Cultural Marxism 8: Matter


After an eight year furlough, Iain M. Banks returned to the Culture series in 2008 with Matter, the longest Culture novel to date. The problem is that it’s not entirely clear why he did this. Matter, to put it bluntly, is a mess. Were it not for Consider Phlebas’s intense lack of quite knowing what it wanted to do with this “Culture” idea, Matter would straightforwardly be the weakest novel in the series to date. The problem, from what I gather, is not that Banks has run out of ideas. I’ve not read Surface Detail or The Hydrogen Sonata yet, but they are apparently perfectly good books. It’s just that Matter… isn’t.

This is not a hugely controversial opinion about Matter. Most of the diagnoses center on the ending, which amounts to basically every major character in the book dying in rapid succession, starting when an ancient planet-killing machine wakes up with very little setup and eliminates the entirety of one of the three plot lines that had been occupying the book thus far, and culminating when everyone else dies stopping it. This has led to suggestions that Banks’s heart simply wasn’t in the book, or that he got bored writing it.

Color me dubious. The abrupt slaughter of the ending is too particular to be a mere product of laziness. Banks, who after all had a second career as a literary novelist, would surely have been aware of Fay Weldon’s 1986 novel The Shrapnel Academy, which famously and cavalierly ends with a bomb going off in a country manor and killing all of the characters. In Weldon’s case this is the cruel end to a blistering satire of class and militarism. Here it’s more of an abrupt turn—the book becomes a very different thing with relatively little notice. But there’s still a deliberate transgressiveness that suggests that Banks did not simply get tired of the book and write a two chapter equivalent of “rocks fall everyone dies.”

Nor does it quite work to say that Banks’s heart wasn’t in the book. The book is too substantial for that. In publicity for the book, Banks excitedly talked about how “it’s a real shelf-breaker” with four thousand words “of appendices and glossaries. It’s so complicated that even in its complexity it’s complex. I’m not sure the publishers will go for the appendices, but readers will need them. It’s filled with neologisms and characters who disappear for 150 pages and come back.” There are sizable enough chunks cut that he published one as a short story for a convention-exclusive book. None of this sounds half-hearted; it sounds like Banks tried to return to the Culture with an absolute barnstormer of a book.

And yet Matter is weak, and for reasons that go beyond its ending. It’s just kind of a boring book. It follows three main viewpoint characters (albeit with lots of excursions to other perspectives), the surviving children of King Hausk, the monarch of a race called the Sarl that live on the eighth level of what’s called a Shellworld—a planet comprised of nested levels. These are Ferbin, who witnesses his father’s assassination in the first chapter and who should be heir to the throne, Oramen, who is in practice heir to the throne because Ferbin is believed dead and on the run, and Djan Seriy Anaplian, who was given to the Culture as a child and grown up to become a member of Special Circumstances. Of these, only Djan Seriy’s plot reliably crackles. Ferbin is an annoying ponce of a son who is mostly frustrating in his lack of perspective, and Oramen is both passive and infuriatingly oblivious to everything going on around him. So there’s not a lot of momentum on what looks like the plot, the political intrigue surrounding the assassination. That this plot then aggressively declines to resolve, with Oramen and the assassins all getting nuked to death when the planet-killing machine wakes up, makes the kind of sprawling directionless of it up to that point frustrating, to say the least.

To be clear, my objection is not to aggressively undercutting all of the reader’s desires and expectations with a weirdly bleak and cynical ending. I like that. It’s just that the reader’s desires and expectations up to that point aren’t really all that. Part of the problem, frankly, appears to be that Banks just plain isn’t very good at writing fantasy. This is the second Culture novel to spend an extended amount of time with a vaguely medieval society (the Sarl are slightly more advanced than this but are decidedly pre-industrial), and it’s also the second one to not really work. Banks just fails to thrive with this setting. He’s on firm enough footing when he’s explaining the intricate structure of the Shellworlds because Banks likes gigantic ideas science fiction. He’s good with character bits because he always has been. And his prose reliably sparkles. But there’s just a lack of substance when he tries to write political machinations in a quasi-medieval society; he tends to feel like he’s shuffling around well-written stock tropes. The contrast between this and the giddy vividness of the Culture’s “knife missiles” and ostentatious ship names (this one gives us Lightly Seared n the Reality Grill, Pure Big Mad Boat Man, and You Naughty Monsters) is stark.

Inversions is probably a useful touchstone here, then. I argued that the second phase of the Culture novels was generally focused on and around the question of how to break the format of the books, with Inversions experimenting in taking the Culture out of the books. Aylwin, in the comments on the Look to Windward post, made the extremely savvy suggestion that the third phase books that Matter inaugurates “are merely novels with the Culture in them (albeit in them a lot), rather than novels about the Culture” and that they are fundamentally driven by “non-Culture people pursuing aims unrelated to the Culture.” I can’t vouch for his conclusion about all three novels, having not yet read Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata, but it certainly describes Matter accurately. And there’s an obvious degree to which Inversions serves as the root for this approach. Matter certainly has considerably more Culture in it than Inversions, but it’s still fundamentally a book about the Culture’s intersections with something else.

But there are more differences here than just level of Culture involvement. Inversions is at its heart still in the tradition of the early Culture books that debate the ethics and shape of interventionism. But that’s really not a debate that’s actively playing out in Matter. Intervention isn’t really under any debate here—it’s just an accepted fact of how the Culture works. More to the point, the bulk of what the Culture is doing is not intervention-based—Djan Seriy never seriously considers actively interceding against her father’s murderers. Her concerns are investigative, focused on understanding some Weird Shit going on in the galaxy.

