Tuesday, April 07, 2020

the last book I read

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks.

Life, as they say, is a bitch, and then you die. And then, if you're a prudent Culture citizen and have had your mind-state regularly backed up via the "neural lace" grown into your brain, you get "revented" into a new physical body and off you go again, minus perhaps the last few seconds of that ill-advised trip hang-gliding into that live volcano. And so on theoretically ad infinitum, although eventually people tend to tire of the "real" world and choose to inhabit a solely digital realm, a sort of after-life if you will (or, if you must, more a sort of apr├Ęs vie). Trouble is, certain less-civilised, erm, civilisations not only threaten their people with hell, with all the usual fire-and-brimstone bumraped-by-demons-for-all-eternity stuff, but actually create digital versions of such things and imprison people within them, which is a bit of a surprise if you were hoping for a nice spell of putting your feet up and learning to crochet once you'd discarded physical existence for good. Sure, it's all in the virtual realm, but the demons sawing you open with a rusty trowel and eating your entrails are real down to the last detail nonetheless. Bloody, as they say, hell.

Lededje Y'breq would love to have a philosophical discussion with you about all this, but she's a bit busy being LITERALLY MURDERED right now, and in the real world to boot. And, since she is an indentured slave on a world, Sichult, which has some pretty spiffy techno-gadgets but not the full techno-utopia of the Culture, she's as surprised as anyone to wake up shortly afterwards on a Culture ship having seemingly been reincarnated into a new body. It turns out that a mysterious visitor she met a few years previously was actually the avatar of a renegade Culture ship and implanted her with a neural lace without her knowledge or consent. But, y'know, whatever, the important thing is she's alive and obviously the first thing on her mind is: REVENGE!

There's some other stuff going on here, though. There's actually a war on, though it's being fought according to a set of pre-agreed rules in virtual space at the moment. It's about the Hells, and whether they ought to be allowed to exist. Our old friends the Culture have fingers in pies here, as always, and as you'd expect they're on the side that says the Hells are an affront to decent liberal compassionate values and should be shut down. The virtual war involves a bewildering series of war-game simulations featuring a cast of grizzled veterans whose entire existence involves getting flung into some fantasy world, taking part in some ill-understood conflict, very probably getting messily slaughtered, only to then pop up again in another world shortly afterwards to do the same thing again, like a sort of ultra-violent, ultra-nihilist version of Quantum Leap. The war hasn't been going terribly well for the Culture, and they're giving serious thought to either cheating by trying some rule-breaking hackery, or doing the unthinkable and moving the theatre of war to the real world by trying to destroy the physical substrate on which the Hells are hosted. Needless to say these locations are not widely publicised.

A few other plot strands too numerous to go into in any detail here: two brave anti-Hell activists from the Pavulean culture have infiltrated their own particular Hell in order to bring back proof of its existence and unspeakable horror, but only one managed to escape, leaving the other trapped inside. A mysterious Culture operative, Yime Nsokyi, is on a mission to intercept Lededje on her revenge mission for reasons which are initially unclear. And Joiler Veppers, ultra-rich, ultra-powerful Sichultian industrialist, playboy, political mover and shaker, oh, and murderer of his former slave Lededje Y'breq, is involved in some ultra-delicate and risky machinations with a couple of other alien civilisations to build a secret fleet of warships under the nose of the Culture and other peace-keeping overseers for reasons which are also initially unclear.

Lededje manages to hitch a ride to the Sichultian system via another renegade Culture ship, the Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, which just happens, handily, to be an ultra-badass warship equipped with some pretty serious weaponry and no qualms about steaming in and using it. And just as well, as it seems to be All Kicking Off in the vicinity of Sichult, though it's far from clear, among the large number of interested parties, who is on whose side and why.

Basically it turns out that one of Veppers' lucrative business ventures was hosting (on his own planet) the physical substrate on which most of the major Hells ran, and, having seen which way the wind was blowing, offering them up to the anti-Hell faction for destruction, thereby avoiding all sorts of awkward claims for compensation and the like should they have had to be shut down in a more controlled manner. This stopped-clock moment of alignment with the Culture's own aims cuts little ice with Lededje, though, who still just wants to see him dead. And, having spent quite a bit of time and effort thwarting her in order to allow Veppers' plan to play out and the Hells to be destroyed, the various Culture representatives still knocking around on Sichult think: hey, why not give her what she wants?

You won't need me to tell you that there's a critique of organised religion in the story of the Hells here, and the idea that it's better or more effective to keep people in line by threatening them with an eternity of fingernail-extraction than by, say, attempting to persuade them of some greater good that will be best achieved by co-operation. What the book is also about, though, is ideas of self and identity, in particular those ideas prompted by having access to brain-restoring technology. Let's say you upload your mind-state to some backup medium, and then get messily dispatched in some pod-racing accident and "revented" into a new body. Is that still you? What if you get repeatedly downloaded into various different media, some physical, some not: are they all still you? What if you get simultaneously loaded into more than one physical host: which of them is you? It's a slightly more orthodox sci-fi treatment of some ideas also explored in The Affirmation.

I suppose an obvious criticism here is that Banks is so clearly in love with his creation, the Culture, that there's pretty much no possibility of them facing an existential challenge: even the pretty advanced civilisations they run up against here, who have been squirrelling away mahoosive warships in preparation for a battle, are brushed aside with casual ease by a single Culture warship, albeit a pretty gnarly one. Just as with the climax of Look To Windward, any sense that the Culture faction would not be effortlessly superior when it comes to the crunch would probably have enhanced the suspense factor a bit. There's also a balance to be struck between the interaction of the various AI Minds on the ships, which Banks clearly finds fascinating, and the actual squishy humans (or at least pan-humans), of whom there are just about enough to keep the average reader happy, unlike in, say, Excession which I found a bit difficult to engage with.

But, sheesh, it's hard to argue with the levels of entertainment here. Just a couple of echoes of other works of art: the gruesomely imaginative depictions of the Hells have a touch of the Hieronymous Bosch about them, and the constant killing and reviving of Vateuil, the veteran anti-Hell campaigner, after unsuccessful missions, has more than an echo of Source Code about it. There is just a cheeky callback to an earlier Culture novel, Use Of Weapons, at the end here as well.

No comments: