Iain M. Banks: Matter

I read Matter last year around the same time I read Surface Detail, but they’re two very different books. While I quite enjoyed Surface Detail, I found Matter to be fairly tedious, and the ending to be a big letdown. This review contains mild spoilers.

The story revolves around members of the royal family of the Sarl, a medieval-level humanoid race who live on one of the levels of the artificial shell world of Sursamen. Ferbin, the heir to the throne, is forced to flee his nation when his father is betrayed and overthrown by his second-in-command, tyl Loesp. His younger brother, Oramen, is installed as regent, but tyl Loesp plans to kill him and become king himself when the time is right. Thirdly, their sister Djan Seriy Anaplian was gifted to the Culture years earlier where she’s become an agent of Special Circumstances, a group tasked with especially difficult and important missions.

While Anaplian travels back to Sursamen – a little tricky since it lies outside Culture space – Ferbin works to get out into space to contact her, while Oramen works to stay alive even as he is effectively exiled to oversee excavation of the Nameless City on the adjacent level the Sarl have recently conquered. He also learns that the Sarl’s advanced patrons, the Oct, are up to something in the Nameless City. That something turns out to be of extreme importance – and danger – to all of Sursamen, which Anaplian and Ferbin find they have to stop once they get to the planet.

When I started reading the book, my first reaction was, “Uh-oh, another medieval-setting Culture novel,” having not been especially enamored of Inversions. It’s better than that novel in many ways, as Ferbin and Oramen both being forced to grow up and deal with the new realities of their lives is expertly handled. And Anaplian’s adventurs outside Sursamen are also entertaining.

Unfortunately, the larger threat from the Nameless City really undercuts all of the nice character development, truncating the growing tensions in much the same way that Janet Leigh’s stop in the hotel truncates the story in Psycho. It then becomes a very different story, which itself has an unsatisfying ending, as nearly everyone comes to grief. While it’s a page-turning ride, the conclusion feels devoid of meaning and borders on a throw-the-book-across-the-room experience.

The enduring character of the story is Ferbin’s aide, Holse, who is a lower class man who is devotedly loyal to his master, largely at sea in the advanced environments he and Ferbin travel to, but who has enough presence of mind and sense of self not to be overwhelmed by them. But he’s not enough to save the book.

Banks’ Culture series is pretty uneven, with some great books and some weak ones. Matter is towards the lower end of the spectrum, which is too bad because it starts promisingly.

Iain M. Banks: Surface Detail

The latest of Banks’ Culture novels is also my favorite since Use of Weapons, as it’s a good crunchy book with some interesting moral considerations and a lot of insight into how the Culture works.

The book opens by introducing the major characters, two of whom die in their first chapters (but, this being a Culture novel, that’s merely a minor impediment). First, Lededje Y’breq is a slave, indentured the Joiler Veppers, the richest and most powerful man on the planet Sichult, consigned to that fate because of the failings of her father years before. (Veppers’ point of view is also part of the book.) Second, Vatueil, a soldier in a war (about which more in a minute). Third (but least), Yime Nsokyi, an Culture agent of the arm of Contact called Quietus, which works with the electronically stored remnants of the dead. Last, Prin and Chay, a pair of aliens who have sent copies of their minds into their planet’s simulated hell, where the minds of the dead whom their world have deemed worthy of eternal punishment are sent, their goal being to expose the truth of the existence of this hell to the rest of their world.

In fact the framework of Surface Detail is a virtual war (a war game, if you will) between two sides supporting and opposed to these electronic hells; the Culture opposes them, but for various reasons is not part of the actual conflict. Vatueil is, and his side has a difficult decision to make as the war progresses. Veppers is also contracting with one side in the war, which makes Lededje’s existence interesting to various parties once people learn about her. Yime’s role might seem the most important given her job, but she’s actually a peripheral character to the plot overall. And while Prin and Chay don’t contribute directly to the plot, their stories are the most emotionally powerful, as one of them executes the mission in the real world while the other is left to suffer in the hell they entered.

Surface Detail is full of moral conflicts. The war over the hells seems like a proxy for the moral conflicts of the modern day (abortion rights, for instance), in which each side is utterly convinced of the rightness of their cause, while still being a believable science fictional concept. Banks doesn’t pretend to provide a balanced view, fair enough as this is a Culture novel and all of the characters are more-or-less aligned with its point of view on this matter. So the arguments in favor of the hells don’t hold much water in this book. And Prin and Chay’s experiences wholeheartedly support the Culture’s point of view.

Other conflicts are muddier. Lededje naturally enough wants revenge on Veppers, but the Culture (1) doesn’t hold dominion over Sichult, and (2) isn’t about to get directly involved in someone else’s desire for revenge. Of course, this being a Culture novel, there are deeper games going on here, and the Culture is perfectly happy to help transport Lededje back to her homeworld.

The best parts of the book involve two things: First, the insight we get into how the Culture works – people being revived after death, outsiders acclimating to life in the Culture, the degrees of personal freedom that people have in the Culture, and the nature of responsibilities in its post-scarcity civilization. And second, some of the crunchier high tech bits in the story, most notably the fast picket Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, which transports Lededje back to Sichult. There are also some nifty remnants of a much older civilization lying around which cause some issues.

