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?