The heart of the Matter

Matter by Iain M BanksWelcome to part three of a rambling email-based discussion of Iain M Banks’ Matter between Niall “Vector” Harrison, Jonathan “SF Diplomat” McCalmont, James “Big Dumb Object” Bloomer and myself.

Make sure you check out parts one [does it Matter to you?] and two [mind over Matter], else you may find yourself a little lost. And if you’re the sort of person who gets twitchy about spoilers, I’d best warn you that [pirate voice]’ere be many spoilers, me hearties[/pirate voice].

[ For the sake of context it may be worth pointing out that “the interview” we keep mentioning was the BSFA event where Farah Mendlesohn interviewed Banks … which was a fascinating insight into Banks as a person, but somewhat obfuscatory from the perspective of attempting to actually get beneath the skin of the man’s books. ]

I’m particularly proud of my conjectural thematic sandcastle that I build at the end. If anyone who’s read Matter would like to tell me that they can vaguely comprehend how I might possibly have conceived of that idea, that’s be just great. That said, calling me a nutcase is probably the easier option. YMMV. 😉


Paul: By my calculations, my tardy response signals the requirement for another question, so I’ll step up to the plate with:

What did Matter say to you? What was the theme, as perceived by you as reader, and how was that theme expressed at various levels?

Jonathan: To me Matter is a book about social class.

This operates on two levels. Firstly, on an individual level we have the sense of class that drips from Hausk’s children as a result of their childhood educations: Ferbin as the Diplomat and Orumen as the Scholar. They’re also loaded. Their lives are completely alien to those of other individuals from their own culture who have to try and pull together a living. What is interesting about this portrayal of class is that while we are told that the Empire of Hausk the conqueror is something he created in his lifetime, the society is already showing signs of being hide-bound, with clueless upper class generals and spoiled rich kids playing at being knights while the actual business of fighting a war takes place thousands and thousands of kilometers away. It’s a very fast progression.

The second level on which Matter‘s depiction of social class operates is on the civilisational level. In Excession, and arguably even way back in Consider Phlebas, we saw that the Culture universe has always had quite a strict pecking order with some civilisations being clearly less developed — both morally and technologically — than others. Banks has flirted with the idea that this hierarchy exists purely in the minds (and Minds) of the Culture, who are endlessly smug in their moral certainty. However, Matter suggests that social class also affects galactic civilisation: Elder civilisations sit back while younger and less advanced cultures desperately scrabble for position and patronage, in a manner reminiscent of Ferbin’s servant.

The end result is one of complex social stratification and a very clearly defined status quo, almost reminiscent of that present in many of the more romantic works of the fantasy genre; we even have a Big Bad whose ultimate motivations are never really discussed but who we know is bad because he threatens the status quo in a most destructive manner.

Niall: “Clearly defined status quo” — Yes. As you say, hierarchy is the key to Matter. I liked how a character’s position in that hierarchy influenced how they interpreted, well, just about anything. Anaplian, for instance, considering her father’s career from her Cultured perspective, finds herself unimpressed, thinking of him as “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”. Moreover, to her, the development of societies through such stages is “as natural and obvious as the progression of a star along the main Sequence, or evolution itself”. (How to make history interesting to sf readers: compare it to stellar physics.) But equally, it’s made clear that the leaders of Sarl — both Hausk, and tyl Loesp after him — know exactly where they sit on the great galactic ladder, and unsurprisingly resent it more than a little. So they seize what opportunities the societies they perceive as higher offer them (indeed that’s how Anaplian came to be given to the Culture in the first place — in exchange for ideas that are slowly kick-starting an industrial revolution on the Eighth) in pursuit of a “glitteringly pragmatic future”. I think there’s even a moment when tyl Loesp thinks to himself that he hopes such brutality as defines his life will become obsolete. (Which makes him so much more satisfying as an antagonist than the straightforwardly evil Luseferous in The Algebraist. But maybe I’ve beaten that drum enough.) To achieve that goal he’s willing to allow himself and his people to be used quite nakedly. Paul, I believe this is your cue to mention postcolonialism.

Anyway, all of that means that I would say that intertwined with class, and as important to the book, is the question of what freedom means. There are characters like Oramen, who are obviously not free and characters like Anaplian, who in theory are ultimately free, but in reality are constrained in subtle ways. Oramen puts it this way: “while [inhabitants of Optimae civilizations] had what appeared to be complete freedom within their societies, the societies themselves had very little freedom of movement at all. […] There was simply not much left for them to do on any grand scale.” One of the things that made me warm to Oramen, in fact, is the way he was able to come to these realizations without (unlike Ferbin) being beaten over the head by grand revelations … meanwhile, Anaplian is wrestling with the fact that interventions that on the face of it will relieve oppression will actually “subtly, incrementally but most certainly remove all freedom and dignity from the very people one sought only to help”. If you like, it all comes down to this speech that Shoum gives, when Ferbin finally finds him:

“You find yourself the unintended victim of a system set up specifically to benefit people like the Sarl, prince; a system which has evolved over the centieons to ensure that peoples less technologically advanced than others are able to progress as naturally as possible within a generally controlled galactic environment, allowing societies at profoundly different civilisational stages to rub up against each other without this leading to the accidental destruction of demoralisation of the less developed participants. It is a system that has worked well for a long time; however, that does not mean it never produces anomalies or seeming injustices. I am most sorry.”

