Lightly Seared On The Reality Grill – Iain M. Banks’ “Matter”

Despite being beyond skint at the moment, I just couldn’t walk past Iain Banks’ latest Culture novel the other week. How could I, with the word ‘Matter’ sprawled across its title page. Although I suspected that it was not really about ‘matter’, but maybe some sort of ‘other matter’, I was convinced that I would surely find some thought-provoking ‘matter’ in its 600 pages. After all, Banks tends to have an almost casual grip on the subject. Surprisingly, ‘Matter’ really was about matter, but also about its connection with ‘other matter’, so once again I could enjoy Banks’ tongue-in-cheek play with scales, realities, materialist philosophies, potential future inventions (including entertaining language developments) and, of course, intensely appropriate space ship names (I borrowed ‘Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill’ for the title of this post).

The beginning of ‘Matter’ left me wondering whether I was faced with a heroic fantasy parody rather than a science fiction novel. The king already dies in the first few pages and, apart from the James Bond style über-‘baddie’, the reader is left with the following assorted characters:

– a cowardly, good-for-nothing older prince who just manages to get by and outrun the baddie-in-pursuit with the help of his under-appreciated, street-wise servant
– an over-educated teenage prince who, after his father’s death, discovers how easy it is to blag your way through politics by quoting bits from various works of poetry and theatre plays
– a princess who was told that her highest possible aim in life could be to end up in one of those strategic marriages to gain political allies (and heirs), though instead she was sold to aliens who turned her into a universe-savvy special agent who now tells whole civilisations what they can or can’t do

Interestingly, it is not the ‘developed’ princess who delivers the majority of musings on matter, but the runaway-prince-assisting, uneducated servant. As it happens, on the way to seeking refuge with their sister, the prince and his servant get a spontaneous tour of a brain-washing facility for enemies of the Culture (a highly developed society that contacts less developed planets like the Earth) and also get introduced to virtual reality computer games. These exposures influence their discussion (great puns going off in various directions) with a former diplomat to their world, who insinuates that they might all be living in one big simulation. He provokes prince and servant by saying that they might all be monitored and are merely information:

‘…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.’

The prince responds by diagnosing the diplomat as paranoid:

‘Unseen,’ Ferbin said contemptuourlsy. ‘Unheard, untouched, unsmelled, untested, undetected. In a word, figmented.’

The diplomat responds: ‘Oh, we are often profoundly affected by unseeably small things, prince.’

He then proceeds to enrage the ‘under-developed’ pair by refusing to help them in their war, as his experiences with war only made him believe that

‘…however bad [war] might be, its sheer unnecessary awfulness at least helps guarantee that we are profoundly not in some designed and overseen universe and so have escaped the demeaning and demoralising fate of existing solely within some simulation.’ His faith in the higher morality of a possible observer, ironically, leads him to promote or accept war rather than to bring it to an end.

Later, he offers that, even if everything was a simulation, one should still be proud to be a part in it. As things are often ‘profoundly affected by unseeably small things’ in the matter-based universe, simulations would not be good enough at simulating these events. It is the more or less true randomness of matter, that makes them ‘need us to play out the greater result’:

‘Nothing else will do. We ought to feel privileged to be so valuable, so irreplaceable. We may all be mere particles, but we are each fundamental!’

The prince and his servant walk away, disgusted at the diplomat’s opinions. Only later does the servant warm up to the diplomat’s ideas – after extensively playing aforementioned computer games. In his reaction, he does not succumb to nihilism but, instead, wonders ‘how you could cheat’ in this game.

Somewhat shockingly, despite the sign-posted warnings, ‘Matter’ ends in an orgy of destruction where some of the more prominent characters of the story, including the ‘baddie’, are so indifferently annihilated that the reader hardly notices it.

In a way, ‘Matter’ really is the parody of heroic fantasy/science fiction it appears to be at the beginning (only much darker and despite bouts of heroism from some of the characters) where the futility of war (especially upholding ‘noble aims’ in war), excessive monitoring and destruction with increasing levels of technologies, and the disturbingly purpose-giving, intoxicating effects of war are painfully rendered. Yet what happens in the novel is only painful, because the scenarios and wording (‘appropriate level of interference’) trigger parallels with past, and especially current, events: computerised warfare, monitoring of wars in ‘less developed’ countries (e.g. Rwanda), war-promoting regents with ‘noble’ intentions (e.g. Bush, Blair) are just some examples.

