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Matter by Iain M. Banks

Iain_banks_matter_cover'Even galaxy-spanning anarchist utopias of stupefying full-spectrum civilisational power have turf wars within their unacknowledged militaries.'

Well, gosh wow. What a book! When I started reading Matter it seemed to me an interesting melding of the previous two Culture novels, Inversions and Look to Windward. The intertwining story threads combine a low tech feudal society as in Inversions with an outsider's view of life in the high tech utopia of the Culture as in Look to Windward. Banks uses these two strands to create an amazing sense of vast scale. His universe is teaming with layer upon layer of different technologies, intelligent beings, civilizations, and worlds. The locus of the action is something called a Shellworld, which is an artificial world with a number of different levels, supporting a number of different life forms and civilizations. It is a fitting metaphor for the whole book.

The plot begins with the assassination of a king on one level of the Shellworld Sursamen. We then follow two of the king's sons -- one who knows about the murder and one who thinks his father died in battle -- and the king's daughter, who left Sursamen years previously to live in the Culture and to become an agent of Special Circumstances, which is one of the Culture's "unacknowledged militaries". Gradually these three threads come together, as the one son flees Sursamen looking for allies, the other begins to suspect that his life is in danger, and the daughter makes her way back to her homeworld to pay her dead father final respects.

Banks is masterful here in building tension very slowly over the course of what is quite a long novel. As always he doles out information carefully, and our understanding of what the Shellworld is and what history surrounds it grows and deepens along with the narrative tension. Eventually the feudal story and the space opera merge with another story element that might be categorized as Lovecraftian. With this the tension suddenly spikes and Banks slams the story into full throttle, exploding into an action finale as breath-taking as anything he's written in a career full of breath-taking action sequences. I could hardly sit still as I read the final two chapters.

At the time of the book's release Banks joked to The Guardian, "It's so complicated that even in its complexity it's complex." It feels like a summation of all his thematic concerns up to that point. It feels like a pinnacle work. The matter of Iain M. Banks. The question of the Culture novels is always, If people are freed from want, what will they want? This book undermines the whole question (as Banks is wont to do) by exploring how the material world -- matter -- means that there is no freedom from want. No matter how many resources are made available, no matter how much power is available, no matter how much of life we are able to control, the hard matter of fact is that we don't have it all, and we are left wanting. We are left with special circumstances. Near the end there is a passage in which one character from the feudal society reflects on what it means to have and have not and perfectly captures Banks' complicated point of view:

He was starting to change his mind about the old Warrior Code stuff knights and princes invoked, usually when they were drunk and in need of spilling their words, or trying to justify their poor behaviour in some other field.

Behave honourably and wish for a good death. He'd always dismissed it as self-serving bullshit, frankly; most of the people he'd been told were his betters were quite venally dishonourable, and the more they got the more the greedy bastards wanted, while those that weren't like that were better behaved at least partly because they could afford to be.

Was it more honourable to starve than to steal? Many people would say yes, though rarely those who'd actually experienced an empty belly, or a child whimpering with its own hunger. Was it more honourable to starve than to steal when others had the means to feed you but chose not to, unless you paid with money you did not have? He thought not. By choosing to starve you became your own oppressor, keeping yourself in line, harming yourself for having the temerity to be poor, when by rights that ought to be a constable's job. Show any initiative or imagination and you were called lazy, shifty, crafty, incorrigible. So he'd dismissed talk of honour; it was just a way of making the rich and powerful feel better about themselves and the powerless and poverty-stricken feel worse.

But once you weren't living hand-to-mouth, and had some ease, you had the leisure to contemplate what life was really all about and who you really were. And given that you had to die, it made sense to seek a good death.

Even these Culture people, bafflingly, mostly chose to die, when they didn't have to.

With freedom from fear and wondering where your next meal was coming from or how many mouths you'd have to feed next year and whether you'd get sacked by your employer or thrown into jail for some minor indiscretion -- with freedom from all that came choice, and you could choose a nice quiet, calm, peaceful, ordinary life and die with your nightshirt on and impatient relatives making lots of noise around you ... Or you could end up doing something like this, and -- however scared your body might feel -- your brain rather appreciated the experience.

He thought of his wife and children, and felt a twinge of guilt that they had been so absent from his thoughts for so long recently. He'd had a lot to think about and so many new and utterly bizarre things to learn, but the truth was they seemed like beings from another world now, and while he wished them only well, and could imagine -- if, by some miracle, they survived all this -- going back to them and taking up his old duties again, somehow that felt like it was never going to happen, and he'd long since seen them for the final time.

A good death. Well, he thought, given that you had to die, why want a bad one?

And of course one of the many little and large ironies of the book is that this is a character who possibly does survive "all this".

Matter is hard. There are some hard deaths in this book. "Unexpectedly savage," says the blurb from The Times (London) on the front cover. Except that for those who have read Banks, it really isn't unexpected. In his books, when the shit hits the fan, it's unpleasant. Even in an anarchist utopia, matter bites. Banks finds heroism in the way his characters face this reality. He's an old-fashioned romantic and romancer that way. This is an old-fashioned story of princes and a princess seeking a restoration, but in Banks' hands it becomes something much darker and more noble than that. It becomes something far more complicated and humane than that.

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