A Discussion about Matter, part two

As promised, here’s the second installment of that discussion about Iain M Banks’ new book, Matter. Part one is here, and part three will be over at the Velcro City Tourist Board tomorrow. Enjoy!

Niall: And so to question three, the big one: what did you think of Matter?

Jonathan: Matter put me in mind of that Helix column by John Barnes where he argued that all artistic movements and genres passing through three phases. You have the initial phase when ideas are laid down, then the second phase when you get the great masters of the genre and then the third phase when it’s all about being a virtuoso, about not challenging the limits of your genre but rather producing art that relentlessly pursues beauty as defined by the genre with no interest in innovation or change.

In those terms, Matter is not just a virtuoso work of SF, it’s also a virtuoso Culture book.

The previous three Culture books were more “difficult” because rather than following the formula laid down by the early Culture novels, Banks went out of his way to examine the Culture from new perspectives. Matter has no difficulty. In fact, it’s probably the most accessible Culture novel since The Player of Games. The concepts in it are all familiar and were developed in previous books, a lot of the characters are familiar and really there’s nothing new in it. It’s just a well constructed Culture novel. There are neat character arcs, big plot lines and quests for those readers who want escapism. Matter will probably be one of the most commercially successful Culture books ever written.

However, I couldn’t help but feel that Banks has just stopped trying to be clever and has settled down into a commercially successful franchise that will doubtless keep him in single malts and Porsche Boxters until the end of his days. His fans will adore the book, as will most SF fans looking for a bit of adventure with some witty remarks but personally, I thought Matter was disappointing in its complete lack of ambition.

James: I thought Matter was disappointing, and not just in lack of ambition, but more generally. Maybe it was my expectations? To me it read like an overlong fantasy epic, and when it finally got going it ended. I want to see more Culture, not the societies they’re messing with, or the aliens they’re sharing the galaxy with. I want Minds, Ships, SC. Culture stuff. Basically, I want Excession.

I also thought it was far too long. Banks was obviously having fun with his mega-BDO and pretending to be a fantasy writer, but I got bored. Compare that to something as huge as the Night’s Dawn Trilogy, where whatever else you want to say about it I can’t remember ever being bored. It crossed my mind that maybe Banks was suffering from the JK Rowling syndrome of being too succesful to be edited.

Niall: Overlong fantasy epic? No, no, that was The Algebraist!

More seriously, space opera and epic fantasy are one of the points on the literary spectrum where sf and fantasy come closest to each other (and then mingle, in Star Wars), so I can see where you’re coming from. But in Matter it didn’t bother me, largely because the characters on Sursamen know full well they’re not living in a fantasy world. They know they’re in a giant artificial world, they know there are vastly more advanced species above them, and they have to deal with that.

So I enjoyed it. I have to say I didn’t even find it overlong; big, yes, but not padded. I read it in a much shorter timeframe than most of you, which probably gives me a different perspective, but on the level of basic reading pleasure it kept me fully engaged – it was fun, often funny, sometimes dazzling, with a couple of proper emotional punches towards the end. What I think Matter adds to the Culture series as a whole is a much clearer sense than there has been before of (a) how the different species in the galaxy are trapped into a hierarchy and (b) what it’s like for them to try to live within that hierarchy. And many-levelled Sursamen is of course the perfect setting for literalising those ideas.

James: Yeah, I do agree with some of what you’re saying Niall. I’m pretty sure a lot of my disappointment was down to my expectations. I agree with your last point about what Matter adds, and there were definitely enjoyable parts – witty bits that made me laugh, cool mega-tech etc. But by the end I was left thinking “what was all that actually about?” There seemed lots of, not so much padding, but meandering away from the plot; quite literally in the case of some of the characters.

Paul: I enjoyed Matter very much, possibly because I came to it with no prior expectations beyond it being a Banks novel set in the Culture universe. Which may sound counter-intuitive, as that’s exactly what seems to have disappointed others, but it may clarify if I say I read Banks for the way he writes as much as the what he writes.

Granted, I’d have been pretty stoked if we’d had another Excession-scale Minds’n’conspiracies fest, or a Use of Weapons literary effort. But what we have instead is something that seemed pretty inevitable (and was clarified in the interview) – it’s the edges where things happen in a stable society like the Culture, and that’s where Banks’ thinking has shifted to.

If anything, as a function of the above, I think Matter‘s flaw is that it is unconsciously pitched to readers familiar with the franchise more than to the newcomer – though not in a cynical way, just in the same way that any franchise universe becomes self-contained and slightly exclusive over time, not least in part because its creator becomes so attached to (and familiar with) it.

