Book review: Surface Detail, by Iain M Banks

Orbit, £18.99

MATTER, Iain M Banks's previous return to his best-known science-fictional entity, the Culture, was full of incidental pleasures and stupendous vistas but was a bit of a dog's breakfast in terms of plot. So it's a pleasure to be able to report that Surface Detail is to a great extent the book that Matter ought to have been, with the same themes now embodied in a story that plays to several of his strengths simultaneously, from frivolous high spirits to genuine moral outrage by way of infernal cruelty.

And I do mean infernal. Surface Detail takes us to hell. While Matter was devoted to the idea that the physical universe can't have had a creator, or its pains and injustices would be philosophically intolerable, this book turns the question on its head by leading us into horrible virtualities, which are most definitely the responsibility of those who create or tolerate them. Having worked out how to copy consciousness into artificial environments, thereby inventing real matter-of-fact immortality, a coalition of civilisations is using the technology to torture their dead citizens in perpetuity.

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The civilisations in question do not include the Culture. Banks's galaxy-spanning utopia, populated by trillions of enlightened hedonists, is necessarily on the side of the angels (sorry: on the side of enlightenment, of course). But - and this is the ingenious bit - the Culture can't take an active part in the anti-Hell cause for diplomatic reasons, so the campaign to release the damned is in the hands of a gaggle of smaller outfits, one of which is a slightly creepy wannabe version of the Culture, inclined to kick its love object's ankles.

From this set-up, Banks spins five separate storylines in which it isn't clear till the end what the Culture is up to, and what the overriding imperative to harrow Hell is going to mean in terms of picking sides. Plot-tautening uncertainty rules.

There's a lot for Culture aficionados to enjoy, including a warship of near-omnipotence with the personality of a depraved teenage boy.

What will stick in the mind is Banks's visceral realisation of the dark land beyond the Styx, techno version: the best worst realisation for some time of the monstrousness of Hell as a proposition. Which brings with it a cultural (as opposed to Cultural) query: why does this stuff so command the anti-religious imagination of writers such as Banks and Pullman, given that most believers haven't believed in hell for a generation or two now?

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