MATTER discussion (The Culture group read)
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In a world renowned even within a galaxy full of wonders, a crime within a war. For one man it means a desperate flight, and a search for the one - maybe two - people who could clear his name. For his brother it means a life lived under constant threat of treachery and murder. And for their sister, even without knowing the full truth, it means returning to a place she'd thought abandoned forever.
Only the sister is not what she once was; Djan Seriy Anaplian has changed almost beyond recognition to become an agent of the Culture's Special Circumstances section, charged with high-level interference in civilizations throughout the greater galaxy.
Concealing her new identity - and her particular set of abilities - might be a dangerous strategy, however. In the world to which Anaplian returns, nothing is quite as it seems; and determining the appropriate level of interference in someone else's war is never a simple matter.
This thread is for the discussion of Matter, the eighth book set in the Culture universe.
Posts with spoilers should be marked SPOILERS at the beginning, and the spoilers should be placed within <spoiler>spoilers here</spoiler> tags like this –
The Culture group read: Wiki page | Organisational thread
I liked the plot and characters well enough while reading, but upon finishing I can see what will keep me thinking about Matter (and potentially prompt a re-read at some point) is the standard Banksian discussion of political ethics as played out in the Culture vis-a-vis other civilisations, and of course Contact / Special Circumstances within the Culture itself; and, here, the specific concepts of the Shellworlds and Nestworlds.
Perhaps my favourite example of the former: the scene with Djan Seriy in the bar, confronted by the Peace Factionist. Page 290 and following in my edition. Serious ideas in a droll setting, typical of Banks.
And Shellworlds are a nice illustration of Banks exploiting the space opera genre: engineering on a staggering scale, what with an individual Xinthian (a semi-sublimed advanced species) living at their cores with other species / civilisations living (largely unaware) on the multiple levels above the Xianthian "World God". And yet, Banks ratches it up twice more: first, by positing that all Shellworlds collectively comprise a nodal network to unknown purpose, perhaps a defensive net (against what adversary?), or even offensive weapon system. And second: the concept of the Nestworld, which scale dwarfs even that of the Shellworld, perhaps in itself a peer of the Shellworld nodal network. Fascinating stuff.
Once again, hats off to the world-building, but as on the first go-round I still found Matter frustrating in its pacing and characters - Ferbin in particular sets my teeth on edge, to the extent that I'd happily skip all his sections (although this would mean missing a few of the more philosophical moments).
Fair to say I enjoyed this more second time around - picking up on some of the humour that I think was lost on me on first publication - but I missed the drones / Minds (Turminder Xuss was great where used; the Liveware Problem was rather opaque).
I sometimes feel I haven't quite grasped the underlying themes of the later Culture novels quite as well as I did those of the first few; but I also think I'm over-complicating things (as I think Banks does here). While I think each book is fairly clear to me, I still have some mulling to do on broader themes.
On political ethics - the Oct / Aultridia conflict felt somewhat Cold War to me (war played out through their Sarl / Deldeyn proxies to avoid greater damage to Sursamen), although I remain unclear to what extent the Aultridia were aware of the Oct's ulterior motives and specifically
>2 elenchus: ...I enjoyed that scene at the bar immensely. Also the Shakespearean exchanges between returning tyl Loesp and Oramen over the king's bier. Clever and knowing, on both counts.
I anticipate some readers find Banks annoying when in "clever and knowing" mode, mostly I don't. But if the balance of this novels ever get to where that aspect is predominant, I might change my outlook.
“Matter” is a tale of political intrigue, medieval war, betrayal, injustice, and honour. Oh, and galactic scale.
It tells the tale of three siblings who have taken different paths in life and how they end up, as a result of a family tragedy, struggling for the same thing; the honour of their family name.
In telling this tale Banks has created a new concept in cosmic habitats; the Shellworld. The Shellworld is a planet (in this case, artificial) that has 16 internal levels of which 14 are habitable. I can see the more nerdy among us working out the scale of a Shellworld using the parameters provided sporadically throughout the text; each level 1,400km high, 2million towers on each of the 14 habitable levels to support the level above. (Ok! Yes! I did start thinking about sketching out a Shellworld cut-away diagram and estimating the size of the Shellworld. Problem was, I didn’t spot an estimate for the thickness of the ceilings/floors, and there was nothing relating to the density of the material to assist in the calculation of the gravitational strength on each level.)
The Shellworld is likely to generate as much interest as Niven’s Ring World and Shaw’s Orbitsville. Of course, Bank’s Shellworld is much more stable.
Enough of the “nerdy” techno-babble.
The Shellworld is simply one element of “Matter”, and is merely a backdrop to the story, albeit pretty crucial to the ultimate dénouement.
“Matter” takes one of the siblings on a journey of self-discovery involving his being snatched unexpectedly from his privileged lifestyle to a life where he can trust no-one, he is powerless to shape his own destiny, and where he has become a figure of shame.
His brother is unwittingly entrapped and experiences his own growing moments that force him to mature in ways he had not expected.
The third sibling, Djan Seriy Anaplian, has travelled far away as part of, if you would excuse the pun, a cultural exchange. She has been away from her Shellworld home for fifteen years when word reaches her of the family tragedy that is central to the entire book.
As in every IMB novel, there are wonderful alien life forms. Iain has shown great imagination in developing their physiology, environment and technology. In a number of his other novels the aliens have portrayed strongly human personalities, but in “Matter” many of them are very alien. Having said that however, “Matter” is one of Iain’s most human Culture novels.
Other topics dealt with in the book are the morality of killing other people, the sense of matrimonial entrapment, and the whole concept of religion and its role as a useful tool in controlling the populace.
Iain’s ending to “Matter” was somewhat different from what I had expected, but interesting nonetheless, and, as so often is the case in Culture novels, on a grand scale.
On several occasions I have seen Iain say that he has tried, but not succeeded at writing a powerfully political novel. While “Matter” is not powerfully political, it does have many parallels with current world affairs and the role of technologically advanced civilisations involved in warfare with less advanced civilisations.
This was one of those books I was really sorry to finish. I relished the opportunities to sit down and surround myself with the universe Iain had created. It was a real joy.