Volume 30, Number 4, Summer, 2012

Surface Detail

By Iain Banks

Orbit, 2011
Reviewed by Chris Hibbert

Iain M. Banks’s Surface Detail is an exploration of hell on a couple of different levels. The main conflict in the story is between civilizations that believe in using hell as a real threat to keep sinners in line, and those that are opposed to the practice. According to the story, there are enough societies with a hell in their religion to have made it a common practice, once “people” started moving into simulations, that many created “hell” simulations and sentenced people to spend time there as a judicial punishment.

Most species and societies have a creation myth. The idea of a soul is also common, even if advanced civilizations mostly outgrow belief in it. Once you add in virtual reality, and then the ability to copy minds and host them in a simulation, the idea that virtual afterlives should resemble the cultural traditions’ ideas of either heaven of hell seems obvious. The problem is that as people (sophonts of whatever stripe) grow more sophisticated, many stop believing that perpetual hell could be a reasonable punishment.

The Culture took a fairly active stance (unusual for them) against the hells, and after some galactic period of time, there was a relative stalemate, in which two factions had very strong opinions that the other side was wrong. “Eventually, though, a war was agreed on as the best way to settle the whole dispute.” A virtual war, of course, with both sides agreeing that the outcome on the virtual battlefield would determine the victor in the real world. There’s a sub-plot for the virtual battles and another for the political and logistical maneuvering that leaks into the real world.

There’s another sub-plot that takes place in one of the simulated hells. Banks does a really good job of envisioning what it would take to make a truly scary hell. In a civilization that does have hell simulations, but which tries to keep their existence from being generally known, there are some muckraking journalists who want to convince everyone that the stories are true, so they volunteer to infiltrate. Things don’t turn out well for them, and this gives Banks the opportunity to really turn the screws and come up with more and more unbearable tortures.

The major plot involves an evil industrialist who kept a defeated rival’s daughter as a slave, and eventually killed her. She gets a chance to come back and try to take revenge. The “coming back” requires a trip across the galaxy with a culture Abominator class ship the “Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints.” FOTNMC is a real personality, and seems pretty unstoppable in a battle of wits or an actual battle.

I really like Banks’ Culture stories, and even though this one is filled with plausible and explicit hells and some truly evil and some powerful and amoral characters, I thought it was both fun and had philosophical depth. The proprietor of hell has to deal with someone who can’t be satisfactorily tortured because she has really given up all hope, so he comes up with a way to give her just enough hope to allow her to suffer again. Truly nasty.

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