I’d agree that Matter meandered – but that’s not a flaw for me, Banks meanders in a way I enjoy. And I’ll agree there were loose threads (a function of that stated deliberate effort to make it seem like the start of a trilogy even though it isn’t one?) – but again, that’s not an issue, as I think similar loose threads of plot are what has filled in much of the fine grain detail of the Culture universe over the years.

I think what we’re highlighting here is indeed how expectations and mind-sets make a book different to different readers. I’ve been accused of being a forgiving reviewer before (in music as well as books), and it’s a fair cop. I try to look for the best in things if I can, that’s just my way, though I try as best as possible to leave predisposition to the side. On the other end of the scale, we have Jonathan, who subscribes to the “test-to-destruction” method – setting the highest of standards for everything without favour or compromise, a position I often wish I could emulate (not least because it comes across as a lot less wishy-washy than my own).

I can see all the things that have been pointed out as flaws in Matter, and noticed them while reading it too (I have the post-its to prove it!). But the simple fact is I just enjoyed reading it. A metaphor for this phenomenon just occurred to me, but it’s a trifle earthy and colourful and deals with the fairer sex, so I’ll let your imaginations do the work …

Final point – Jonathan’s accusation of a lack of ambition is one that could be made to stick, I think, but only in one sense. Banks certainly had no ambition to further the field of space opera, or of sf in general. But I think there’s a case to be made that he has tried to do something different and ambitious within the field of Culture novels. Determining its success or failure on its own terms would take being privy to the man’s inner creative processes – which he either doesn’t examine (as he claims) or guards like a junk-yard dog. So, we have to let the reading public (and us critics, natch) decide its worth on whatever terms we bring to the table, I guess … and it appears mine are unfussy!

Niall: It’s interesting that you talk about Matter being pitched to readers familiar with the franchise because if anything, I got the opposite vibe – I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a Culture novel intended as an introduction to the Culture for those readers, primarily US readers, who may not have encountered it before. It’s quite true that this could be another result of expectation on my part. After all, I knew before I started reading it that (a) Banks hasn’t had huge success in the US, historically, and (b) Orbit are planning to make a fuss about the US launch of Matter – but it meant that I read some of the digressions as cluing-in-the-newbies rather than self-indulgent-wandering.

Jonathan: Yes, I’d agree with all of that.

I think that Matter is a work of little artistic ambition but some quite considerable commercial ambition. I know it’s generally considered a bit “off” to speculate about author’s mindsets but if this book wasn’t written with the explicit intension of “cracking” America then I’d be very much surprised.

This leads us to my first question: How did people feel about the plotting?

I thought that the individual plot threads worked on a tactical level but failed on a strategic level. What I mean by this is that the arcs associated with all of the characters worked well in and of themselves. You had the young Prince having to work out what politics was all about, you had the older prince realising that the world he inhabits really is incalculably larger than the courtly dances and bawdy houses he frequents, and you had the SC agent juggling the ethical and practical demands of the Culture (her adopted culture) and of her native culture. So you had Need For Vengeance vs. Career Management and Non-Intervention Vs. Using Your Culture Training To Go Home And Kick Arse.

I thought all of these threads were well written and nicely handled but they made little or no sense as parts of a larger story. The older Prince escaped from the Shellworld and went off to find an ally who delivered a speech and sent him home. The younger prince learned some politics but it didn’t make a difference in the end since he never got to rule, and the SC person was completely passive, just turning up and watching some other stuff going on.

Furthermore I felt that, even by the standards of the Culture novels, the plot with aliens wanting to kill some other alien was all a bit convoluted and silly.

I got the impression that Banks was mining the Big Book of fantasy plot lines – wrangling tropes effectively but with little real attention given to the wider political issues that tended to characterise the previous Culture novels, which would all have little threads going on but they’d all fit into a wider picture. Matter has no wider picture… just pleasing little stories that are nicely unchallenging and unadventurous.

Paul: Points taken, Niall – another perspective issue. I dunno, I just figured if he was going to do a “Culture 101”, there’s be a lot more close detail set within the core Culture, a la The Player of Games, Excession etc. But again, we’re assuming conscious agency where the man claims there was none, so we’ll never get a definite answer, I suspect.

Niall: I have to think he was being just a little disingenuous when he said that to Farah – I mean, I’m willing to believe he’s a pretty instinctive writer, but I do find it hard to imagine writing any novel, and certainly not one this big, without at least some idea of what I want to say and who I want to say it to. On the other hand, I’m of the school of thought that says that everything on the page is the result of a writerly choice, on the grounds that if we want to hold them responsible for some of it (either to praise or to criticise) we have to hold them responsible for all of it, even if the choice is not always an excruciatingly concious and thought-through one.

