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. 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...” ); 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.” 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’ ; 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.