It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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The Heart of Matter



Matter is Iain Banks‘ first Culture novel since Look to Windward in 2000. So there was a great deal of eagerness – and not just by myself – when it was announced. Orbit clearly realised that Matter‘s publication was an event – Waterstone’s has been selling the hardback at half price since a week or so before the official publication date.

There are, it has to be said, a certain number of things you expect to find in a Culture novel. And one of those things is a Big Dumb Object. In Matter, this is the Shellworld called Sursamen, which consists of a series of vast concentric spheres, each of which is in effect a planetary surface. Shellworlds were built for reasons unknown by a race which has long since vanished.

The Sarl, a human race, live on Sursamen’s Eighth level. They are at war with the Deldeyn, another human race, from the Ninth level. Ferbin is heir to the throne of Hausk, a cod-mediaeval Sarl kingdom. He’s more of a playboy prince than a suitable candidate for ruler, however, so when Ferbin inadvertently witnesses his father’s murder after a battle, he flees for his life. He determines to seek help from Xide Hyrlis, a Culture representative who had been a friend of King Hausk many years before. He also decides to track down his sister, Djan Seriy, who left to join the Culture, and now works for Special Circumstances.

There are three main narratives in Matter, centred on the three surviving offspring of King Hausk. Ferbin and his manservant Holse escape Sursamen and track down Hyrlis. Djan Seriy returns to Sursamen to learn the truth of her father’s death. And Oramen, youngest son and now prince regent, follows the invading Sarl army to the Ninth level and the Nameless City, an ancient metropolis slowly being revealed by the great Falls of Hyeng-zhar.

King Hausk’s murder, the war against the Deldeyn of the Ninth level… these are all part of a conspiracy orchestrated by Hausk’s trusted adviser, friend and murderer, tyl Loesp. He is working for the Oct, the alien race which control part of Sursamen. Their objective is not revealed until a good three-quarters of the way into the story, and its result is certainly not the intended one.

The Oct are mentored by the Nariscene, who are in turn mentored by the Morthanveld. Whose civilisation is equivalent in technology and advancement to the Culture. This civilisational hierarchy is important to the plot of Matter.

Iain Banks is one of the most interesting writers currently working in science fiction – but only in the sense of science fiction as a branch of literature. He’s not really an ideas man. Yes, the concept of the Shellworld is pretty impressive… but it’s been done before – in Colin Kapp’s Cageworld quartet. In fact, if anything, Banks has a tendency to pick up current ideas and slot them into his fictions, whether they fit or not. Look to Windward introduced nanotechnology to the Culture; and Matter introduces cyberspace. Neither had been mentioned prior to their appearances in these novels, and yet they are treated as if they had always existed. Which does make their sudden inclusion seem a little odd.

In some respects, the hierarchy of civilisations mentioned above also has the feel of an add-on required for Matter‘s plot to function – it’s not only reminiscent of David Brin’s Uplift novels, but it all seems so much busier a universe than earlier Culture novels had suggested. But denying the possibility of such additions and changes does smack a little of the “clomping foot of nerdism”. Fictional universes are as flexible and adaptable as required by the story.

What makes Banks really interesting is that his sf novels are not just simple action-adventures in a space opera setting. There’s enough detail in there to attract those who want immersion in a made-up universe, but he’s not one to slavishly follow genre story templates. Use of Weapons features two narratives running in opposite directions chronologically; Against A Dark Background has a quest plot, in which the protagonist loses every plot coupon shortly after winning it… but still manages to finish the course (but I’m not convinced that was done knowingly).

Having said that, Banks is less adventurous with the structure of Matter. It is, for much of its length, relatively traditional – something of a picaresque travelogue, albeit juxtaposed with high fantasy wargames on Sursamen’s Eighth and Ninth Levels… However, Matter ends with an appendix – a completely unnecessary dramatis personae and glossary. And after that, an epilogue. Which changes the final shape of the story. The appendix is there to hide the epilogue. Now, that is an interesting choice.

Banks usually has something interesting to say, too. Matter is no different in this respect. And, if I’m reading the novel right, it’s about Iraq, about whether so-called “developed” nations have the right to meddle in the affairs of other nations. The parallels are clear – should the Culture interfere in Sursamen? Unfortunately, Banks’ message is muddled. Matter‘s prologue shows one such intervention by Special Circumstances, and that later proves mostly successful. But the Culture’s refusal to interfere in the situation in Hausk – especially given how it progresses; and they are watching it, after all – leads to a situation which could destroy everything. The epilogue shows the Culture changing its policy.

This, then, is the message from the writer who chopped up his passport over the invasion of Iraq. According to Matter, he’s now saying it is good to interfere – if the interference prevents slaughter and destruction. Or perhaps he means only to interfere in the interference of the Oct, which has caused slaughter and destruction? Banks has pre-built the moral high ground into his universe – the more evolved civilisations, the Involved, are more advanced and therefore more moral. That’s part of evolution, after all. So it’s okay for moral – or advanced; or, perhaps, “developed” – civilisations to interfere, Matter seems to be saying, but not for less evolved ones. That’s not a good message. Because Banks’ universal hierarchy is a cheat – morality is treated as if it were a physical law, as if a civilisation accrued some kind of wavicles of morality as it progressed and aged.

