William Gibson didn’t invent virtual reality, but he was arguably the first to introduce the concept to a mass audience. A generation later, the Wachowskis took the concept to the next level with The Matrix. And now, roughly a generation removed from The Matrix (and if that doesn’t make you feel old, then I’m not sure what will), science fiction has become so suffused with the concept that virtual reality has taken its place alongside rayguns and spaceships and bug-eyes monsters as a venerable trope-verging-on-cliche of the genre.
In his Culture novels, Iain M. Banks has taken many of these dusty tropes off the shelf and put them to new music. These bug-eyes monsters are actually the good guys, those spaceships are sentient continent-sized habitats with silly names like Just Read The Instructions or Poke It With a Stick. The rayguns, well, they’re still pretty much rayguns. But while he’s dabbled with the concept of virtual reality before (most notably with the Infinite Fun Space occupied by the Minds, introduced in Excession), Surface Matter represents the first time he’s really put the trope through its paces and tried to make something new with it.
Surface Matter primarily deals with the notion of a virtual afterlife, as many civilizations possess the technology to upload the souls (for lack of a better term) of the recently-deceased into society-specific Heavens. Of course, given various factors inherent to life, some civilizations also keep virtual Hells for wrongdoers. So amongst the Involved galactic societies, there has arisen a dispute between those in favor of Hell and those opposed, said dispute to be settled on a virtual battleground. As the book opens, this dispute is entering its final stages. The Culture, while ideologically aligned with the anti-Hell side, is attempting to stay neutral, but the virtual war threatens to turn into a shooting war. There are plotlines that orbit around this basic concept, but as he did in Excession, Banks moves the widescreen, galaxy-spanning story to the foreground at the expense of a more personal story.
Sadly, Surface Detail is not as successful a book as Excession. At times, it feels like Banks has bitten off a bit more than he can chew. While the virtual (and increasingly real) war over the existence of Hells provides the book’s narrative focus, the sections that deal with the conflict itself are amongst the book’s dullest. In particular, one storyline that spends a fair bit of time in a given Hell is gruesome, more than a little depressing, and utterly familiar to anyone who’s ever read The Inferno. Banks does little to disguise his general disgust with the very concept of a punitive afterlife (or organized religion at all, given that he describes creation myths as variously “a quaint and dusty irrelevance”, “downright embarrassing”, and “utter drivel” invented by “lonely old sadists… to amuse themselves with”), making the sides in the story a bit more black-and-white than one normally finds in his books.
One element that this book does boast, however, is a right bastard of an antagonist: Joiler Veppers, the richest man in the Sichultian Enablement and an able stand-in for every horrible capitalist asshole who would fight to their dying breath to prevent real progress beyond petty materialism. As I said above, Banks usually writes with more nuance than this, so Veppers may very well be the vilest asshole in the Culture series. Another bright spot is the Mind at the core of the Culture picket ship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints. Banks’ AIs have always been some of his more entertaining characters, and this one doesn’t disappoint, particularly as things heat up in the final hundred pages.
If it sounds like I didn’t like Surface Detail as much as I did Matter, well, that’s true, though I’ve given both four-star ratings (had I the power, I would’ve probably bumped Matter up to a 4.5 and Surface Detail down to 3.5). Given that two whole storylines could have been eliminated or significantly pared down, it’s still a damn fun read, and Banks always brings the thunder when it comes to mind-blowingly cool sci-fi shit.