Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Iain M. Banks - Matter

Welcome to the future, she thought, surveying all the wordage and tat. All our tragedies and triumphs, our lives and deaths, our shames and joys are just stuffing for your emptiness. (p. 297)

Matter is one part semi-medieval revenge story, one part high tech adventure, and one part a boy’s coming of age (of sorts). The novel is packed with clever ideas and good moments, but every one of those comes at the expense of one of its other threads. It’s hard to fault certain elements of Matter for succeeding as well as they do, but, when those elements drag down the rest of the story, I don’t have much choice.

Matter opens with a close up shot of Sursamen, immediately throwing us into the trenches with Prince Ferbin. The first chapter is sheer chaos, punctuated by the staccato detonations of artillery shells. As soon as the reader begins to think they’ve found their footing, events conspire to pummel Ferbin again. First his advisor is blown apart by an artillery shell. Then, hiding in a building with gore and shit running down his leg, Ferbin is witness to the murder of his father, King Hausk.

The king’s death sends the first of the novel’s two strands into motion. The first is Ferbin’s quest to get his throne back. Knowing that his father’s old allies plan to kill him on sight, he decides that the only place to get help is above, where the aliens dwell.

What we see of Sursamen in the beginning is fascinating already. The technology of the world is half World War Two and half feudal, featuring Knights riding through the skies on flying mounts with automatic weapons in hand. Ferbin, though initially obnoxious, grows somewhat more bearable as time goes on and he matures, and his conversations with his loyal but insubordinate servant, Holse, are always amusing.

The second thread is Ferbin’s brother, Oramen, who must rule in his father’s place, unaware that his father’s inner circle is planning to dispose of him. Oramen, too, starts promising. The boy’s desire to live up to his father is touching, and his habit of speaking in a manner reminiscent of an overblown Shakespeare when trying to do so, freely cribbing as he does, is great: “If any energies of yours could bring our father back, I know you’d devote them to that cause without stint. That vigour instead will be turned to the good interest of all our people. ypou bring us sorrow and joy at once, my good tyl Loesp…" (p. 37)

When the camera zooms out, we see that nothing on Sursamen was anything like we’d thought it was. Sursamen is a shellworld, an artificial planet made up of a myriad of layers, each the surface of a world for all effects and purposes. That change in scale – and the concept of Shellworlds to begin with, which is downright awesome – is the unquestioned highlight of Matter.

Going hand in hand with the new perspective is our third main character, Anaplian. Anaplian was the daughter of King Hausk, but left her planet to become an agent of Special Circumstances, the shadowy organization that operates on the fringe of Culture space and monitors, and decides the fates of, the other civilizations that the Culture encounters. The shift between the dirty and (literally) shit smeared Sursamen and the gleaming Culture is almost dizzying, and it’s from here that we first see how miniscule the conflict on Sursamen is:

She had realized that [the king] was just another strong man, in one of those societies, at one of those stages, in which it was easier to be the strong man than it was to be truly courageous. Might, fury, decisive force, the willingness to smite; how her father had loved such terms and ideas, and how shallow they began to look when you saw them played out time and time again over the centuries and millennia by a thousand different species. (p. 84)

Anaplian learns of her father’s death and heads back toward Sursamen. Despite the fact that Matter often concerns itself with the bigger picture, we come to realize that the details of the galaxy, too, are important, the actions of the common man still important in the light of what are, effectively, giants and deities:

The stage is small but the audience is great, had been one of King Hausk’s favorite sayings. To some degree he meant that the WorldGod watched and hopefully somehow appreciated what they were doing on its behalf, but there was always the implication that although the Sarl were primitive and their civilization almost comically underdeveloped of, say, the Oct (never mind the Neriscene, still less the Morthanveld and the other Optimae), nevertheless, greatness lay in doing the best you could with what you were given, and that greatness, that fixity of purpose, strength of resolve and decisiveness of action would be watched and noted by those far more powerful people and judged not on an absolute scale (on which it could barley register) but on one relative to the comparatively primitive resources the Sarl had available to them. (p. 118)

So those are the three threads. Individually, each is very promising. Unfortunately, Banks focuses on the three so equally that none of them have time to develop, preventing any one aspect from really pushing the book to greatness.