Back to the plots … as Paul alluded to, in his BSFA interview Banks also said he wrote the book to feel like part one of a trilogy, with no intention of ever writing parts two and three. I think he succeeded entirely in that goal, but if you’re not prepared to roll with that – the realisation, about 80% of the way through, that the book you’re reading is not the book you thought you were reading – it’s going to be unsatisfying, because of the way various plots either change direction suddenly or end up unfinished. On the other hand, if you do roll with it it’s a nice inversion.

In the case of Oramen, I disagree with Jonathan’s assessment; I thought the fact that, in the end, his journey didn’t go anywhere was tragic in the best sense. (It helps that I was starting to worry, at that point, that the whole book would be irredeemably cosy, and that none of the protagonists would get seriously hurt.) In the other two cases, I think Jonathan has a point, and in particular the length of Anaplian’s journey did feel contrived to make sure she was in the right place at just the right time.

More broadly, I think you could make a case that plot and character end up subservient to idea and theme. For me the book was so strongly about hierarchy and differing ideas of what power and freedom mean at different points in a hierarchy that I could certainly see someone making that case against the book. (Which means I’m not sure I can go along with your argument that the book has no wider picture.) But then, most of the time when I was reading Matter I was quite happy to be swept up in the development of the idea.

Jonathan: Fair enough Niall, in that case I think that we should address the “wider message” once we’ve all had a go with the plot.

James: Niall, I don’t agree with you about intent – I often think that critics over-analyse work, and found it quite amusing when Farah analysed Banks’ writing and he more or less said, I don’t know, that’s your job. (And at this point, if you haven’t already guessed, I should point out that I’m not a critic in any sense, as my reviews on BDO will reveal!) I’m not exactly in the same league as Banks (understatement) but I have definitely written stories that just come out, writing in the headlights as it were. Admittedly when writing a novel the length of time it takes often leads to deeper thought, but surely the writer can just aim for a “good story”?

On plots, I pretty much agree with Jonathan. Everything was setup in the first few chapters, and I was feeling optimistic, and then everything just bumbled along until the very end, when everyone died. Everyone went on a journey somewhere, during which nothing much happened of importance. And everything seemed subservient to the shellworld. It reminded me of Rendezvous With Rama, or Ringworld in this aspect, both of which I found dreadfully dull.

And then there’s the monster under the falls! What was that all about? It came from nowhere and just tried to kill everyone. Why? Because it was nasty and wanted to kill Shellworlds. I didn’t like it at all, and By the end I was left wondering what had really happened? Was the whole big picture just random? Did anyone really know what the monster under the falls was? Did the higher level Involveds really care? It all felt so unresolved. The plot for me was the worst aspect of the book.

Paul: Well, I think saying it (they) were bad would be a stretch too far, but they weren’t the stars of the show either. I agree with James that there are a lot of unresolved threads (though not as many as all that – I seem to remember some signposting about the critter beneath the falls earlier on, a remnant of one of the various factions of species that vie for control of the shellworlds, IIRC). But again, we’re back to the “false trilogy” issue – which means there was very possibly a deliberate attempt to make the situation seem wider and more complex than it would actually be shown to be.

I think the analogy here is that Matter, if it were a film, spent more production time on the CGI and eyeball kicks than it did on translating the story as conceived into the story displayed, if you see what I mean. It’s the ‘blockbuster’ phase of the Culture oeuvre, perhaps. But again, I think the unoriginality of plot threads is probably meant to be subservient to the wider theme. The theme is the engine, the plots are the roads the vehicle drives upon.


14 thoughts on “A Discussion about Matter, part two

  1. It was clear that the Oct were manipulating the Sarl (and their enemies) purely to get to the object under the city. I don’t remember a hint that the object was going to be of Iln origins, but I might have missed that.

    Who, exactly, fed the Oct the information that something was buried there is up for grabs, but the Nariscene are elsewhere portrayed as happily pitting their mentored species against each other for fun, and so they might well have been involved in that.

    I do wonder if the remaining parts of the puzzle are there for us to find or if, like the characters, certain parts will always be opaquely out of reach.

    I agree that Matter was concerned with Theme – with both the encounter with the Peace Faction member and the scene that gives the book its name being key to what Banks was saying.

  2. Interesting discussion: although I got the impression that some of the speeches by individual speakers are out of order (eg: Niall says what he thinks of ‘when Farah said that’, and then several paragraphs later James tells us what Farah said). But perhaps I’m being stoopid.

    On the subject of which: I agree with Niall that (whether praising or blaming) authorial responsibility is an all or nothing. Although he doesn’t consider the option of holding the author responsible for none of what she writes, on the grounds of her being dead …

  3. No, that is the order it was all said in … “when he said that to Farah” is a follow-on from Paul’s comment about “we’re assuming conscious agency where the man says there was none”. (And the occasion on which he said it to Farah was the BSFA interview mentioned in part one.) Apologies for any confusion. Trying to put somewhat-parallel emails into a logical order is obviously trickier than I realised.