All the Culture novels are, in some sense, Omelas problems — what is the cost of maintaining utopia? What Matter does most satisfyingly is attack this question (or this sort of question — what is the cost of achieving and maintaining civilization) in a setting that is politically intricate and resonant with our own history, while keeping alive the sense that it is a grand and important and universal question. It investigates specifics without getting lost in those specifics.

James: I thought there was going to be some “going on a journey” theme/message, but apart from the fact that everybody went somewhere (and some came back) I don’t think that very much can be made of it.

The Galactic hierarchy left me thinking that if I had to live anywhere in that universe it would have to be in the midst of the Culture, minding my own business and living the high life. Why would anyone bother working for Special Circumstances? Even if you had to join SC to get “into” The Culture, why not then leave and take it easy? I don’t think any of the SC operatives’ motives convince me. Having said that, the person at the bottom of the pile, and not Culture, is the one who survives, but maybe more by luck than anything else.

Jonathan: That’s actually an interesting point. It occurred to me a while back that ideology seems to have drained out of SF. Heinlein’s works may have essentially became fora in which he could appear as an appropriately father-like Mary Sue and then mouth off about whatever political issue was getting his goat at the time, but I think that nowadays genre is struggling to keep in touch with the idea of people being genuinely politically motivated.

The Culture books are weird in that they’re frequently political but the politics aren’t particularly fine-grained. The result is that you have characters working for SC out of a genuine desire to further the political aims of SC but as those aims are frequently unclear, the politics serve quite poorly as character motivation, merely resulting in lots of people being enigmatic and secretive.

I think that type of writing works in morally simplistic universes as characters can be secretive, enigmatic, maybe a bit ambiguous but ultimately good. Once you remove that easy moral safety net and you have to deal with real issues that motivate real people, it becomes a lot more tricky to make it convincing.

Paul: OK, the theme of Matter. Well, the clue is in the title, and even gets referenced quite explicitly a little over half way through [page 340 or so in my ARC]. Ferbin and Holse are talking to Hyrlis about surveillance, reality, truth and the Simulation Hypothesis (though not in those terms, natch). Ferbin (true to form) ignores the revelations, but Holse has the instinctive grasp, and so Banks feeds us the core of the theme through Hyrlis to Holse and out onto the page.

“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 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.”
[…]
“War, famine, disease, genocide. Death in a million different forms, often painful and protracted for the poor individual wretches involved. What god would so arrange the universe to predispose its creations to experience such suffering, or be the cause of it in others? What master of simulations or arbiter of a game would set up the initial conditions to such pitiless effect? God or programmer, the charge would be the same: that of near-infinitely sadistic cruelty; deliberate, premeditated barbarism on an unspeakably horrific scale.
[…]
Just as reality can blithely exhibit the most absurd coincidences that no credible fiction could convince us of, so only reality — produced, ultimately, by matter in the raw — can be so unthinkingly cruel. Nothing able to think […] could encompass such purposefully envoked savagery without representing the absolute definition of evil. It is that unthinkingness which saves us. And condemns us, too, of course; we are as a result our own moral agents, and there is no escape from that responsibility.”

The theme is certainly connected to hierarchy, but the human hierarchies are mirroring the bigger one — the hierarchy of truths, of actualities.

Now the problem is that I can’t put this into words very well, because it was one of those revelatory things that rolled on in from the sidelines while I was reading the passage in question. I suppose the best way of grasping toward the feeling it produces when I think is to talk about Russian dolls of reality — not stacked universes or dimensions or anything (though they, again, mirror the same thing) but realities as perceived by players within them.

(Banks’ love of games manifests here as well — I think he’s saying that ultimately life, consciousness, sentience etc is a game that the universe plays with itself (like an only child, perhaps?). Complexity increases as we move toward entropy and heat death; as energy coalesces into matter. Matter is an emergent form of complexity — maybe Einstein’s God doesn’t play dice with the universe, but there’s evidence that the universe isn’t averse to rolling for snake-eyes while it waits for the bus. But I digress.)

