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June 25, 2012

I got a big, fat book in the mail more than a year ago from ElizabethMatter, by Iain M. Banks–because she wanted me to try something more typical of her favorite author than The Wasp Factory. I was thrilled and started reading it immediately, only to get bogged down and finally put it aside. Recently I picked it up again and put it on my bedside table, where I got a nightly dose of its vast scope and slow pace until, for the final few nights, I was reading it long after I should have put it down and turned out the light.

The world-building in this novel is vast on a scale I haven’t imagined since I first read Larry Niven or Jack McDevitt, who also have mysterious alien artefacts from the far distant past cropping up in their stories. There are many races, and a constructed kind of planetary system called a “shellworld” which is described in satisfying detail. There’s an organization called The Culture that, in this novel at least, seems to be trying to help different races get along and move forward without interfering in their development too much, and they have some pretty advanced technology, including augmentations that can make any intelligent being practically immortal.

But because this is Iain M. Banks, nobody’s actually immortal. There must be loss. I was pretty seriously ticked off when, 531 pages into this epic tome, the biggest bad guy died a kind of anonymous death after killing off my favorite character, Oramen. I really thought Oramen was going to get the jump on the bad guy, tyl Loesp, but he does not, and then an even bigger bad guy emerges from some alien ruins to blow up the world.

Well, that’s Banks for you; first you read 596 pages loaded with extremely interesting details about a universe populated by such races as the Morthanveld, who
“were spiniform waterworlders. The director general was a milky-looking sphere a metre or so in diameter surrounded by hundreds of spiny protrusions of varying thicknesses and in a broad spectrum of pastel colours. Her spines were mostly either curled up or gathered back at the moment, giving her a compact, streamlined appearance. She carried her environment around with her in a glistening wrap of silvery blue, membrances and fields containing her own little sample of oceanic fluids.”
Then you get interested in the story of the royal family of the Sarl, one of whom has been training as an agent of the Culture’s “special circumstances” section. Finally, just when a lot of the characters are finally converging on the same planet, it blows up and almost everyone dies. Really, it’s not worth getting invested in any one character; it’s better if you can look at this created universe with some kind of disinterested God-like gaze.

Or maybe with a covetous gaze. I want what the Culture agent (Djan Seriy Anaplian) gets:
“She realized that she slept much more than most of her friends, missing out on a potential part of waking life. She asked for another treatment, which solved that problem as though it had never existed; she slept deeply for a few hours each of these clockworkly regular and dependable nights and awoke thoroughly refreshed each morning.”

A lot of the time, I was reading along simply to enjoy the view as a tourist:
The whole of the Fourth,” Holse said, “is home to these Cumuloform, which are clouds, but clouds which are in some sense intelligent in that mysterious and not especially useful way so many alien peoples and things tend to be, sir. They float over oceans full of fishes and sea monsters and such. Or rather over one big ocean, which fills the whole of the bottom part of the level the way land does on our own dear Eighth. Anyway, they’re seemingly happy to transport folk between Towers when the Oct ask them to.”

Some of the details are amusing; I love the Culture agent’s irritation with the names of the spaceships. A sampling of names:
Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall
We Know What’s Good For You
Now, Turning to Reason, & its Just Sweetness
Don’t Try This At Home
The Liveware Problem
It’s My Party And I’ll Sing If I Want To
Now We Try It My Way
You’ll Clean That Up Before You Leave
One of the best things about this novel, however, is that the funny names are actually part of a sub-plot in which it turns out that some machine minds have become so close to human that it’s difficult even for the agent of the Culture to tell a character who originated as a self-aware spaceship mind (“a ship’s avatar of such exquisite bio-mimicry it could pass for fully human”) from a character who originated (or ended) as a brainstem.

I’m glad I read this one because it has enlarged my imaginative universe, and given my brain room to wander. Reading it is kind of like the experience of sitting outside watching the breeze blow through the trees and listening to the buzz of insects–it takes you outside yourself; makes you more aware of what’s around and more open to possibility.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2012 8:23 am

    You did such a great job pulling out the elements I love in this book. I am so, so glad you enjoyed Matter–it’s one of my favorites by Banks.

    • June 26, 2012 1:55 pm

      So we do have a few shared tastes after all? I suspected as much.

  2. June 25, 2012 8:35 am

    Glad you enjoyed it. I’ve read about half a dozen of Banks’s Culture novels, but haven’t gotten to MATTER yet – I’m trying to read them in order, which is a hassle because they haven’t all been released for Kindle yet. My favorite so far is PLAYER OF GAMES, which I think is the second in the series.

    • June 26, 2012 1:57 pm

      If I read any more of them, I may try to find the first one, just because I’ve now read a couple out of order and would like to see if the goals of the Culture make any more sense if you start where the author began.

  3. freshhell permalink
    June 25, 2012 9:47 am

    Whereas, this just makes my brain hurt. My ship is called Does Not Compute.

    • June 26, 2012 1:59 pm

      My ship is called Wow I’m in Outer Space. In my forties I finally resigned myself to the fact that fiction is the only way I’m ever going to get there.

  4. June 26, 2012 1:29 pm

    Definitely seems like a book that requires time and certain frame of mind — as well as an openess of mind.

    • June 26, 2012 2:00 pm

      It does require time, and an appreciation for detailed world-building.

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