Monday, 4 July 2011

Iain M Banks, Surface Detail (2010)

I’ve fallen behind in my M. Banks reading, so I thought I might hoover up the last few, and see how he’s developing as a writer of the vasty galactic-operatic. So here’s Surface Detail, his latest Culture novel, which I enjoyed, up to a point. The novel's main premise is that with the invention both of completely immersive virtual realities and the uploading thereunto of the consciousnesses of the recently dead, some societies have taken to uploading their dead into virtual heavens and—more to the point—hells. These latter are the occasion of humanitarian outrage in some quarters; and indeed a war is being fought (virtually) between the pro- and anti-Hell camps. The anti-Hell camp is losing, and feels so strong a moral repugnance concerning these hells that it is ready to bring the war into the Real, aiming to destroy the ‘substrates’—the hard drives, in effect, upon which the virtualities are being run. The Culture is notionally neutral in this war, but it’s obvious where its sympathies lie.

The Culture is the same old high-tech polymorphously-perverse utopia of geekish wish-fulfilment familiar from the earlier novels, where the particular skill-sets, ethics, desires and wit-discourse of sf nerds turn out to be the gold standard of pangalactic multi-species civilisation. It’s still pretty winning, too, that conceit; although after a dozen revarnishings the core ideas are starting to smooth themselves in ways that are not especially helpful, dramatically and aesthetically speaking. Indeed, it's all starting to seem a little overfamiliar.

Surface Detail struck me as a novel that is lengthily intricate without being in any sense complex. It is necessarily 'about' the largest questions—life and death, punishment and atonement, cruelty and kindness—but churns through a great deal of business without ever saying anything particularly worthwhile about any of that. The Boschian hell that Banks describes has its cruel ingenuities, both practical (waterwheels powered by the blood of the flayed) and moral (an anti-Hell soul is incarnated as a demon and allowed to kill—which is to say, delete, remove from their suffering—one soul per day, out of hell’s billions; although each time she does she takes on a fraction of her victim’s pain). But that said, the hell felt underpowered imaginatively and derivative to me (compare, if it's not too random a connection, this hugely superior sfnalisation of the Boschian inferno). Of the various narrative braids, some are more absorbing than others; at 627 pages the novel is about 250-pages too long; and the GSV names struck me as feebler than in previous Culture novels I have read (Me, I’m Counting?; Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints; Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly; The Spaceship Name That Makes The Reader Go Meh. Well, not that last one, obviously).

If I had to pick one word to describe Surface Detail it would be: rapey. To be a little more exact, it isn’t wholly rapey, but it’s a bit rapey, and that’s not a good thing. A main narrative strand concerns the can-do action-heroine Lededje, enslaved and repeatedly raped by a smooth-talking villainous Steve Jobs called Veppers. At the beginning of the novel Lededje, trying to escape Veppers, is captured by his staff. As he taunts her, she breaks free and bites the end of his nose off, enraging him so much that he stabs her to death. But she is resurrected by a bit of Culture-tech handwaving, and returns—with (if you’ll forgive me) deadening literal mindedness—to wreak her revenge. Veppers' rape and murder of Lededje is the way Banks focalises his more systematic, corporate, super-wealthy Evil. Rape, you see, is wrong; and Banks underlines this point by building his Hell around it. This is what happens to a key character, Chay by name:
They took turns raping her while they discussed what to do to make her really suffer. In Hell, the seed of demons burned like acid and generally brought with it parasites, worms, gangrene and tumours, as well as the possibility of the conception of something that would eat its way out when the time came to be born. That conception could equally well take place in a male; a womb was not required and the demons were not fussy. [280]
Because, evidently, vanilla rape is not nasty enough for our purposes. There’s a narrative offhandedness to this which doesn’t sit well (“I’ll make sure they tell her it’s all your fault when they’re fucking her to death, a hundred at a time...” [446]); but there’s something more. One Culture character is called Demeisen, the avatar of the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints. Lededje needs this ship to facilitate her inevitable revenge against the bad, rapey Veppers. When she and the avatar first meet, Demeisen burns his own hand with a cigarette.
Lededje stared at [the burn], openly aghast. “Don’t worry; I don’t feel a thing.” He laughed. “The idiot inside here does though.” He tapped the side of his head, smiled again. “Poor fool won some sort of competition to replace a ship’s avatar for a hundred days or a year or something similar. No control over either body or ship whatsoever obviously, but the full experience in other respects—sensations, for example. I’m told he practically came in his pants when he learned an up-to-date warship had volunteered to accept his offer of body host.” The smile became broader, more of a grin. “Obviously not the most zealous student of ship psychology, then. ... So, I torment the poor fool. ... powerless to stop me,” Demiesen said cheerily. “He suffers his pain and learns his lesson while I, well I gain some small amusement.” [207]
Ha-ha! Ha-ha! How funny all this is (the Demiesen character is played for laughs throughout, in a dark sort of way). This scene ends with Demiesen noting that ‘fascinatingly, the fellow is quite defiantly heterosexual, with a fear of bodily violation that borders on outright homophobia’, before going off to have passive gay sex with a young man, thereby forcing that particular experience upon his passenger. In other words: rape is very terrible if done to a woman; but can be played for laughs once you’ve established that the victim is (a) a bit gullible and (b) has a notionally 'borderline homophobic' dislike of being fucked up the arse.