The much lighter, monty-python-esque epilogue that concludes the book contrast so sharply with the grimness of the end that, while it offers the possibility that war (or peace? or is there no ‘proper’ peace without war?) can change something unexpected for the positive (real life example: women’s rights), the sudden cheerfulness of the previously tormented characters pushes the unsettling feelings about the pointlessness and absurdity of war to the point of nausea. Thus, the vocal reviewers on the net who found the book very ‘unsatisfying’ or ‘pointless’ may have been experiencing part of the ‘matter-reality’ of war.

Despite the familiar science fiction theme (are we living in a simulation?), I found the matter-war connection rather unexpected. As well as making me think or current conflicts, it reminded me of books, exhibitions or other information I had come across in context with new technologies such as the book ‘Nanotechnology and Homeland Security – New Weapons for New Wars’, the exhibition in the Tate Britain (which featured graphic displays of the effects of radioactive ammunition used in the Gulf War) and conferences on the miniaturisation of surveillance devices. Following the example of Banks’ servant (going by the name ‘Choubris Holse’), I do not want to allow myself to be paralysed by the gloomy possibilities these things conjure up. Rather, I am asking myself, what can I, as a ‘small particle’, affect? As it looks, Iain Banks seems to have been asking himself the same thing, albeit with slightly different results… which makes me wonder what would have happened had he peed into Tony Blair’s swimming pool. Small things, eh?


7 thoughts on “Lightly Seared On The Reality Grill – Iain M. Banks’ “Matter”

  1. Hi

    Thanks for your review. I have just finished this book and was really disappointed so was looking for some more positive news about the novel.

    I adore all of Iain Banks earlier sci-fi and reread them regularly – he is one of the authors by whom I judge all other sci-fi.

    I just found this book overlong (I think about 3/4 quarters could be easily edited out) and erratic – lots of detail about things that didn’t matter, and precious little about anything much that did. For me, it didn’t have that edginess and darkness that was so characteristic of his earlier novels – filled with memorable characters who for one reason or another get themselves into situations from which there can be no happy return. So they go out all ‘guns blazing’ as it were. I really didn’t care about anyone after the first 100 pages or so….and that ending/s…..sheesh…

    There is always an air of poignancy to his plots and a elegant tersness to his writing that I sorely missed in this.

    Sorry – no where near second – what about ‘Against a Dark Background’. Even if I pretend this was not by Iain, I would be disappointed in it…

    and we have to wait 18 months for another go?

  2. I’m very much the opposite. I don’t like it when books only contain purpose-directed information. I enjoyed reading and diving into all this stuff about shell worlds and the wacky universe he has created, but was quite surprised when, at the end, that all this information was used in the story line. I wanted these illustrations just to float in my head mutating in their own ways… :)

  3. I really enjoyed this novel. I’ve always loved the way Banks blends preconceptions of what makes a sci-fi or fantasy story, and have always appreciated the extent to which he creates such a vast, yet detailed universe. Detail further than what is required to tell the story is something which prevents predictability, for if you are only told about what is going to be integral, is it not possible to guess the broad strokes of the plot to come?
    As for the ending, I think the unpredictability of many of his novels is one of the things which makes them enjoyable. In this case it seemed to me that the characters – certainly Ferbin and Holse – changed profoundly over the course of the book and (spoiler if you haven’t read it yet!) Ferbin’s sacrifice was the symbol of how far he’d come from a pampered princely fop.
    I can’t rate books in numbers because each is so individual, and there are very few stories by Banks I don’t enjoy, but I will say that this book is certainly staying prominent on my bookshelf!

  4. tour of a brain-washing facility for enemies of the Culture

    Correction: that had nothing to do with the Culture. That facility was in a war between two civs on one planet, overseen by the Nariscene, themselves mentored by the Morthanveld, and civilization entirely separate from though friendly and equal to the Culture. The general was ex-Culture and that’s it.

  5. Thanks. Have misread that part then. But who knows who is responsible further down the line? And is he really Ex-Culture? ;)

  6. Well, the Morthanveld are considered an equal to the Culture, which makes it unlikely the Culture’s stepping on their toes. And Contact can’t be everywhere. And even so, those poor aliens couldn’t be considered enemies of the Culture in any meaningful sense.

    Honestly, if the Nariscene stir up wars for their own amusement, I think Contact would be itching to work on *them*. But see: Morthanveld.

  7. Ok. Thank you for rectifying this!
    Does anyone have any comments on my reading of ‘Matter’ though? ;)

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