    Although he doesn’t consider the option of holding the author responsible for none of what she writes, on the grounds of her being dead …

    Pah, we’ll have none of that post-structuralism around here!

  4. This discussion is just getting more interesting as it goes along. Looking forward to the third part.

    I freely admit to being the sort of shallow person who usually enjoys stories purely on the an escapist level, but it’s interesting to see the variety of opinion inspired from a single book.

  5. Re poststructuralism – Barthes was being ironic – doubly ironic in fact! So intentions still count – but I don’t shout this from rooftops as it would put some of my esteemed theoretically-minded colleagues out of a job.

    Re Matter –

    Note – I’ve read every Banks book as it has come out (in paperback for many years until i discovered the concept of solvency) since The Wasp Factory in 1985 – so I guess I’m not really neutral – he has to be read and he is always a pleasure to read (but , yes, Use of Weapons and Complicity are still probably the best – although I actually really liked both Dead Air and The Algebraist)

    Matter still seems to me to be true to the (post?) Marxist politics that characterise Banks’s work throughout. We know he was associated with the IMG in the 70s when the original Culture books were written and this element is still visible in Matter. For me, Matter was worth reading for the comment on p.174 that abolishing money is a necessary stage on the road to achieving genuine civilisation. Part of what Banks does, and what he opened the way for Ken Macleod, China Mieville and Richard Morgan to do, is write action-adventure stories from the point of view of the Left (or rather, because ‘Left’ is a dead term pretty much, from the point of view of the classless civilised (putting the last two words together results in a tautology – but some times it is necessary to state the obvious) society that might come. Matter does this with zest, but also throws us back into the present. Thus, the princes of the past and the Culture agent of the future die for the everyperson Sancho-Panza figure, who is the only possible agent of the present struggle to climb up to something actually approaching civilisation (hence the fitness of Niall’s suggestion that what looks like a big shaggy dog story is actually a nice inversion)

    Of course, to read Banks like that is to risk drowning the fun under pompous, ponderous political discourse – better to imagine Banks as a popular author within the Culture, writing entertaining tales of the frontier for those following the gentler pursuits of utopian living.

  6. I disagree with Nick Hubble. Banks and the left in general has not gone in some new direction of leftist thought, nor is his brand of political ideology unique.

    He’s more or less a libertarian socialist, his general political beliefs being widely known and practiced since the 19th century by numerous famous artists, thinkers and movements. He is definitely not a Marxist anymore and thank goodness for that.

    I always get frustrated by the somewhat uninformed and historically ignorant assumption of many liberals that this is something new or unique. “New Left” indeed. It isn’t, it was just ignored and destroyed by the Marxist movement during the 20th century.

  7. Tim:

    a) Did I say anything about ‘New Left’? Sure there is a long socialist tradition and Banks is part of it (so was Marx). What is relatively new – and I think Banks has played a key part of this – is the number of action stories where the heroes are representing these ‘libertarian socialist’ ideas. Again, there have always been instances – but it is now almost the default position of British sf (arguably) and this makes a difference (this might be considered a particular part of the wider claim that the 60s/70s ‘Left’ (loosely defined) lost the political struggle but won the cultural one).

    b) how can you deduce from a comment on a website that I am ‘uninformed and historically ignorant’? I wish I had those levels of instantaneous insight. It would rather kill off the virtue of these exchanges (which i would argue as a welcome return to the literary public sphere – but no doubt this displays more of my many faults) if one always had to preface every comment with a major discourse on one’s political and historical assumptions.

    c) Please don’t call me a liberal (nearly always used in this kind of context as a term of abuse) and I won’t call you names in return

  8. Fair call Nick Hubble. I didn’t mean to offend you personally, I realise that my comment was unnecessarily combative. I’m always frustrated that there is such a large level of unawareness about the rich history of libertarian socialist (anarchist) political thought in the mainstream. I’m sorry for inferring you yourself were ignorant. My comment was more generally directed at mainstream liberalism, which has been so painfully dominant on the leftist scene, along with Marxism/State Socialism, whilst libertarianism has either been perverted by law-of-the-jungle Randian capitalists, or outright demonised as something evil, chaotic and completely lacking a solid view of post-state society.

    Sorry if I caused you personal offence.

    BTW I am truly inspired by artists such as Iain M Banks who are truly able to combine a radical anti-authoritarian leftist perspective with mainstream appeal. His writing may not be as insanely dense or textured as someone like Greg Egan, but people will actually read him, and he doesn’t skimp or weaken his view of utopia. We need more writers like him.

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