What does this tell us? It suggests that Banks is less interested in definitions of rape predicated upon consent. Indeed, the whole drift of this, as of other Culture novels, is that the John Stuart Mill liberalism as socially consensual (freedom means: you should be free to do anything except interfere with another's freedom) of the Culture’s official ethos just doesn’t cut it in the nasty, nasty place the galaxy truly is. Hence we need the Culture black-ops, the heroised Special Circumstances, who, having identified bad guys to their own satisfation, treat their ‘consent’ with gung-ho contempt. No, rape in this novel isn't about consent; it's about something sexually nasty happening to somebody you like. When something sexually nasty happens to somebody you don’t care about it's funny. And when you’ve established that somebody is a bad guy, then he's fair game for any number of horridnesses, as the nasty Veppers finds out at the end of the book, physically paralysed by a Culture ship, kneeling before his victim and tortured to death (‘he had never known such pain, never guessed that anything could hurt so much’). So there you are.

The ostensible moral of the novel is that ‘cruelty and the urge to dominate and oppress’ are ‘childish and pathetic’ [626]; which runs the risk of coming over, in terms of its didactic effectiveness and analytic sophistication, as a touch, well, childish and pathetic. Or to put it in terms of the formal logic of the Space Opera, the subgenre of which this novel is a bulky example: one of the downsides of the Golden Age of SF being twelve is that any more sophisticated ethical questions it wants to explore must be built upon the shifting sands of melodramatic notions of the clear separation of right and wrong, and of ‘fairness’ parsed (‘it’s not fair!’) via juvenile intensities of eye-for-an-eye by which most 12-year olds—however bright—tend to live their lives.


Chris D said...

Interesting argument! My main problem with the book was one of believability; specifically, the rubbish characterisation of the aliens. Banks can do really good aliens sometimes – like the Affront, or the Idirans or the Dwellers – but often does a really half-arsed job. The Pavuleans (sp?) in Surface Details reminded me of the Chelgrians from Look to Windward, in that they speak, act, and think like humans, and have cultures that socially, spiritually, and culturally resemble humans (and specifically, 21st century Western European humans), but look like double-trunked elephants or five-legged fucking dogs or something, and that never really sat easily with me.

I mean, the Pavuleans appear to have TV shows, and railways, and a media that seems uncannily like ours, and they have a suspiciously Judaeo-Christian-seeming hell. The way they interact with each other made me picture them as being human, which gets thrown out of kilter every so often by jarring references to trunks or hind legs. I just couldn’t picture them as aliens; Banks should have made them pan-human (like a lot of the species in the Culture books), rather than weird elephant things.

The fact that their version of hell was essentially a kind of Medieval Western European vision of the Biblical hell sat uneasily with me as well, and seemed a bit lazy on the part of the author. I could just about buy that a pan-human species might have some kind of parallel cultural evolution leading to very similar visions of a punitive afterlife, but not weird elephant things.

With regard to the politics of the book, I think Banks is at risk of becoming a kind of left-wing version of Jerry Pournelle or Larry Niven (who also wrote a politically questionable SF novel about weird elephant things), whereby opponents of the author’s political views are lengthily set up with cartoon motives, revealed to be a rapist or kiddy fiddler or other reprobate, and is then gruesomely disposed of. I mean, I’m pretty left-wing, but Banks’ political asides in his books are incredibly simplistic and one-sided.