Those perceived realities have the added complication of intersecting in time and space — they are conceptual territories that share space-time with the territories of others, and so matter goes to war with matter, over matter …

I’m not explaining this well, am I? I really need to read the whole thing again with an eye for the clues and intrusions of this theme (just in case I have in fact invented the thing out of whole cloth without realising it). But I think it was more obvious because I’d been utterly buried in Brasyl prior to reading Matter, which uses a similar idea in different ways.

In short, I’m saying something like Jonathan, but I see the layering of perceived realities reaching out way beyond notions of class and civilisation, and into the way everything interacts. The class thing is just one facet, one expression of the overarching principle. From the mighty empires, transcended races and Cultures and so on, right down to ticks on horses, and chemical reactions. The WorldGod is, to Ferbin, a god. To Hyrlis, it’s just an unhinged and inscrutable member of a mostly transcended elder race. Same corporeal entity, different things to different people — and the way they see it is a function of the reality they perceive.

This is why the Shellworld is such a great set-piece. It’s not just an awesome sensawunda BDO, but a mirror of the bigger idea — nested realities, each with their own ecology of sentience that makes no sense to someone or something at a different scale.

And this is why I think Holse is chosen as the person who can actually grok it, even though it takes him a while. Holse can understand (and ultimately manipulate) hierarchy because he always saw himself as somewhat aloof from it. It doesn’t control him in the way it controls others because he is more aware of it as a system, as a set of interlocking rules and principles. He doesn’t see monarchy as some expression of divine right; monarchy simply is, and he deals pragmatically with things as they stand. This makes him a survivor, and ultimately an agent of change.

Because Holse, you see, is the Culture in microcosm.

James: All I’d add to that is that at Alt.Fiction Banks said that he used the title Matter because it was the working title for The Steep Approach To Garbadale, so he used it again to annoy everyone on the interwebtubes…

11 thoughts on “The heart of the Matter”

  1. Cheers, Darren. I especially like the way that the use of our surnames in the title makes us sound like a particularly bombastic law practice. 🙂

  2. I also thought that that passage was key to what Banks was saying – that you can have your rules and your hierarchies and other abstractions, but everything eventually comes down to reality – to matter, reacting in all of its complexities.

    James’s question about why anyone would work for SC is mentioned very near the end – Holse comes to the conclusion that in a liberal, post-scarcity society, where there is nothing to do that really matters, to go and make life better for others, and to make sure that you have a suitably honorable death is what matters.

  3. I’m not convinced. Isn’t enjoying life the only thing that matters? Come back and talk to me after I’ve spent a few hundred years in a liberal, post-scarcity, utopian society.

    On the law practice: weren’t we in Angel?

  4. James –

    re: your first point – come back after? Screw that, I’m coming with you!

    re: your second point – oh good grief, please no. I can take most levels of shame, but that’s seppuku-grade right there.

  5. The book’s theme is right there in the title: “Matter” in all its forms. Not just solid, liquid and gas (the various races and their preferred living conditions), but all the permutations of noun and verb, mythology and mytheme. Everything everyone does in the book is in an attempt to matter or because they think they matter; from Loesp, the usurper strong-man dictator seeking dominion and a place in this vast overarching hierarchy to that exiled Culture agent talking to the air because he’s so certain he’s still important enough to be surveilled. The Shellworld is made of incredibly strong and dense forms of matter and is vulnerable only to anti-matter (note also, the climax of the tale). If there is no God, no Simulationist, then all they are is shifting, rippling, interacting matter in a large phase-space. All they are is antic clay, to quote an author who would likely loathe the Culture if he ever heard of it. Nothing they do matters because giant ancient alien genocide machines can pop out of the pearl at the heart of your world and tear it asunder any given second – or perhaps, that makes everything matter more.

    And so on.

  6. Another great installment of this discussion. It’s been so interesting that I’m seriously considering starting a weekly blog roundup post for Solar Flare, just so I can reference all of this.

  7. This whole series was very enjoyable reading, and the analysis of the novel’s treatment of hierarchy certainly helps me appreciate it somewhat more. However, it’s still quite a simplistic book in many ways; like James (whose opinion on this matter seems very much to mirror my own), I wanted far more complexity out of a Culture novel this size, and was mildly disappointed at reading such a generally straightforward narrative.

    I was interested at Paul’s comment that Banks is turning his attention to the ‘edges’ of the Culture in Matter; when has he done anything else? Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, they all deal with situations and/or threats external to the majority of Culture, and involve liaising with other societies/intelligences. A good thing too, considering how dull reading about the perfect lives of average Culture citizens would be!

  8. I’d quite like a novel about the perfect lives of average Culture citizens. KSR did something interesting with a (sort of) utopia in Pacific Edge.

  9. Weeeell… I suppose it could have potential, but I don’t think Banks’ style really lends itself to something like that.

  10. Whatever one may think about terms such as ‘matter’, or, if you like ‘culture’, one thing is certain – reading an Iain M. Banks SF encapsulates a fair enough expression of both.

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