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The Artificial Afterlife of Iain M. Banks' Surface Detail

June 8, 2019


Iain M. Banks' Surface detail is one of my favourite books. It is an epic space opera and all about a subject that fascinates me – the continuation of life after death through technology. In Surface detail, as well as a number of other Iain M. Banks books, this is achieved in three different ways:


Back Up

Members of the culture have the option to keep backing themselves up. Every day or few months they have themselves scanned so that if they die, they can be brought back to life from the point of the last back up. They may lose a few hours, days or months and they would not remember their own death but they would live again. My problem with this is that we are constantly learning and changing so as soon as you continue after your back up has been made you are two slightly different people. Also, if they are both in existence at the same time this suggests a pretty significant degree of separation. This more than any of the others feels like a copy rather than continuance of life and consciousness.


There are some characters who have a neural lace which records and transmits their mind to a substrate in a ship mind at the point of the their body's death. This seems more seamless than the idea of regular back ups as the break in consciousness is miniscule and continuation immediate but it still feels like a copy.


However the copy is made the technology exists to grow another body so that you can pick up where you left off in the real world or you can continue to exist in your choice of virtual world. A digital afterlife.



Culture citizens have a choice of digital afterlives that they can chose to live in until they decide to come back to the real world or decide to face their final demise, but only when they are ready. It would be nice to chose your heaven.



The Hells are interesting a debate that is at the centre of Surface Detail. The Culture has no hells and disagrees with the concept of suffering but many other species in the galaxy believe they are important. We only really get a good look at one hell in the book and it is awful, a place of pain and no hope. I can't imagine being stuck there for a week let alone an eternity, not to mention that a year in there is only a short time in the real world, but I do not suppose that matters when you are facing eternity.


The Hereafter

It was reading Ian M. Banks' book Look To Windward that I first came across the idea of a digital afterlife, but I was interested in what it would be like if it was invented in our world. The Hereafter is just that – a look at how it might change things in our world. Add to that the concept of interfering with the natural course of things. Nature does not like it.


In The Hereafter there is a Personality Storage Capsule where the mind state is downloaded to at the point of death and from where it is uploaded into the artificial afterlife. This holds the same problems as the copies Iain M. Banks' stories but this is not an issue that I address in the story.


I do address the issue of a hell. There are rules that need to be adhered to in order to gain entry to The Hereafter but there is a character in the book who believes that the creation of the afterlife removes the threat of divine retribution from the world and takes that responsibility on his shoulders by creating a legend and an artificial Hell to load wrong doers into.

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