Last week I finished reading Matter by Iain Banks, a book bought years ago from the Beatnik Bookshop in Oxford at its launch party. Matter‘s a funny book, like many of the last run of books Banks wrote it could have stood another edit and general tightening up. I’m not sure, exactly what it was all about. The story rumbles along a bit aimlessly, leading us on an interesting tour and taking in some impressive set pieces, before accelerating in the final third of the book towards an explosive, violent and visceral conclusion that’s vintage Banks. But… I’m still not sure what the book was about. There are little threads, little hints of events ‘off camera’, but the book isn’t as tightly plotted as the subtle and superlative Inversions. I don’t think there’s a dark twist hidden from the reader, as some Banks fans have read into The State of the Art.

A recurring theme, nonetheless, is the condition of living in a material universe and the strange absurdities thrown up by the mindless dance of particles. Through one of his characters, Banks offers this reflection on human life and summary of the materialist outlook on the social world:

Most men – and most women, too, no doubt – lived and died under the general weight of the drives and needs, expectations and demands they experienced from within and without, beaten this way and that by longings for sex, love admiration, comfort, importance and wealth and whatever else was their particular fancy, as well as being at the same time channelled into whatever furrows were deemed appropriate for them by those on high.

In life you hoped to do what you could but mostly you did what you were told and that was the end of it.


Posted on March 4, 2014, in science fiction and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. It so happens I read ‘Matter’ not all that long ago. (I haven’t read anything else by Banks, and people have told me this isn’t the one I should have picked.) Anyway, I’ll return and perhaps say something more substantive later.

  2. A couple of things: 1) impressive set pieces — yes, in particular the description of the gigantic waterfall (the Falls, I guess it’s called — it’s actually been a number of months since I read the bk) struck me. 2) I’m not sure I read the passage you quote as an expression of a materialist outlook; fatalist, perhaps, but not nec. materialist. The character of the servant (Holse, is it?) seems close to the narrator in his outlook, i.e., pragmatic, somewhat resigned or fatalistic, somewhat pessimistic about ‘human nature’ etc. I shd add that I read v. little SF (close to none). I only read this b.c people at CT were going on about Banks and I thought I wd see what they were enthusing about. I think there are about 10pp or so toward the end that I still haven’t read or rather sort of rushed past. (But I skipped to the very end so I know how it turns out.) The bk is overlong, that’s for sure, and I think overwritten, but there’s some good stuff in it.

  3. On whether the quote from Holse is materialist or fatalist: yes, I see your point if the quote is taken in isolation. I think I was interpreting the quote in the context of Banks’ wider liberal socialist worldview. On this reading, Holse’s perspective is a valid but incomplete point of view. Through most of history, and much of the present and perhaps future, people are constrained by their immediate circumstances, their actions running along prescribed pathways, unable to see beyond their immediate horizons. But under some circumstances, in a more Enlightened/Cultured society, people can take control of their own individual and collective destinies through cooperation and the application of reason. But ultimately (zoom out, move up another level) the universe is just a play of matter and energy, indifferent to our concerns.

    The best Culture novel is, I think, The Player of Games. Inversions is also pretty good but only makes sense if you already know that the characters are agents from the Culture’s Contact division. Intervention in ‘less advanced’ societies is a/the theme of every Culture novel so there’s lots of IR related issues to muse on, obviously.

  4. Ok, I take your point about the quote. Not sure whether I’ll read more Banks, but if I do I’ll try Player of Games or Inversions. I drafted a post about Matter some months ago and then decided not to put it up. I guess I felt somewhat cautious about treading where a lot of Banks readers/fans/whatever had already gone. In my case that kind of caution or self-censorship is inconsistent. As a result I’ve ended up with some things that just sit in the draft queue/folder forever, and some other things that probably should have stayed in the draft folder but didn’t (i.e., were posted).

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