Megalotropism is the key insight

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Matter is the seventh of Iain M. Banks’ “Culture” novels. You can read an extract at the publisher’s website.

The plot initially appears to be about the political and military conflict between two humanoid civilizations, the Sarl and the Deldeyn. But a kind of pull-back reveals that this conflict is a small event taking place in a corner of a much vaster canvas, like two colonies of ants fighting over a mound of earth in a city park. The effect is a distancing and alienating one: it becomes harder to take the plot machinations seriously the more you can see of the wider universe.

This is something that Banks is quite fond of, for example in Consider Phlebas where the events of the novel are deflated in the appendices by mock-historical summarization: “a short war that rarely extended throughout more than .02% of the galaxy by volume and .01% by stellar population”. The satirical technique in general goes back at least to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, in which the war between Lilliput and Blefescu is made ridiculous by imagining the combatants as six inches high.

In the case of Matter, the kingdom of the Sarls is revealed to be part of the eighth level of a Shellworld, a planet-sized artifact consisting of multiple concentric spherical shells. The Shellworlds are billions of years old, made by a vanished species for mysterious purposes and scattered around the galaxy: classic big dumb objects.

Another pull-back comes from multiple civilizational levels of power: the humanoid Sarls are under the supervision of the crab-like Oct, whose representatives on the Shellworld are subject to the insectoid Nariscene, who report to the Morthanveld, a powerful species at a similar developmental level to the Culture.

This technique of deflation through distance is effective at making the war seem petty, futile, and wasteful. It also has the effect of making us look with more objectivity at the motives of the characters. One of the main viewpoint characters is Ferbin, the “rightful” heir to the kingdom. At the start of the book he witnesses his father’s murder, realizes that he is next in line for assassination, and flees in order to ask for help from the Culture. So far, a commonplace genre plot, and initially I was sympathetic towards the prince. But as the field of view expands, Ferbin’s quest seems less important, even wrong-headed. An absolute monarchy is no very good thing, and an attempt to regain the throne, possibly provoking a bloody civil war, not necessarily the best course of action. So I began to hope that Ferbin might give up the whole thing and decide to join the Culture, or maybe enlist its help in converting the Sarls to some more sensible form of government. It doesn’t happen quite along those lines, but the plot does indeed veer off in a different and unexpected direction. Banks does a good job of avoiding genre conventions: not only does Ferbin not gain his throne, but we never find out the mysterious secret behind the Shellworlds either.

But unfortunately, I have to say that I had stopped caring about any of the characters by that point. The distancing was just too effective. With the characters shrunk against the vast backdrop, there didn’t seem to be a big theme or idea to be explored either, beyond “big dumb objects are cool!” or “war is bad!”. I did like the character of Holse, Ferbin’s manservant, who starts out as a stock comic feet-on-the-ground type but becomes interesting because of the way his outlook grows as a result of his experiences, unlike Ferbin, whose sticks to his rather whiny sense of entitlement throughout. But in a novel in which four pages of appendix are needed to list the dramatis personae, he just doesn’t get enough time to do him justice. So even though the book has oodles of invention and some breathtaking science-fictional set-pieces, as a whole Matter was a disappointment.

A very minor but annoying point: the names (of characters, places, species, etc) are dreadful: unmemorable and often unpronounceable. There’s no attention to phonology, no suggestion of cultural difference. The book contains dozens of invented cultures and alien races and yet the names of their members have no distinction: they might as well have been spooned out of the same murky vat of alphabet soup. Names have always been a problem for Banks, ever since “Bora Horza Gobuchul” faced off against “Juboal-Rabaroansa Perosteck Alseyn Balveda dam T’seif” in Consider Phlebas twenty years ago.