Review: Iain M. Banks’ Matter

On the nesting Matryoshka dolls of space-faring civilizations, philosophy a la Nietzsche, and how Banks ruined SF and epic fantasy at the same time for me.

Matter is one of Banks’ loosely set Culture novels. As a rule they’re Big Idea tales that ruthlessly use mechanisms unique to science fiction to explore said ideas. Written years after the last Culture novel, Matter not only retains the virility of the acclaimed Use of Weapons, but intensifies it. His world-building is more glorious and mind-bending than before, his ideas more encompassing and disturbing.

But in Matter, the main idea is colder and more distant than ever before.  As a consequence, character and plot, always more vehicles than not in Banks’ books, are consumed entirely by this Idea, which asks the question:

“Life: what’s the point?”

Normally the question is interpreted as a personal reflection and self-discovery. But in Matter, the question is asked not just on the level of the individual, but also on the level of entire civilizations.

Banks, of course, never makes this interpretation easy.

The “Culture” that gives the series its name is itself an extremely advanced society—of meddlers. Into the depths of the politics and development of technologically inferior races they tread, with results sometimes fortunate, sometimes not, often both, always disturbing to think about. With ultimate power comes ultimate responsibility, the very definition of the Culture.

Other civilizations also wish to emulate the Culture, thinking that they’re climbing up the ladder of racial superiority, not knowing—or, sometimes, caring—about the terrible cost that such tinkering can bring. In Matter, we end up with a Matryoshka nest of civilizations, each wielding influence on their “smaller” wards.

At the unfortunate center of this particular nesting is a medieval-level culture. Which annoys the hell out of some readers expecting a more futuristic tale, even though these passages alternate with ye olde style Banks Culture chapters. I found this part of the story interesting, however, because they’re executed with a flair comparable to that of George R. R. Martin or David Anthony Durham. In fact, all by themselves these chapters would have made an intriguing tale, with the grit of A Song of Ice and Fire or Acacia, and seemingly random fantastical flourishes replaced with science fiction ones—for these people are quite aware of the power of civilizations above them in the Matryoshka, even if their understanding is incomplete.

The traditionally SFnal point of view in the books is still tied to this culture, in fact: a royal princess who was taken away and raised as part of the capital-C Culture itself. I particularly liked her, with her cool and sarcastic personality, strong and distanced and yet not a caricature of the Strong Female Character. In her history and development is the contrast between the topmost Culture and the bottommost of her home, between a society that allows her to explore her full potential and beyond, and one that would have a hard time with the idea of a female on the throne.

For a book with such a nihilistic theme, the story is alive in so many ways, with character growth and development (even of the villains), humor, intertwining plots writ from small and personal to huge and galaxy-encompassing, intrigue and war both old and new, mysterious ancient ruins and quirky intelligent spaceships. The developing intersection of a medieval world and a far-future one is wonderful to watch and covers well the secondary theme of “Who watches the Watchers?”

And then Banks does something that would be unforgivable in any other kind of story, and is nearly unforgivable here. His answer to the main theme, that which asks the point of the lives and fates of beings of mere matter, begins to rise, stalking towards Bethlehem.

So what does Banks do?

He takes everything he built and tears it all down.

This pissed me off, because, y’know, I made the mistake of getting attached to the plot threads, even though I knew ahead of time that, given the nihilistic theme that became more and more apparent, the collision of the two plots just could not end well. I don’t mind characters dying—gods know that a Martin lover needs to deal with frequent beloved/main characters’ nasty deaths—but Banks didn’t just destroy characters, but entire plots.

I should have known that Banks writes in service of the Idea first and foremost.

After Matter, I devoured more Culture novels in an attempt to divine some formula by which I might come to terms with Matter.

I learned that Banks isn’t known for endings that satisfy plot or character. After the Idea is explored, he’s lost almost all interest. His books are the epitome of the tight ending: no more and no less. Sometimes I think his editor has to club him into writing an epilogue.

His books are excellent, exquisite in their handling of story. He’s one of the best writers out there, in any genre or mainstream. But his books are, in sincerity, not for me.

A second admission: Banks made me despair of ever liking SF again. Any other book or story I attempted to read felt lifeless. I folded myself into the Dresden Files for two weeks after I discovered that I couldn’t even stomach epic low fantasy anymore.

Well played, Banks. Your story stayed with me.

I’ve written this review now, and it gives me a sense of closure I’m not ever getting from Banks.

Maybe the two SF anthologies I’m reading will unbreak me.

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