Iain M. Banks’s Culture series began in 1987 in the midst of a galaxy-spanning war. By the time of Banks’s 2010 Culture novel Surface Detail (released in trade paper in 2011) the war is long over. The series seems to have survived the peace, no mean trick in itself.
Surface Detail has elements of Graham Greene-style espionage in a multi-faceted plot of seemingly unrelated stories that eventually come together in the final grand space opera shoot-em-up. The action centers around the world of Sichult, where the sex slave Lededje is killed by her owner Veppers after her latest escape attempt fails. She is mysteriously resurrected inside a Culture ship through the years-previous intervention of a different ship’s Mind, and sets out to exact revenge for her murder.
Lededje’s quest is bound up in the decades-long virtual war taking place between two major galactic factions: those that want an end to the existence of virtual Hells where some civilizations send their members deemed deserving of punishment after their deaths, and those that want the Hells to continue. Both sides at the outset of the war agreed that the fate of the virtual Hells would hinge on the war’s outcome. The Machiavellian Veppers is the richest businessman in the Sichultian civilization, which is several orders of magnitude down the advancement scale from the Culture. He made his initial fortune in virtual gaming, and is somehow involved in the continued existence of the Hells.
Major subplots that converge with Lededje’s story include the repeated missions, deaths and resurrections of Vatueil, one of the virtual soldiers in this war; the trials of Prin and Chay, a couple of quadrupeds who have infiltrated their world’s Hell in order to experience it and bring back word of its horrors to their government; and Yime, a young formerly female neuter in the branch of the Culture’s diplomatic service that deals with civilizations that have “sublimed,” or risen above the concerns and activities of those which still choose to interact with Reality via physical bodies.
But the best character in Surface Detail is a composite: the ship that calls itself Outside the Normal Moral Constraints and its avatar, who goes by the name of Demeisen. This ship ends up transporting the reborn Lededje toward Sichult, where she plans to kill Veppers and where the ship … well, who knows what the ship plans? Let’s just say that adventures are had along the way.
Banks’s Culture novels are always more than complex, plot-driven space operas. They delve into deep philosophical questions about the nature of life, morality and free will. One of Surface Detail‘s main themes is hope, and how its presence or absence affects the mental states and actions of all individuals. For Lededje, first it’s hope of escape, then hope of vengeance. The hope of Prin and Chay (in their virtual Hell) and Vatueil (in his virtual battle to decide the future of the Hells) are two sides of the same coin. Hell, it turns out, has no meaning without the existence of hope; and the life of a soldier is also meaningless without the hope that someday the war will end. And what of Yime? What is her motivation, her hope? That’s unclear until near the end.
As with all of Bank’s Culture novels, Surface Detail is richly imagined in addition to being intricately plotted. The characters’ actions sometimes surprise but never seem out of character. The settings are minutely described, and in such a way that I can almost always them see in my mind’s eye. There was a short section somewhere past the midpoint where I felt that the plot got bogged down for a while; other than that, I could hardly turn its nearly 650 pages fast enough.