Monday, February 9, 2009

Readings 2K9: Matter

Iain M. Banks

This is science-fiction with a lot on its mind. Stylistically, there’s nothing much out of the ordinary, though a certain ironic tone does provide for something close to humour; it’s not unlike The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, if Hitchhiker’s had been written as serious SF. But this is, in essence, a straight-ahead adventure story with pointed political parallels.

The book concerns itself with Sursamen, a shellworld — a world made up essentially of several planets one inside another, like a Russian doll. The human civilisations on the eighth and ninth levels of Sursamen are at war; they’re at about an eighteenth-century level of technology, but there are overseers from a more sophisticated civilisation watching them. And then another civilization watching the watchers; and then another watching them. In other words, the physical construction of the planet is mirrored by the technological, social, and political hierarchies of the people who live on and around it. Meaning threatens to become abstracted by the differences in scale in all these things; conversely, a symbolically-freighted conversation lends the book its title — insisting that these hierarchical structures are ultimately insignificant and that life, well, matters.

But all these themes remain comfortably unobtrusive; essentially, this is an oddly-paced adventure story. Oddly-paced, because very slow-paced. There are many massive infodumps all throughout the book; they’re well-written, but still slow forward momentum to a crawl. That’s a shame, because some of Banks’ unorthodox structuring tricks work very nicely — the main villains of the piece turn out to have had almost no set-up, having been mentioned by-the-way hundreds of pages before their big revelation, and yet this makes sense, this hits you with an unexpected force. Unfortunately, much else of the conclusion falls flat; because of the range of scales of technologies and powers, all the fireworks on display at the very end seem random and abrupt.

This is not a bad book, but there’s a curiously unreal sense to it. In part I think that’s a function of the character-building and world-building; in part it’s a function of a certain lack of human depth. And then also it’s a function of a plot that wanders about, and never really frees itself of exposition to move at any velocity. The result is a book that’s highly readable, but ultimately unmemorable.

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