Thursday, November 27, 2008

Book Review: Matter by Iain M. Banks

His first Culture novel in 8 years, Iain M. Banks' Matter begins on a Shellworld known as Sursamen, and its central narrative is a story of revenge. After witnessing his father, the King of the Sarl people, being murdered by his own second in command, young Ferbin flees Sursamen to enlist the help of his sister, Anaplian. Anaplian left Sursamen as a child to become a part of the Culture, and is now an amazingly equipped killing machine working at the employ of the Special Circumstances division of the Culture. This Special Circumstances division bears a striking similarity to our own CIA, since the mission of Special Circumstances is to covertly do whatever is in the best interest of the Culture, throughout the galaxy. Most of the novel revolves around Ferbin's own quest to escape Sursamen and then to return with Anaplian to vengefully remove his father's betrayer, Tyl Loesp.

The title of the novel is derived from a conversation that takes place midway through the book. During his journey to find help, Ferbin meets with a former adviser to his father, Xide Hyrlis who is, himself, an agent of the Culture who is now carrying out death and destruction on another world.

"You know there is a theory...that all that we experience as reality is just a simulation, a kind of hallucination that has been imposed on us." He then goes on to say, "If we assume that all we have been told is as real as what we ourselves experience - in other words, that history, with all its torturings, massacres, and genocides, is true - then, if it is all somehow under the control of somebody or some thing, must not those running that simulation be monsters? How utterly devoid of decency, pity and compassion would they have to be to allow this to happen, and keep on happening under their explicit control? Because so much of history is precisely this, gentlemen."

Hyrlis goes on to say that the reason he gets up each day and takes part in wars and sends people to their death is so that he can continue to convince himself that all this is "real" - that we really are simply matter and nothing more - because if it isn't real, and it is a hallucination, then those running the simulation of the universe are far greater monsters than even we ourselves. "We are information, gentlemen; all living things are. However, we are lucky enough to be encoded in matter itself, not running in some abstracted system as patterns of particles or standing waves of probability." Another character, however, responds that "[o]f course, sir, your god could just be a bastard." Hyrlis' response is correct: "Those above and beyond us might indeed be evil personified. But it is a standpoint of some despair." Quite an understatement!

And so, the novel itself is really a nihilistic treatise on reality, as well as a real life example of it. This is certainly obvious once one sees that the Deus Ex Machina (literally) at the end of the novel forces the entire narrative for 95% of the book to be thrown away in its dramatic and exciting conclusion. In the end, this demonstrates an ironic twist, in that the book's own creator favors the dramatic ending over answering any of the questions about the main characters one might have by novel's end. This is either bad writing, or an object lesson about the agony of life. If this is true, then in Banks' own words, he would be "evil personified," but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and just assume he's a thoughtless writer, since the other option would be "a standpoint of some despair."

So the book is nihilistic. But is it good? My answer is "maybe." If you like excellent writing that is exciting and amazingly composed, this may not be the best book to read. The book itself is over 600 pages, and is filled with page after page of the complexities of the galactic political scene. A massive amount of the narrative, as well, involves discussion the technological innovations which the Culture enjoys. For me, this is the most rewarding and interesting factor in reading this book, because I really delighted in the imagination and thought processes which must have been involved in thinking of all the things which an alien race as advanced as the Culture could actually create. The complexity of the world of the Culture provides almost more pleasure than simply reading the narrative of Matter itself. As such, I find myself very interested in reading Banks' other Culture books; though I would be surprised if I pick up another fiction book for a long time. This one took me 6 months to finish, and its even a miracle that I finished it.

Overall, I have no regrets about reading this book, and I do recommend it to the more patient readers out there.

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