Bill from PA said...

Adam, I greatly enjoyed your history of SF and this blog is one of my favorite sites.
Your description of the “rapey” nature of the Banks (whom I’ve never read) and the "just" and "unjust" acts of rape reminded me a lot of the Stieg Larsson books. Not having the fortitude you showed with The Wheel of Time, I found that reading only the first one was sufficient. I don’t see these in the blog, but I assume you have had the misfortune to read them, though to have written “The Dragon with the Girl Tattoo” without actually having read Larsson would not be a feat I would put beyond your abilities.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

A good review. I couldn't finish this one, and the issues you describe were part of that.

I really bounced of Transition: good women have vanilla sex, bad women are into s&m, and men and women don't seem to be able to have a conversation without sex.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I certainly sympathize with your discomfort at the way Banks distinguishes between unacceptable immoral acts - committed by mustache-twirling bad guys against our innocent heroes - and acceptable ones - mainly the latter's retribution against the former. I didn't get as much of the "rapey" vibe you describe, though - when pointing out the aforementioned immoral acts, the book seemed more focused on murder and torture. There's no question, however, that there's a fundamental hypocrisy here that is unworthy both of Banks and the other Culture novels, most of which at least have the decency to be sheepish about the unpleasant things their heroes do in pursuit of what they term the greater good.

I think, however, that you're misrepresenting the way the book uses Demeisen. I didn't get the sense that the avatar's rape (if he is raped - later in the book Demeisen implies that he was lying about this, though the physical abuse clearly happened) is treated as funny by either the book or the characters. Lededje is shocked by it, enough that she abandons her goal of booking passage on Demeisen's ship, and the other ships in the area express their disapproval quite sternly - though not, admittedly, to the extent of doing anything about it.

That said, I do think that the example of Demeisen and his possibly-raped avatar illustrates part of the point you're making - the way Banks uses crimes like rape as buzzwords to justify his characters' own immoral behavior in response. If Surface Detail were in any meaningful way about rape, you'd expect a victim of it like Lededje to react very strongly - much more strongly than she does in the book - to Demeisen's performance. That she doesn't - and that her driving trauma is rooted more in having been murdered than raped - is a strong indication that rape is being used as little more than an intensifier of the bad guys' badness.

Paul D said...

The ending of this novel blew me away. I thought it was pretty mediocre until that point.

Adam Roberts said...

Chris D: I agree, yes: the Pavuleans are interchangeable humans except that from time to time Banks remembers to add ' she lifted one of her trunks' to his account of them.

Bill from PA: thank you for your kind words. I did read the first Stieg Larsson book, which struck me, though readable, as very rapey indeed, much more so than this Banks novel. The superstructure of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo's disapproval of male sexual violence against women seemed to me constructed upon a barely acknowledge base of a lubricious quasi-pornographic code of sexual representation of precisely such violence. I haven't read the following two volumes. I probably should.

Adam Roberts said...

Thanks, Farah. Like you, I had a low opinion of Transition.

Adam Roberts said...

Abigail; yes; as I say in the review, the novel isn’t wholly rapey, but it’s a bit rapey. It's a little more, I think, than that Banks uses rape, and torture more generally, as 'buzzwords', or dramatic shortcuts to provoking visceral reactions in his readers. It's that there seemed to me -- perhaps wrongly -- that the torture and cruelty (and after all, ingenious cruelty has always been central to Banks's USP as a writer) is more explicitly sexualised in this novel.

Adam Roberts said...

Paul D: the last line is a nice reveal, I agree with you.

DC said...

Interesting. I enjoyed Surface Detail, but had the feeling that it was a couple of drafts off finished.

M. Banks been butting up against the edges of the Culture for a while (ironically enough I suppose), and has yet to hit on a productive new direction. Meanwhile the joyful gee-whizzery and star wars action that have made his books such a pleasure seem a little weary. A writer in need of a sabbatical perhaps (although wasn't there something in the news not long ago about having to re-negotiate terms with his publisher or something?).