Let’s start with Oramen. The boy’s plot seems interesting to start, but the shallowness of it all soon starts to gall. The usurped king is a trope that everyone is, I trust, familiar with, and while Banks’s occasional irreverence to its finer points can be refreshing, the banality of the set up is never left far behind. The villain is always cartoonishly devious, the rightful heir always painfully na├»ve. After he misinterprets the third or forth attempt on his life, it’s hard to not feel that the antagonist should just kill him and get it over with already.

Ferbin’s quest takes us to several interesting locations, and involves some great dialogue, but the whole thing is pointless. Anyone who’s read a novel before can predict that the person who helps him out is going to be his sister – who happens to be one of the super powerful Culture, and just happens to be going to the same place as him – so everywhere else he turns for help just feels like a waste of pages. Hell, Banks all but acknowledges this at times, such as the scene with Hyrlis. Now, that scene’s one of the absolute finest in the novel, but the whole thing is completely unconnected to anything else and only makes the slightest attempt to even pretending that it relates.

Anaplian, the player who will obviously decide the game, spends the vast, vast majority of the book in transit. Like Ferbin, she enters into all sorts of weird and interesting locations and scenarios, but it’s, once again, hard to shake the feeling that we’re watching the actor’s walk to the studio, not the movie itself. Which is pretty much exactly what’s going on, because the action doesn’t even pretend to get started for her and Ferbin until the two are united and on their way back to Sursamen.

The core of Matter is the idea that the events on Sursamen, though central to the characters, are ultimately inconsequential to the universe as a whole. This is an interesting theme, but it works far too well. When events on Sursamen finally jerk into motion, everything is interrupted by an intergalactic showdown that comes out of nowhere.

Yes, I get it, it’s supposed to have come out of nowhere. Well, you know what? That doesn’t help. The fact that the entire crisis on Sursamen simply falls apart without anything even approaching a climax is not helped by the fact that it was supposed to, nor by the fact that Banks told me it would. A bad ending is a bad ending, whether you stick a sign on it or not.

And that intergalactic showdown? Its climax is just as bad, without even the slight balm of a reason for it being so. One moment, we’re wrapping up the character arcs we’ve had for the whole book. The next, the world’s being destroyed. By a robot with all the believable motivations of Mr. Freeze. Because. The moment after that, crisis over. No resolution, no falling action, just over. Done with. Go read the epilogue for another Tolkien reference, if you want, but certainly don’t start expecting closure.

The one element that does make it through to the book’s end intact is the prose. Banks is one of the rare authors that can evoke atmosphere through his creation, be insultingly irreverent to said creation, and have both the atmosphere and the joke still come off. For the conveyance of an epic scale, I give you Ferbin’s description of an alien world:

This was, Ferbin thought, the equivalent of a whole civilization, almost an entire galaxy, contained within what would, in a normal solar system, be the orbit of a single planet. What uncounted lives were lived within those dark, unending braids? How many souls were born, lived and died within those monstrous curling twists of tubing, never seeing – perhaps never feeling the need to see – any other worlds, transfixed for ever within the encompassing vastness of this unexplorably prodigious habitat? What lives, what fates, what stories must have taken place within this star-surrounding ring, forever twisting, folding, unfolding? (p. 393)

As for the irreverence, look no further than Banks’s naming system, which proudly christens high-tech potentially planet-destroying monoliths with names like Don’t Try This At Home and The Hundredth Idiot.

Matter has an interesting concept at its heart, and Banks brings both the world and the characters to life. Unfortunately, the book’s buildup is about five times longer than it should be, and the payoff is ten times shorter than it should be. Despite some intriguing ideas, Matter doesn’t live up to its promise. Still, Banks’s writing is strong enough, and his scenes vivid enough, that the journey is enjoyable, all the same.

No comments:

Post a Comment