Iain M. Banks, Surface Detail, Orbit, 2010.
Spoiler alert! This post will reveal details of the plot.
This novel takes place within the Culture universe, and deals with two of the most evil things possible, slavery and torture.
The first theme involves the character Lededje, who has been legally owned from birth, and is marked as a slave by an advanced form of tattoo, known as intagliation, which marks her entire body down to the cellular level with a sophisticated pattern.
The second theme involves taking the mind-states (recordings of people's minds) and placing them in virtual realities that recreate hell, so they can be tortured. These mind-states are complete conscious individuals, given virtual bodies that can experience pain, and the civilizations that employ this technology use it as a posthumous punishment and as a social deterrent.
We follow the story of a non-human character, Chay, who has volunteered to send her mind-state into a virtual hell in order to return to reality and expose the existence of the virtual hells in her society. Eventually she ceases to believe in reality and accepts hell as all there is. Her story touches upon the question whether hope is a good thing in bad circumstances.
A war has broken out between civilizations that use these virtual hells and those that consider them immoral. The war is conducted in virtual realities, in a "confliction", and it has been agreed that if the pro-hell side wins they will continue to have hells, while if the anti-war side wins, all the hells will be abolished. The Culture opposes the hells, but has stayed out of the conflict because it is considered such a dominant force that it would almost certainly have won the confliction. We glimpse this war through an anti-hell fighter called Vatueil, whose mind-state is loaded into the confliction and lives through various virtual campaigns at various levels of technology.
Another character is Yime, a Culture citizen working as an agent of the Quietus, an agency dealing with the mind-states of the dead and with the virtual afterlives. Her involvement in the plot is related to what happens to Lededje, who is murdered by her owner, Veppers, and since her civilization does not use the mind-state recording technology, she is surprised to find her mind-state suddenly becoming conscious aboard a Culture ship. She is given a new body, without her intaglia, and aims to return to her planet to get revenge on Veppers. Yime is supposed to intercept her.
The story follows these characters, concentrating on the details of their journeys while allowing the Big Picture to develop around them, and connections to become apparent. Readers can enjoy the story on both levels, and some attention to the politics of various civilizations will help understand the build-up to the climactic ending.
As in many of Banks' works, many moral questions arise. First of all, it should be clear to the reader that Banks, along with the Culture, is on the anti-hell side, and rightly so. The torture of intelligent minds can have no justification. This being the case, the Culture's refusal to get involved in the confliction seems immoral, and perhaps the author is arguing against this sort of "neutrality" sometimes claimed by countries unwilling to get involved in disputes they see as not affecting them directly.
The question of slavery, of owning another person, is not directly discussed in such detail. It is part of the legal system in the civilization where Lededje was born, and her story demonstrates the character of the sort of person who would enjoy owning people.
Another moral aspect is the vast superiority of the Minds (AIs) in the Culture over biological
people. While life within the Culture would seem ideal for most people, there is always an awareness that things are controlled by the Minds in the ships and habitats, and that they treat the biological citizens in a rather paternalistic way, sometimes as pets, sometimes as immature creatures who need to be guided. The ships are always among the most entertaining and sometimes annoying characters in the Culture novels, making me wonder whether I would enjoy their company and wit, or find my life meaningless in comparison with their superiority.
Yime's story shows how someone can be manipulated, and Veppers' story shows that even an evil person can sometimes do something positive, even if for the wrong reasons, but that positive action does not compensate for the evil in this case.
I enjoyed this novel very much, and even more on the second reading. It presents a complex story through engaging viewpoint characters, many of them strong females, and reaches a satisfying ending. Recommended.
On a sadder note, I recently read that the author Iain Banks is terminally ill. I would like to wish him peace in his final months, and hope that he can take comfort in knowing that his work as a writer has enriched the lives of millions of readers. He can look back upon his achievements with satisfaction, knowing that he has contributed something of value to the world, for which readers, and the many writers he has inspired and influenced, are grateful.