Tangentially, this strikes me as a slightly, and uncharacteristically, mean-spirited review Adam (you tend to err on the side of indulgence for fellow well-meaning SFers). I'm really not sure that 'rapey' is a useful or fair lens through which to peer at this novel.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I've written a whole lot of fan stuff about Banks, and this problem is implicit in his work from the start. And certainly explicit in some his worst previous works. Inversions, for instance, is totally focussed around threat of rape, rape, revenge for rape, as a sort of substitute for feminism in general. I once pointed out on Usenet that Zakalwe, the main character of Use of Weapons, gets raped in one of his back stories, and people responding were very surprised and asked to know where. It's because it happens as part of one sentence about how bandits attack him, wound him, and leave him for dead, and it isn't dwelled on because he's male.

The general syndrome of "You rightwingers tortured and killed people? Well, we'll righteously get you back by torturing and killing you, only we'll feel bad about it afterwards!" is so common in Banks books that I called it the ODV: Obligatory Deadly Vengeance. I don't know whether he got it as a writing tic from the kind of books that he started out writing, or what, but his best books kind of transcend it in some way rather than avoiding it altogether. In Use of Weapons it works because of what you find out about Zakalwe, and because of the necessary element of critique of Banks' own work that that involves.

I haven't read two out of three of Banks' later Culture books. Not sure if I'm going to until I hear that one of them is really good.

Adam Roberts said...

Rich: yes. "Threat of rape, rape, revenge for rape, as a sort of substitute for feminism in general..." is particularly well put. It's as if Banks is, on some level, thinking: yes, I'm a feminist, I'm on the side of women, I write strong women; and so the rules of dramatic conception require that I structure my novels around the most horrible thing that can happen to a woman ... and the most horrible thing that can happen to a woman is clearly: being raped by a man.' But this (to state the obvious) is still to position 'women' in relation to male sexual desire in the first instance.

regenklang said...

"but churns through a great deal of business without ever saying anything particularly worthwhile about any of that"

This absolutely, when in the past his best novels having given me a feeling of Theme as well captured as those stylish monocolour covers. I felt Matter was reasonable with some great scenes, I gave up on Transition and this I worked my way through, my main memories of it now being Lededje enjoying the view of a Carrier after reawakening and the little dreadnaught battle memories, which he pulled off with something closer to his erstwhile sharpness.

As to hypocrisy... I'm not so sure. I didn't really feel that the Good Guys in this were really Good or pushed as being such- Lededje's inverted Stockholm Syndrome seems such a miserable waste of a second chance at life, the Culture made Demeisen (whom I also felt was depicted as being repellant initially) and allow him to persist because Our Monster Is Useful and in general squander any kind of moral superiority alloted them for their goal by allowing it to justify... well just about anything.

If I were feeling more generous I might suggest that Banks were using realpolitik to break down the simplistic concept of good versus evil that that spawns Hells in the first place, when baseline reality is bad enough as it is. He did write Complicity, after all - another markedly unpleasant book, but one that was also affecting in its anger (to me). Whether the disaffectation of the more recent Culture novels is because Banks is slowly becoming less enamored of his utopia or less in touch with his talent, or both, the wheels seem to have come off the intergalactic juggernaught who has written some of my favourite books. I'm not really looking forward to his next one.

Keep up the good work, though ;)

DC said...

Apologies in advance for the over long comment. I’d politely move it to my own blog if I had one.

I don’t think for a moment that Banks needs me to defend him, but I feel like I ought to justify my position - that SD’s problems have not much to do with Banks attitude to or depiction of rape.

So, as a jumping off point, this first of all:

the rules of dramatic conception require that I structure my novels around the most horrible thing that can happen to a woman ... and the most horrible thing that can happen to a woman is clearly: being raped by a man.' But this (to state the obvious) is still to position 'women' in relation to male sexual desire in the first instance.

While a pretty fair statement of a genuine and re-occuring problem in genre fiction, and possibly also a legitimate criticism of Banks in some instances, this is evidently false when applied straightforwardly to SD. The most horrible thing that can happen to a woman in SD is that she’s murdered (as Abigail says above: ‘her driving trauma is rooted more in having been murdered than raped’ Which seems reasonable enough to me). Lededje is, as it happens, murdered by a man who has raped her repeatedly, but he has also violated her in pretty much every other conceivable way, right down to engraving his name in her DNA, and the thing that drives her, that drives the plot and that drives any thematic concerns the book has is loss of life, not sexual violation (and yes, I agree that the narrative necessity of making death impermanent complicates the thematic intent, but that’s a different issue). Moreover, I think it is pretty clear throughout that Banks intends rape as one more example of the abuse of power - which is to say that one of the ways that baddy Banks’ characters abuse other Banks’ characters over whom they have - often culturally sanctioned - power is by raping them. This is as true of the warship raping the volunteer avatar as it is of Veppers raping Lededje or the demons raping lost souls.

DC said...

Tangentially, though, on the ‘roguish’ warship, while I agree that there is an inappropriate gleefulness about his wickedness in a novel that turns on a willingness to visit justified death on wicked characters, I think you’ve mis-diagnosed the problem. So first of all it seems easy enough to me to draw a moral distinction between the rapes of the demons and Veppers and the warship, even if that distinction is only one of degree. The human-avatar has, after all, voluntarily ceded his agency (presumably up to an agreed point) and the warship is using his body to engage in superficially consensual and non-taboo sexual practices. In a society which attaches no particular significance to homosexual encounters and indeed treats sex with whoever as hardly more socially relevant than shaking hands, what is happening might just about be viewed as a cruel embarrassment - as if you or I were made to, against our will, go around telling everyone how much we love David Cameron. It’s a cheap use of Banks own world, absolutely, and that aside I think the tonal error Banks makes is bringing homophobia briefly back into an apparently post-gender society, just so that he can use it to facilitate some leering, but still sort of liberal, badness.

The last example of Banks being rapey was the demon rapes in hell. Again I agree with this criticism to an extent - there’s something a bit plodding about it, a bit oddly conventional (does Banks himself makes a point about this in the Player of Games, maybe? Something about the limited number of ways in which humans can actually abuse each other?) but it seems to me to be better understood as part of a spectrum of flagrant and needless pain and cruelty which is routinely inflicted by the demons on the sufferers in hell. It is supposed to be hell after all, however underwhelmed you are by its depiction. And, just to underline the point made above, the plot attached to the strong female character here is about her becoming a murderous demon of hope, and has nothing whatever to do with rape as such.

Now you may well be saying that rape used, as in SD, as a sort of local colour is always wrong, and I think that’s something that could be discussed, but to treat it as a fundamental criticism of the book doesn’t seem quite right.

DC said...

To briefly address Abigail’s point about taking the existence of hell literally (in her own review I think rather than in the comment above): I agree, and for me it’s a genuine weakness in the novel as a work of SF that it doesn’t explore honestly how the actuality of hell might twist and bend theological conceptions of punishment and repentance - instead it just uses the conceit as a stick with which to beat religious nutjobs. But I think we should nonetheless give Banks credit as a satirist - some Christians do purport to believe in the literal existence of Hell and that’s quite a thing to try and get your head around.

Adam Roberts said...

DC: you so should get your own blog! Thank you for your intelligent, perceptive (more so than my rather myopic post, I concede) and eloquent comment.

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TJ said...

Good review. And some smashing comment. And I agree with it mostly. But this, not so much:

"In other words: rape is very terrible if done to a woman; but can be played for laughs once you’ve established that the victim is..."

Werl, no, not really. Demiesen is Banks' way of reminding us (along with the elevator-shaft incident with Jollici) that Culture ships aren't all infinitely patient benevolent demigods. Some are nasty.

I really disagree that Banks is making light of homosexual rape here at all. He's showing us that super-awesome Culture mind-controlled warships are actually capable of being bastards. As well. The "good guys" are sometimes bastards. Utopia cannot exist without people like Demiesen. Food for thought, that.

"The ostensible moral of the novel..."

Nah. I thought the novel was shaping up to be a really good story of moral compromise, until Banks decided to kill Veppers off. That was disappointing, in a perverse sort of way.

" I think, than that Banks uses rape, and torture more generally, as 'buzzwords', or dramatic shortcuts to provoking visceral reactions in his readers"

...Yeah. I kinda agree with this. But the thing is that Banks is a *good* writer. It's not like he's just taking rape etc and using them to paper over his own weaknesses. My view is that Banks has a fairly realistic view of how sentient beings act and think in the universe. (And as DC says above at 08:59 there are only a limited number of ways to be nasty to each other). If they're going to be nasty to one another, and if they're going to build hells for one another, then that nastiness and those hells will include rape, as a matter of course. I think this "matter of factness" about rape was one of the more shocking aspects of Banks' hell. It made it, if anything *more* powerful because it was just presented so straightforwardly.