The various plot threads dance around each other, most of them not directly meeting, but all relating thematically. Although there’s a rather nifty twist at the end which ties up some elements in a particularly satisfying manner. Although there are bits that seem superfluous (Yime’s presence in the book, for instance) and could have been edited out, and the story builds slowly until really getting going in the final third, overall Surface Detail is a thought-provoking and engaging adventure – quite satisfying, especially considering that some of Banks’ books leave me more baffled than entertained.

Why can’t they all be like this one?

Iain M. Banks: Consider Phlebas

I read several of Banks’ Culture novels earlier in the decade, but I hadn’t read Consider Phlebas, which was the first of them published. We read it for our book discussion group this month, rectifying that oversight.

Consider Phlebas is a grand space opera which introduces us to the universe of the Culture, itself a sweeping civilization maintained by ultraintelligent computers (Minds) which live in harmony with the humanoids and humanoid-level robots (drones) which make up most of the Culture’s trillions of citizens. But we’re introduced to the Culture through the eyes of one of its enemies, Bora Horza Gobuchul. Horza is a Changer, a humanoid who can shift shapes (given time) to imitate other humanoids. He’s also an agent for the Idirans, an alien race of religious fanatics who are at war with the Culture. Horza opposes the Culture because of their reliance on – and perhaps in his eyes servitude to – machines.

Horza is extracted from his current mission at the start of the novel (where he’d been bested by a Culture agent, Perosteck Balveda) and charged with going to Schar’s World to retrieve a Mind which has been marooned there following combat with the Idirans. Unfortunately, Schar’s World is a dead world which has been closed by an even more powerful race, the Dra’Azon, whom the Culture and Idirans are both wary of. The Idirans sent a force there to retrieve the Mind, but it was apparently shot down. Horza had once served there in a neutral base his race maintains, so perhaps the Dra’Azon will let him in.

Even worse for our hero, the Idiran ship where Horza is briefed is attacked before he can set out, and he ends up being marooned and then rescued by the Clear Air Turbulence, with a crew of freebooters led by Captain Kraiklyn, a leader who proves both poorly informed and incompetent. Horza wins his way onto the crew (through combat), and gets involved with a shipmate, Yalson. Kraiklyn’s crew embark on several adventures – with a mounting body count – including an extended stay on Vavach Orbital, a larger-than-Earth-diameter ring which the Culture plans to destroy before the Idirans can take it over. Horza ends up on both the giving and the receiving end of many atrocious acts, but remains fixed on his goal of getting to Schar’s World, where the last third of the book takes place.

The element that all the reviews of Consider Phlebas mention is that it introduces the Culture through the eyes of one of its adversaries. Horza has thrown in his lot with the Idirans because he sees them as being “on the side of life”, whereas he detests the Culture’s melding of man and machine into a larger gestalt, one he perceives as dominated by the machines to the detriment of the humanoids. I wish the book had explored this notion further, since it’s probably the most interesting idea in the novel. But Horza isn’t a very philosophical man, and on this subject he perhaps is motivated not to be, since if the Idirans are the best that “the side of life” can put up against the Culture, one is forced to wonder if Horza isn’t just deluding himself: The Idirans are warlike, dogmatic, and obsessive in their drive to absorb other races into their empire. Horza is getting tired of the war altogether, but one wonders if he hasn’t realized that he’s not on the right side but just can’t admit that to himself.

Unfortunately the book mostly doesn’t concern itself with interesting questions like that either, being mostly a space-operatic show of wonder as Horza takes his tour through what is effectively the leading front of the war: The enormity of Vavach Orbital and what exists inside it, the brutality of the game of Damage that he witnesses while there, the various wonders and dangers that exist on worlds in the vicinity, and the nitty-gritty of the soldiers, including Balveda’s resourcefulness and the brutal single-mindedness (one might say blooddy-mindedness) of the Idirans sent to recover the Mind. Many of these are interesting ideas, but none of them are enough to hang a book on. Indeed, the book feels like it went instantly obsolete in the “sense of wonder” region when Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep came out, and like it’s at best a great-great-grandparent of Alastair Reynolds‘ works. That’s not a good thing for a book barely 20 years old.

But the book doesn’t have a lot going for it besides appeals to the sense of wonder. Horza is an unlikeable protagonist, one who does horrible things and suffers some horrible experiences, and for what? The book’s conclusion is unsatisfactory, with little but misery and death having been inflicted on the characters, and no reward for that suffering. Horza doesn’t even come across as a tragic figure, nor does he really learn anything or impart much of a legacy. It appears this was intentional, as Banks said in an interview (quoted in the Wikipedia article) that it’s very difficult for an individual to change the course of civilizations. That’s all well and good (and even so, this story was terrible at making that point), but an individual can certainly have a profound impact on a smaller scale, especially a few other individuals, but other than bringing death to them (death which it seems likely would have come anyway), Horza doesn’t even do that much.

Banks’ writing is decent enough, although it often feels mechanical, mainly intended to move the characters from one place to another through plot devices (and in a galaxy where everyone’s got high-tech implants of one sort or another, there are always plenty of plot devices to go around). Some of the scenes are fine (such as Horza piloting the CAT out of a Culture GSV), while others are inventive in their way (the colony of cannibals living on an island on the orbital) but I thought they added nothing to the story. It could have been a shorter novel without losing anything.

Consider Phlebas is full of ideas, but the writing, characters, and especially the plotting just aren’t very rewarding. Although the Culture is interesting as a post-singularity civilization, with the unusual twist (which always seems reasonable one to me) of humans and AIs living together, this novel is a poor representative of the premise, because ultimately there just isn’t enough story to make it an enjoyable read.

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