Russell Letson reviews Iain M. Banks

Here we have new books by two of the foremost practitioners of the variety of widescreen SF sometimes called New Space Opera, both from the UK, where Iain M. Banks and Neal Asher are prominent enough to have their bylines spread across their respective covers in headline-size fonts, a sure sign that they have become brand names. Both books feature multiple plot threads and viewpoints; complex future-historical settings with vast back-stories; and temporal and physical scales designed to dwarf the reader’s merely-human local perspective. The pair provides an interesting demonstration of what can be done with very similar suites of science-fictional furniture.

Iain M. Banks’s Surface Detail is a Culture novel, set on the far, far side of a Clarke’s-Law divide, so it’s full of technologies that might as well be magical, except that the metaphysics remain solidly (and even aggressively) materialist. Nor is the Culture’s galaxy a monolithic post-Singularity milieu, though there have been many Singularities in its history. Instead, it is a busy, variegated place with complicated levels of technological and moral-philosophical sophistication and with definite (if miraculously high) limits on what is possible, especially locally or circumstantially. The Culture itself, with its Orbitals, its titanic, eccentrically named starships operated by AI Minds and housing millions or billions of passenger/citizens, and its liking for the moral high ground (backed by a capacity for ferocious but carefully focused violence) is a setting optimized for exotic adventures that mix satirical comedy with horror and idealism with bloody-minded realism.

The novel’s opening chapters feature a series of possible protagonists. Lededje Y’breq is good heroine material: an Intagliated woman, literally marked all over and within her body as the property of Joiler Veppers, the richest and most powerful SOB in her civilization. She is, however, inconveniently murdered at the end of Chapter One. Chapter Two offers up Conscript Vatueil, once a cavalry captain but now a low-level sapper, burrowing away at the foundations of an impregnable castle in an apparently endless war with echoes of Earth’s Great War. But just when it starts to look promising for Vatueil, he comes to a sad end. OK, how about Yime Nsokyi (whose full name would be an entire chapter of a lesser book)? She dies halfway through Chapter Three, but it’s only a virtual death in a virtual battle, part of a defense drill for her Orbital’s volunteer militia, after which she gets a job offer with some interesting possibilities. Chapter Four turns to a situation where one would hope to spend as little time as possible: Prin and Chay, a pair of aliens, haven’t died but they are trapped in a vividly nasty afterlife which (like Vatueil’s war and Yime’s practice drill) is also a virtual environment, but not one that can be escaped even in lovingly simulated death by whatever hideously ingenious means the Hell’s administrators can devise.

Of course, those early-chapter deaths aren’t quite final, and we will follow all of these characters and a number of others through a complicated, multi-threaded plot that outlines a galaxy-wide cultural conflict over Hells like the one that holds Prin and Chay. Theirs is only one of many such environments, a network of literalized myths and metaphors maintained by various species as expressions of their particular philosophical and theological heritages. Prin and Chay are not sinners but reformers who have infiltrated their people’s Hell in order to expose its ugly nature, and they are not alone in wanting to put an end to systematic virtual torment. The argument over whether the meta-polity that includes the Culture should tolerate such establishments has gotten to the point where the question will be decided in a ‘‘confliction’’ – a series of virtual wars waged in computational environments. Unfortunately, the pro-Hell side is winning this War in Heaven, which drives the anti-Hell soldier Vatueil (who keeps getting killed in various segments of the confliction) to involve himself in a cheating conspiracy that threatens to bring the war into the Real, where it can make a big, irreversible, physical mess.

Meanwhile, Lededje is surprised to find herself resurrected, and her pursuit of revenge takes her away from and back to her home world, where Veppers and his corporate empire are somehow involved with the War in Heaven; while Yime works out her complicated relationship to the Culture’s Quietus and Special Circumstances organizations (she has snubbed the latter to join the former); and Prin escapes his Hell only to find himself entangled in a familiar-to-us public debate about religion and politics; and Chay, left behind, is dragged through increasingly refined and perverse departments of her species’ afterlife.

The complicated main plot – the confliction, the cheating conspiracy, and the multi-species political rivalries surrounding the whole mess – involves various aspects and agents of the Culture (which is firmly anti-Hell). Lededje’s resurrection was enabled by the avatar of a wandering Culture starship, and later she hitches a ride on another Culture vessel, the aptly named Abominator-class picket Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints. But this shaggy, commodious novel has room for plenty of subplot adventures – Vatueil’s checkered virtual military career; Yime’s encounter with a slightly mad ancient-alien Mind; Veppers’s intrigues with a species making a kind of side bet on the War in Heaven; a clean-up campaign against an outbreak of ‘‘smatter’’ – a ‘‘hegemonizing swarm’’ or hegswarm of ‘‘self-replicating entities [that] ran out of control somewhere and started trying to turn the totality of the galaxy’s matter into nothing but copies of themselves.’’

Which brings us to the line-by-line texture of the book. There is a good bit of snazzy writing, for example, this character-defining speech from the avatar of Falling Outside:

It’s looking clearer and clearer there’s going to be some heavy fucking messing hereabouts very shortly and that’s precisely what I’m built for. I’m going to get to strut my stuff, I’m going to get to be me, girlie. I tell you, I can’t fucking wait…. I am a warship. This is in my nature; this is what I’m designed and built for…. I was fully expecting to spend my operational life twiddling my metaphorical thumbs in the middle of empty nowhere, ensuring sensible behaviour amongst the rolling boil of fractious civs just by my presence and that of my peers, keeping the peace through the threat of the sheer pandemonium that would result if anybody resurrected the idea of war as a dispute-resolution procedure…. Now some sense-forsaken fuckwit with a death wish has done just that and I strongly suspect I shortly get a chance to shine, baby!

This kind of exuberant writing is also a feature of the narrative voice, a lofty, omniscient persona that sees around corners and through pretense and rationalization and loves ironies – Stapledon with a wicked sense of humor. On the topic of smatter, for example, we are informed that ‘‘Even the most urbanely sophisticated, scrupulously empathetic and excruciatingly polite civilization, it had been suggested, was just a hegswarm with a sense of proportion’’ and that the efforts of the Culture’s Restoria organization (aka Pest Control)

could be seen as the galaxy’s way of retaining a sort of balance between raw and refined, between wilderness and complexity, as well as ensuring that there was both always room for new intelligent life to evolve and that there was something wild, unexplored, and interesting for it to gaze upon when it did.

The urbanity can turn scornful when addressing political or social hypocrisy or cultural ambition or (especially) religion:

Almost every species had a creation myth buried somewhere in its past…. Talking utter drivel about thunderclouds having sex with the sun, lonely old sadists inventing something to amuse themselves with, a big fish spawning the stars, planets, moons, and your own ever-so-special People… at least showed you were interested in trying to provide an explanation for the world around you, and so was generally held to be a promising first step towards coming up with the belief system that provably worked and genuinely did miracles: reason, science, and technology.

And that’s what makes this book and the others in the Culture sequence more than giant thrill-rides. The conflicts, the intrigues, the chases, and even the often uncomfortable violence and cruelty are part of a world in which the banishing of scarcity and of many of the frailties and limitations of the flesh do not preclude other kinds of frailty; in which there are still limits and thus unpalatable choices to be made; and in which choices still matter. Civilizations rise and fall, Banks tells us, species rise and decline, marvels are wrought and return to dust, but wickedness and folly are forever. And that is the stuff of good stories. (OK, bolshie interstellar warships, mad alien AIs, virtual Hells, and smatter help too.)

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