Other areas of Matter worthy of comment… It is very talky. Characters waffle a lot. They often repeat themselves. The novel also suffers from a sudden flurry of small resolutions as the end approaches. Banks’ digressions are often his best bits – and some of the digressions in Matter are among the best he’s done – but it does mean that his climaxes frequently feel rushed. It does here. And, there is throughout the novel odd verbings of nouns and nunation of adjectives. Banks in part explains this, having Djan Seriy say the Sarl sometimes use “words oddly” – “we guilt you”, “he has been jealoused”. But there are occasions where even that is no defence – the neologism is neither in dialogue, nor even in a narrative set on Sursamen or featuring a Sarl character.

Oh, and why does Matter have double quotes for dialogue throughout, when normal British practice is single quotes?

One of the reasons Banks is an excellent writer is that despite all the above I liked Matter a great deal. It’s likely to be one of the most interesting sf novels published in 2008. Whether that makes it one of the best, I don’t know. Depends what else I read, of course. Unlike The Algebraist, Matter did not disappoint.


8 thoughts on “The Heart of Matter

  1. Funny, you mention some of the things I like about Banks and some of my misgivings as well. That whole digressions thing. But I find I can forgive him a lot because he is, yes, an interesting writer and he has big ideas, an imagination that can literally span entire galaxies. He’s not perfect, he’s flawed…but so is MOBY DICK and ULYSSES. He tries and he aims so high with his work, that’s what sets him apart from most scribblers. That’s what makes him so fucking grand…

  2. I’m looking forward to this immensely and you haven’t put me off. Now all I need is the time to read……..

  3. I enjoyed reading your review of Matter. I finished reading the book yesterday and wasn’t disappointed. However while I certainly couldn’t be arsed to write such a review of my own, I want to comment on some of your points.Banks certainly isn’t perfect and your review makes this clear, I feel you’ve been overly harsh. In your 7th paragraph you state Banks is not an ideas man. You go on to use some examples, but, both nanotech and cyberspace have been around in The Culture Universe since Consider Phelbas (Indeed Excession goes into some detail regards cyberspace and its eventual possiblities), Their inclusion in Matter certainly did not seem strange to me.I must also disagree with the conclusion you draw regarding parallels with the Iraq war. Again we go back to the first Culture novel published in the late eighties. (I can’t be bothered to check the exact date.) Contact and the policy of interference with less advanced civilisations has been integral from the start. Sure in Look to Windward, Banks wrote around a terrorist theme. (Written and published before the 9/11 attack I might add) But he passed no judgement, indeed one is made to empathise with the terrorist in LTW. Matter is not a comment on his ‘changed view’ of US/UK meddling in the Middle East, Banks is not that stupid. He is taking ideas/problems we face and exploring them in his ‘Culture Universe’. As mentioned I did enjoy the book but the tying up of the plot, as you said, felt rushed. The epilouge, although funny and poignant, condradicted much of the early stated rules of civilisational interaction Banks had laid down. Wow I’ve ranted a bit, never usually post more than a few lines!peas

  4. I stand corrected on the cyberspace thing – it’s been a while since I read the earlier Culture novels. But I do remember being surprised by the introduction of nanotechnology at the end of Look to Windward.The Culture’s policy of interference – perhaps the real world has caught up with Banks on this one. Since such interference clearly doesn’t work. Actually, now I think about it, it hasn’t worked historically either. But the Iraq war provides a strong, contemporary example, and it’s difficult to read – or even imagine reading – Matter as not commenting on that.

  5. I know, Im a bit geeky, I absolutly love science fiction and tend to re-read all my books from Asimov to Reynolds over and over. On that note have you read any Reynolds, would love to hear your thoughts on that! Think I’ve read Consider Phelbas 8 or 9 times now. (The SC agent in CP has memoryform weapons which while not stating as such, IS nanotech! plus the bug the tracks Horza….) but I can understand your surprise in LTW, I remember thinking that while the tech was cool it seemed to me that mision should have been an SC human plus combat drone as are most SC mission’s. It didn’t really make sense.Anywho back to the Iraq comparison. We might have a disagreement of fundamentals here. You say “..such intervention clearly doesn’t work” and “it hasn’t worked historically either Well its does and has from a certain point of view. The British Empire while not perfect interfered with many developing peoples and performed many good works along side its bad ones. My point is this. If you saw a man being beaten up on the other side of the road would you offer help or walk on? Morally the right thing to do is help, but the consequences are unknown. You might be saving a pheodophile or a mass murderer. This is the point Banks makes about Interference, Do we know all the facts? – No, Should we be the worlds policemen in places like Iraq, The Sudan, East Timor? Im unsure, Iraq was wrong and I protested the war, however I did then and still will argue the other side of the coin, if we see genocide taking place and have the ability to stop it surely we are morally obligated to stop it, all or nothing. This is what makes our governments so hypocritcal and wrong over Iraq. Mainly because they disassembled their intentions and it was never a moral crusade to give democracy to the people. We as a society/civilisation are not pefect, The Culture is, hence why they can get away with it, but they still make mistakes. If he’s commenting at all it is to say we should be helping the men across the street, but all men across every street, not just the one’s who we might get a bit more oil from

  6. I like Reynolds’ fiction very much, and have all of his novels and collections. I read The Prefect in September last year… but didn’t write about it on here.I wouldn’t say the British Empire left behind a legacy of flowers and honey, and we’re probably overly fond of patting ourselves on the back for what we see as worthy accomplishments… but aren’t necessarily so to the nations we conquered. Yes, there are situations where intervention is necessary – to prevent genocide, for example – but it’s not the responsibility of a single nation state to do it. That’s why we have international law and the UN. The Culture doesn’t map onto the UN – it’s only one of the Involved civilisations. If all the Involved civilisations had given the Culture a mandate to police Sursamen, on the other hand…

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