Afterlife fantasy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 November, 2010, 12:00am

Surface Detail
by Iain M. Banks
Orbit HK$247

Scottish writer Iain M. Banks has two lives. The first, without the 'M' in his name, is that of a contemporary novelist. Books like his debut, The Wasp Factory, are taut gothic works of modern fiction. By contrast, Banks' second life is that of a science fiction writer of sprawling and long stories about space and the future.

The 627-page Surface Detail is one from his latter persona, and is another instalment in his series about a benevolent futuristic civilisation called the Culture. It's an ambitious work that attempts to bring a number of different storylines and characters together in an exploration of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. It's cleverly constructed and contains some interesting ideas about life in the future. But it often seems pretentious and ultimately collapses under the weight of its lengthy prose and rambling exposition.

Science fiction has fallen into two camps. The first is the literary SF of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. These writers are schooled in real science - robotics professors even used some of the ideas in Asimov's I, Robot in their theories - and try to ground their prophesies in real developments in science and technology.

Then there are the space operas, the pulp novels about spacemen, monsters and flying saucers. Banks' work contains too many philosophical ideas for it to be described as a space opera, but it doesn't have much real science in it either. In fact, this latest book treads a fine line between science fiction and the popular genre of fantasy fiction.

Surface Detail is about space and spaceships, but its vast worldscapes, its focus on good and evil, and its interminable length set it closer to works such as The Lord of the Rings than 2001: A Space Odyssey. And so instead of talking elves there are talking spaceships, and evil space entrepreneurs rule rather than dark wizards.

Surface Detail contains a cast of Shakespearean proportions. The driving force behind the story is Lededje, a young female who is sexually enslaved to Veppers, the richest and most influential entrepreneur in the galaxy. When Lededje is killed trying to escape her cruel captor - who has the sexual predilections of a Roman emperor - she's reincarnated as an artificial intelligence simulation of herself.

Lededje vows revenge on the powerful Veppers, and her plan to murder him drives most of the novel. But many other strands weave into the conclusion. There are Prin and Chay, two creatures who are imprisoned in a virtual reality version of hell - or is it actually hell? Meanwhile Vatueil is a soldier, seemingly modelled on a military man from Napoleonic times, who is fighting a war to get the virtual hell deleted. These, and other stories, coalesce in the last 200 pages.

The most interesting conceit of Surface Detail is the Culture, the over-arching civilisation that polices the universe of Banks' science fiction novels. Banks was born in the 1950s, and the ideology of the Star Trek series of the 60s seems to have influenced his work. As in Star Trek, the world of the Culture is based on egalitarianism, communal good, rationality and intelligence. The Culture is a benign force that has taken it upon itself to police the chaos of the universe. Liberal to a fault - Banks himself is a socialist - they try not to intervene in the affairs of others unless the common good is threatened.

When Lededje finds herself reincarnated as an identical replica inside the Culture, her worldview gradually changes.

What there is of actual science focuses on artificial reality and virtual reality. Banks' exploration of artificial intelligence is quite good. Lededje is recreated by means of an organic device that has been secretly implanted in her brain. It has grown into all her brain cells and copied them. Thus Lededje's brain, and therefore her self, can be recreated from the information. Although Banks gives no explanation of how this actually works - is it some kind of DNA cloning, for instance? - it does fit nicely with modern scientific ideas that our minds are simply by-products of our brains, and our personality comes from our memories and knowledge of our personal history.

Some of the other AI ideas are good, too. Banks creates whole AI spaceships with personalities that are controlled by humanoid avatars. These spaceships, which all have random names such as 'Me I'm Counting', are among the most entertaining characters in the novel.

Likewise with virtual reality. The characters exist in so many layers of reality that they aren't always sure what is real and what is virtual. There is, however, a real world in the Culture universe, which is called simply The Real. The virtual worlds are used as adjuncts to The Real. For instance, wars are fought in virtual simulations so that no one actually gets hurt - war has been removed to the world of gaming. (This idea has actually been discussed in experimental papers by some scientists.)

The problem, as Banks' characters find out, is that if you are fully integrated inside a virtual world, you don't know that you are in one. So virtual life can seem as realistic as the one back in The Real. If you are stuck in a virtual hell, this is not a good thing.

The big hole in Surface Detail is the 'War in Heaven' - a nicely Asiatic term, by the way - which provides the backdrop to the story. What the Culture and the renegade civilisations are fighting about is not clear. It's all based around a nebulous idea about how it's necessary to have a hell. In the universe of the Culture, there was originally no hell, as evil had been eradicated. But then some civilisations decided they needed hell to keep their populations from erring into anti-social ways. So they created virtual hells. The Culture is opposed to all hells, so it goes to war to delete them. It doesn't make sense, although it allows Banks to indulge himself in some Hieronymus Bosch-like visions of depravity, which he seemingly enjoys. It's all the blather about hell that pushes the novel away from science into the cruder world of fantasy fiction.

The morality is conventional and often black and white, which is odd, as Banks is known for being a humanist and an atheist. All of the different civilisations in Surface Detail have the same idea about right and wrong as humans do and that makes the novel a lot less fulfilling than it could be.

The lack of science is also annoying. There are no mentions of common contemporary scientific ideas such as quantum physics, parallel worlds and dark matter, so the future doesn't really seem that futuristic. Still, Banks manages to keep his vast space epic under control and, although he allows himself some diversions and indulgences, the various strands have locked together well by the end. The main characters gradually become sympathetic, and Banks rounds them out nicely within the confines of the genre.

The worlds he creates are enjoyable places to visit, too - vast computer-game like vistas. He even throws in some sex and battle scenes for good measure.

Readers who love immersing themselves in long space phantasmagorias should find Surface Detail enjoyable enough.