole, there is a war going on, between those civilisations that want to ban the hells, and those ‘civilisations’ that want to keep them going. The Culture, being of course utterly neutral, has no role in these wars. Except, of course, the Culture, being unable to keep its nose out of anything, is very much involved. It turns out that another character we follow happens to be a Culture agent, tasked with making sure the pro–hell side loses, is a character whom readers of earlier Culture books will already know.
One of the pairs of characters we follow explore the hell for their particular civilisation, with the intention of exposing it, and the politicians who set it up. Things don’t quite go to plan, and in some ways we revisit some of the themes explored in The Bridge.
In the dominant plot line, one of the super–rich, who happens to have some control over those hells, murders a sex slave, the daughter of a defeated competitor, who has the audacity not to be a docile and obedient sex toy. Unfortunately for the murderer, and to the complete surprise of the slavegirl, she had a neural lace implanted, so, after death, wakes up in a new body in a Culture ship. Quite a lot of the story of the book is the story of her revenge.
Because the Culture disapprove of those civilisations that use hells to keep their oppressed oppressed, they do seem to offer the occasional helping hand to the plot of revenge, so that, when the slavegirl has problems delivering her revenge, she gets some really powerful help: not obviously, of course.
This is a very bad summary of a rather good book. Surface Detail is no Excession, but it’s one of Banks’ better Culture books.