Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Book Review of Matter by Iain M. Banks

For my first book review on this blog, I thought I’d start with a book in a series that has become one of my latest obsessions: the Culture series of Iain M. Banks.  This review is an edited and expanded version of my original Goodreads review.

Matter is the eighth Culture book Banks wrote, although the plots of the books aren’t directly related, so they could be read in any order (more on that later).  If you’re not in the know on the Culture (a galactic human-alien-AI post-scarcity anarchic utopia), you might want to check out this Wikipedia entry and an essay by Banks, "A Few Notes on the Culture."

And now to the actual review…

In my quest to read all the Culture books in publication order, here I am at book eight, one of the latter day installments (it was published in 2008). I may be too far gone into Banks fandom to conceive of giving this anything less than a high rating, but I can honestly say that I loved it.

This one has one of the more conventional plots of any Culture novel, closer to Player of Games in this respect than the head scratcher of Excession or the temporally odd structure of Use of Weapons. And it's a cool plot, full of intrigue and interesting characters of all shapes and sizes.

The coolest thing is the idea of a Shellworld. There's even some ancient alien archaeology, not to mention an expansion of galactic politics among the Involved species (civilizations on par with the Culture) and even some older civilizations. But most of the novel involves the less grandiose humans of Sarl, inhabitants of one level of a Shellworld who are conscious of their place in the galactic pecking order. A super handy Appendix filled with glossaries of characters, species, and general terms helps keep track of who's who and what's what. I referred to it frequently. Ever since I read Dune as a teenager, I've been a sucker for a novel with a glossary.

The only small problem is that the story starts to lag a little bit in the last quarter of the book, but it picks up nicely toward the end.

At this point (80% through the Culture novels), I can say that my initially arbitrary decision to read them in publication order has paid off, since Banks is gradually introducing more ideas, some of which build off of previous ideas. You could make perfect sense of any one of them as a stand-alone novel, but I recommend reading them in publication order if possible.

Speaking of cool stuff, this Orbit edition just looks cool. Normally one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but in this case it works. In fact, it was probably seeing Matter on the bookstore shelves several years ago that piqued my interest in the Culture books in the first place.

The Philosophy Report
(like Philip K. Dick’s “The Minority Report” without the PreCogs!)

Philosophically speaking, there's interesting stuff popping up here and there (as Banks is wont to do).  One interesting bit is about why the book is called "Matter" (see p. 338-341).   Mild philosophical spoiler alert!  The basic idea is a riff on the problem of evil: inert, unthinking, unfeeling matter must be the final bottoming out of reality rather than any sort of intelligently designed universe and/or computer simulation given the suffering, cruelty, and injustice found in the universe.  So, it’s something like an argument for atheism and materialism all wrapped into one.  Or is it?  What do you think?  (FYI: The problem of evil = how can an omniscient, omnipotent, morally perfect God allow suffering in the world? Materialism = the metaphysical view that matter is all that exists, or is somehow most fundamental).

There’s also plenty to consider about artificial intelligence in any Culture book (most especially: how funny would they be? Banks's answer: very), but I’ll leave that issue for a review of another Culture book.  Another looming issue in all Culture novels: Is the Culture a desirable utopia?  I personally would become a Culture citizen in a heartbeat, but some people (Nietzscheans, etc.) might balk at a life without suffering and struggle.  Also, even though they have the technology to be basically immortal, most Culture citizens choose to die after 300-400 years.  Is immortality, even in utopia, desirable?

Here's a quote I found amusing/interesting that leads to another big issue: "Even galaxy-spanning anarchist utopias of stupefying full-spectrum civilizational power have turf wars within their unacknowledged militaries" (p. 333).   In Matter, as in most of the Culture stories, there’s tension between the Culture and less – for lack of a better term – civilized societies.  The “unacknowledged military” in question is the Special Circumstances division (like the MI-6 or CIA of the Culture).  Many of these turf wars are caused by an issue Banks constantly raises in these books: how should the Culture interact with other small-c cultures?  There’s nothing so simple as Star Trek’s Prime Directive, which as Star Trek shows us, would just be constantly broken anyway. 

This resonates with similar issues for us here on Earth concerning the role of first world democracies on the global stage; for example, how should countries like the US and UK interact with countries like North Korea?  (The fate of the Seth Rogan movie, The Interview, has recently raised this sort of issue, not to mention the more important issue of the genuinely terrible conditions for people in North Korea). If Banks is right, perhaps some of the answers lie in entertaining stories about a “galaxy-spanning anarchist utopia of stupefying full-spectrum civilizational power.”  

But we should keep in mind that every country on Earth right now would be a barbaric backwater compared to the Culture.  The coolest thing about the Culture books is that they give a vision of a technologically advanced society without money, injustice, bigotry, or disease.  Is this something we should aim for?  I'm not sure, but we could certainly do worse.



  1. See my reviews of all ten Culture books here:

  2. My reflections on the series: