Friday, December 3, 2010

Friday Book Review, 12/3/2010

Only one book this week. Mr. Banks occupied me until the end of Wednesday, and Mr. Bryson will probably occupy me through the weekend.

Iain M. Banks - Surface Detail


I suppose I could leave it at that, but some readers might object. First, a little background on the Culture novels. Banks has (as Simon pointed out earlier) been writing these books for going on 20 years now, starting with Consider Phlebas (which, in retrospect, I'm not sure I've actually read - I think I've read the novels from that point on, though). These novels are set in a post-singularity universe. The singularity, as a concept (as I understand it) describes a technological advancement of such effect that from the far side of the advance we cannot imagine what it was like to live before the advance took place (and vice versa to some extent).* The example I offer to my students when I find the need to explain the concept is the cell phone - at least in most instances of western society, the cell phone has become more or less ubiquitous, and it's hard to imagine what life was like before we had them (even though I, for one, grew up in a world without cell phones) - think about a trip to the mall with your significant other and no cell phone, for instance. How would you coordinate? How would you know where to meet? It's hard to think about on some level. Anyway, in scifi, post-singularity as a sub-genre exists as an exploration of the world after some future singularity, which is usually one of the following: the development of strong/true artificial intelligence (AI), a significant advance in virtual reality, some form of breaking the mind/machine barrier (cyborgs, or nanites, or some form of machine which interacts directly with the human brain), or some combination of the three. Banks writes in a universe which combines all three of these advances. His universe is peopled with human beings who can experience real virtual reality on a whim, who have a wide variety of mechanical and biological body modifications (within the Culture, Banks' central civilization, it is entirely common for people to have specially designed glands which secrete carefully tailored drugs). It is also peopled (if that is the word I want) with sentient machines - drones (basically robots, but non-humanoid, somewhere between the size of a breadbox and a tea cup, with internal anti-gravity effectors) and ships. Banks' ships are, arguably, the most interesting characters in the books - they are hyper intelligent, often quite snarky, theoretically independent of their human counterparts, and they have fantastic names - Surface Detail features the Fast Picket Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints and the General Systems Vehicle Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly, and a whole cast of other ships with equally colourful names. The ships, I think, are one of the things which bring me back to these novels as consistently as they do, they are, quite frankly, brilliant.

Within this universe, Banks tends to focus on the Culture, a galaxy spanning civilization of mostly humans which has an interesting (from the point of view of the author/reader) or unpleasant (from the point of view of the Culture's neighbors) tendency to "do good" and "help out" and "invade, but it's entirely for your own good" - they are, clearly, a hyper-advance version of the Western Liberal tradition, and they are also brilliant. It would be entirely possible, I think, to write about the Culture somewhat tongue in cheek, and I think that would probably spoil the effect. Thankfully, Banks does not do that - his Culture characters are forthright, earnest, honestly believing (for the most part) that they have the best of intentions, and Banks does not scar them with authorial sarcasm, for which he is to be eternally praised. At the same time, he allows the Culture to reveal its own flaws - the characters are not plaster saints, which would be boring.

Ok. So all of that out of the way, Surface Detail is a stellar example of Banks at his very best. He explores, in the very best traditions of speculative fiction, hugely deep questions about the nature of reality, and what makes us human, and what happens to us when we die. He does all of that while telling a brilliant story, with enormous spaceships and big explosions. Frankly, I can't imagine what else you could possibly want in a novel. The Culture finds itself on one side of a war over the existence of virtual reality hells - most advanced societies, Banks explains, have developed the ability to capture the mental essence of the biological members of the society - their "soul", for want of a better word - and store it, indefinitely, in a complex virtual reality. Most societies design these virtual realities as paradises, but some also have hells, where the virtual inhabitants suffer endless torment. the Culture is opposed to the hells, and one of the central focii of the novel is the war (in an expansive virtual reality itself) over whether hells should continue to exist or not. There is also a lovely revenge plot, a fantastically evil villain, some double and triple crossing, a great deal of war, and several massive explosions.

That last paragraph highlights a couple of things that I quite like about the Culture novels, but which new readers might well find off-putting. At least recently (I think this isn't true, for instance, of The Player of  Games), Banks has been constructing his novels as a complex nest of interlocking narratives which often seem to take the form of vaguely related short stories. Banks has also made extensive use of lengthy expository digressions (not unlike this one), which I find delightful.  This produces a dense, but immensely satisfying novel - like a well made fruit cake, perhaps, rich and full of a wide mix of things, some of which you might like and some of which you might not (and, it should be added, not necessarily enjoyed equally by all).

So, in conclusion, Surface Detail is brilliant, and almost certainly a must-read for existing fans of the series. It's a fine example of the lofty level at which Banks is currently writing - hugely dense and fantastically satisfying - but it is probably not a useful place for someone new to the series to begin. Banks makes no effort to build upon previous novels - there is no continuity of characters, for instance - but his earlier novels are simply more accessible. I recommend The Player of Games and Use of Weapons as good entry points (because I'm not sure I've read Consider Phlebas - I'll have to see if I can find a copy) - you can build up to the denser and more complicated novels once you've fully engaged with the universe.

I should note, perhaps, that upon some further research, it turns out that novels that I thought were part of the Culture series are not, really. Against a Dark Background and The Algebraist - both of which I read and enjoyed - are not Culture novels, per se, in that the Culture does not play a role in the plot. There seems to be some argument as to whether they exist within the same literary universe as the Culture novels - more so for Dark Background that The Algebraist - which may be what threw me. At any rate, those are also excellent novels, deeply twisty in their plots and involved in their characterization. I should also point out that Iain M. Banks and Iain Banks are the same guy, but Iain M. Banks writes sci fi and Iain Banks writes contemporary fiction.

* Not to beat a dead horse, but, looked at in a particular way, Steampunk is also a subset of singularity fiction - it's just that the singularity in question is steam power rather than artificial intelligence.