Saturday, May 1, 2010


Some criticism of Iain Banks' SF book, Matter

Although this book was published in 2008, and I bought it in hardcover, I haven't read it till now. Why? Well, I've written a whole lot about Iain Banks' work, mostly of Usenet back in the late 90's. I watched his Culture series go from some of the books that I thought were really among the best ever to be written in Sf (Use of Weapons) to some that were really rather bad. After Look To Windward in 2000, I'd predicted that that might well be the last of Culture: Banks seemed exhausted, the contemporary political atmosphere (for these are political books) was quite discouraging for the European libertarian left, the book had an air of finality... and that's how it stood until Matter came out.

I was relieved to see that several Banks tics that had become gradually more annoying were gone from this book. No one gets righteously tortured to death in revenge for some rightist atrocity. (This was so common in previous books that I'd called it the ODV scene: Obligatory Deadly Vengeance). The aristocratic characters are not instantly type-castable as dissolute and useless. And most of all, there's finally a book where Banks does not seem to be making an attempt to write a new "dark side of the Culture", a sinister secret or flaw that will give them more drama.

What replaces this encouraging absence of writerly crutches? Well... it's a very competent novel. Serviceable. Um... very pleasant in an ordinary SF kind of way.

I feel bad for writing that. The novel really does have its good points. Its core is a fairy tale, really, which I always think is a good choice. The tale goes something like this. (Oh yes, spoilers.) Once upon a time there were three princes. Their father, a strong king, had raised the first to be a warrior, the second to be a diplomat, and the third to be a scholar. And here's the first variation from the classic tale: the first prince died, and his place was taken by his sister, a woman who went to a far land where women could be warriors far stronger than any their land could ever make. But then the king died treacherously and the land was threatened by dire foes, foes it would take combined military force and diplomacy and scholarship to defeat. In an additional fairy tale touch, the youngest of the princes became King, the others being missing, and since he was a studious youth, his enemies expected him to fail easily. But he confounded their schemes.

So far, so familiar, right? But, this being an anarcho-socialist novel, the princes and princess are not going to rule happily ever after. All three end up sacrificing their lives, more or less gracefully passing from the scene and preserving their land so it can progress to its next stage, a republic, which will be led by their former servant.

The three nobles are all somewhat played against type. Ferbin, the middle brother and the first viewpoint character, seems at first to be cut from standard Banks whole cloth. He's ineffectual and dissipated, someone who sleeps with a lot of women and runs back to the protection of his social status when he gets them and himself into trouble. But he's saved by his self-knowledge. At the beginning of the book, he's already telling us that he knows that he would be a bad king. At the end, when one of their group needs to be sacrificed to stop the lead bad guy, he throws himself in, knowing that tis a far, far better thing that he does etc. (Aided, admittedly, by brain chemicals that keep him from worrying too much. Quite a boon for cowards in general, those would be.) Anaplian, the princess, fits into the Culture with no problems at all. As an ex-royal, she's already used to not paying money for anything, already uniformly suspicious of people seeking to use her. There isn't any of, say, Zakalwe's (the agent in Use of Weapons) passive-aggressive almost middle-class "I can make it on my own" refusal to incorporate all of the Culture's benefits into herself. She's the ideal Special Circumstances agent.

Oramen, the youngest brother, is always a half-step behind. The plotter against the throne expects him to crumble immediately, and he doesn't, rather unconvincingly being able to do things like deliver convincing orations in front of real crowds without practice, because he remembers similar ones from plays. He survives one assassination plot after another through forethought, quick reactions, and a bit of authorial grease. But after telling himself to be decisive and to not be ashamed to take precautions that might look foolish, Oramen does exactly that -- although suspicious, he doesn't do anything about his suspicions at the critical moment, and he's mortally injured, though he survives long enough to warn his brother and sister.

This plot takes place within a galactic setting that sometimes works, sometimes doesn't. It doesn't work when Banks gives pages-long infodumps that are intended to tell us who is mentoring who is mentoring who within the complex, stacked hierarchy of civilizations at different levels of advancement. It does work when the effects on the lower-level civilizational leaders are presented -- they know that they are small players on a large stage, and their reaction is convincingly rather optimistic-predatory in that they feel they have somewhere to go and something to do, not the standard SF one of despair at being out-developed.

The main characters live on a sometimes-deadly piece of space junk. Oh, it's a huge, impressive artificial-hollow-planet artifact, and its perfectly understandable why all sorts of people would end up squatting on it once its builders left. But someone from a real top-level civilization, like the Culture or other Involveds, would never move onto something like that en masse. They'd just build their own artifact to whatever spec they wanted. So the civilization where the action takes place is, in a larger sense, rather like a tribe living on top of a huge junk pile, which has a certain engaging quality. Even their god, a huge and high-tech alien, is senile.

The book's title, Matter, is rather a puzzle. It's taken from an incident in which Ferbin meets an ex-Culture agent, and they have the now-age-old-within-SF discussion, or rather, college bull session, about whether the universe is a simulation, or whether it's really made out of matter -- whether it is the base reality. The ex-Culture agent opines that it must be the real world, made of matter, because such horrible things happen that any simulationeer creating the scenario would have to be an ultimate bastard, morally worse than their ability to create such simulations would imply. Or so I remember the scene. It really doesn't have any wider significance within the plot.

Here's where I queasily wonder whether I'll look like a complete jerk for having wondered whether I influenced the book somehow, because I used to write about this concept a lot and someone pretty convincingly seeming to be Iain Banks once indicated that he'd read some of my jottings. This is what I call, following James Branch Cabell, a problem of Demiurgy. The world of the novel is not the real world. It's not a world of matter, not really. The simulationeer, the creator, is one Iain Banks. If horrible things happen in that world, well, they happen because Iain Banks wrote them to happen.

And it's immediately apparent why those horrible things happen. They happen so the world will be dramatic. I vaguely remember an Iain Banks interview in which he was asked about why he didn't he write about an ordinary, non-violent Culture person going about an ordinary Culture life. He replied something to the effect that it would be like a soap opera. And there you have it! Problem of evil not so hard to understand after all, eh?

Of course, this is an artistic failure, and authors -- good authors, even great ones, as Banks has sometimes been -- have to know it at some level. If you want to write about an anarcho-socialist future world, and you really believe that anarcho-socialism is good, then you really should be able to depict an ordinary, happy life in that world as interesting. Otherwise, you implicitly agree that we need bad things to happen for life to be worth living. Which, no, Banks really does not, or so he's said. The author as Demiurge is always, inevitably, in some way a failure as a creator, and there is always some authorial guilt about that failure. I think that's as good an explanation as any for why the scene and title are there.

So, finally, back to the political part of the book. Banks didn't try to subvert his utopia for dramatic purposes this time. But is there really any reason for it to be there? The Culture, in this book, isn't really that distinguishable from the other Involved cultures. They are all advanced to the point where there are no conflicts over resources, energy, or living space; they can all afford to give their citizens as much, materially, as they really could want. So the Culture has a few quirks. They have this thing about missionary work, they're ideologically rather expansionist, and they're more touchy about full citizenship for machine intelligence and about lack of individual social restrictions than most Involveds. But you really don't get the feeling that living under one of the others would be that different, all told.

And that's rather a weakness of the book. When resources and energy and space don't matter, what matters is ideology. The real, best, ultimate Culture villains were the Idirans, the species that the Culture had its only really major military conflict with in the first Culture book. The Idirans, if I remember rightly, had a sort of religious belief that each people had a place and should stay there. And otherwise? They weren't monsters. They didn't engage in any of the Grand Guignol that far too many Banks villains engage in, committing genocide and torture and rape out of raw sadism and power-lust. They thought their system was right, and it really, really wasn't.

If there are to be other Culture books, I'm still hoping for one that has as villains standard, liberal, personally mostly well-intentioned and well-behaved politicians. To the Culture, those are really just as bad, aren't they? Look To Windward features the Chelgrians, who come complete with a caste system in which certain caste servants are routinely mutilated. Which is a cop-out. A remaining caste system like contemporary India's would be quite bad enough, for the Culture. There's something about the depiction of conflict without staged horrors that Banks captured, right at the beginning of the Culture's published works. (Use of Weapons and The Player of Games, his two best books in my opinion, aren't as directly concerned with that, being in my reading a meditation on the action hero and a bildungsroman respectively). I hope that he can capture that again.
...Read more