This is interesting, politically, as Matter is the first Culture novel to come out after the Bush administration and the Iraq War. The same interview where Banks talks about it as a shelf-breaker, he talks about sending his ripped up passport to Tony Blair as a protest against the Iraq War. So to step back from the interventionism debate at a time when, politically, it seems more prescient than ever is interesting. But this is generally misleading. Matter accepts the Culture’s meddling, but it accepts it with clear and often articulated constraints, with a universal ethos among the involved species within it that there need to be sharply defined limits on what interventions are taken.

So how does Matter stitch its concerns together? Why, after eight years in which Banks suggested he might well be done with the Culture did he come back to it to tell a cynical tragedy about feudal machinations? The clue is in the title, or perhaps more accurately in the title drop within the book, which comes when Ferbin gets in touch with Xide Hyrlis the Culture agent who had previously intervened among the Sarl (and who had been responsible for Djan Seriy’s recruitment to the Culture) and unsuccessfully pleads for help. In the course of this encounter, Hyrlis monologues on simulationism, constructing a moral case against it rooted in the argument that “no credible fiction could convince us of, so only reality—produced, ultimately, by matter in the raw—can be so unthinkingly cruel. Nothing able to think, nothing able to comprehend culpability, justice or morality could encompass such purposefully invoked savagery without representing the absolute definition of evil.” From this he notes that ““We are information, gentlemen; all living things are. However, we are lucky enough to be encoded in matter itself.” And a few pages later Hyrlis has an exchange with Ferbin’s servant, Chubris Holse, after Holse suggests simulating wars as a means of avoiding brutality. Hyrlis observes that ultimately battles and wars can hinge on astonishing trivialities such as equipment malfunctions or the actions of a single soldier, which are too idiosyncratic to be simulated. Holse “smiles sadly” and summarizes this thusly: “Matter.”

This usefully clarifies the thinking behind the ending, and indeed the entire book’s structure. Banks returned to the Culture to construct a sprawling epic that hinged on the small. The entire Shellworld structure speaks to this, with its literalization of nested levels of civilizations from the nearly Culture-tier Morthanveld all the way down to the Sarl. Unlike Inversions, which sought to see if you could tell a Culture story with the Culture taken out, this is an attempt to invert the telescope and tell a Culture story from the bottom up. The result is flawed, compromised, and unsatisfying; perhaps most frustratingly, it’s self-refuting, in that the best bits are the ones that take place furthest away from the level of base matter, dealing with the rarified climes of the Culture. But Matter is not an endpoint but a beginning; Banks would pen two more Culture novels before his untimely death. Matter was not any sort of definitive statement, but a tentative first exploration of a new approach. And the gulf between its ambitions and its result just indicates that there was more to be tried.


Aylwin 1 week ago


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Aylwin 5 days, 15 hours ago

Well, that escalated quickly.

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Kevin Carson 1 week ago

I felt cheated by Stephen King's Under the Dome because the first part of the book included elaborate subplots all obviously leading up to an apocalyptic confrontation with Big Jim and exposure of his dealings at a town meeting. King didn't just mention Checkhov's gun over the fireplace, he took that motherfucker down and practice fired it, cleaned it and checked the sights. Then he fizzled all that out and instead just killed everybody in the town.

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Douglas Muir 6 days, 16 hours ago

I'm in the minority that liked _Matter_ well enough. A couple of points.

1) Wait, what is the name of this series again? Cultural... what now?

dude why are you ignoring the class issues here? THIS IS A BOOK WITH CLASS ISSUES. Ferbin is an self-centered, clueless aristocratic dimwit, and that's a huge part of the point. Oramen is smarter and vastly better in every way, but he's still passive and unquestioning of his social system, and that's another part of the point. Ferbin is the detault aristocrat; Oramen is the "good as it gets" version. Banks is setting up a narrative of Oramen as the Good (or at least Less Stupid) Prince who will take over the Kingdom and Rule Wisely. Instead he subverts that narrative; Oramen dies pointlessly and the Kingdom ends up a Republic.

(Note that this is very similar to what GRRM did a few years earlier in A Game of Thrones. He set up a narrative where Edward is the Good Prince who will avenge his father's murder, take over the Kingdom, and rule wisely. And then he gives us the Red Wedding.)

Just to drive home the point, Ferbin's servant -- who, as we're repeatedly shown, is much smarter than he is -- ends up as a Senator in the new legislature, with the quiet backing of the Culture.

So basically the Sarl get a classic Marxist aristocracy-to-bourgeois Revolution, courtesy of a billion year old death machine.

(And as long as we're here, King Hausk is a Napeleonic nation-builder who might as well have the words "Violently Clearing The Way For Modernity" tattooed on his forehead.)

2) could there be any other meanings to the title? pretty sure there are at least two.

2a -- "does it /matter/?" well, some things do and some things don't. As it turns out, Oramen's whole subplot, about a quarter of the book, didn't matter much. Too bad for him, but "Not everything / everybody matters, and yeah that sucks sometimes" is one of the book's points.

Complaining about this is a bit like complaining that _The Magic Mountain_ drags a bit in the middle. TMM is a book about tedium and having your life wasted by the pointless passage of time. Mann does his best to thread the needle between deploying boredom as a literary tool and actually boring the reader out of the book. In different ways, Proust and John Crowley (_Little, Big_) try the same thing. So, similarly, here Banks is saying "large chunks of everything are pointless" and demonstrating that by giving us ~60,000 words of mildly interesting narrative that turns out to... be pointless. Maybe that detracts from the neatness and expected-fun quotient, but for me it was a stop-and-think-and-say-"huh" experience.

2b1 -- you know the whole King Arthur story? the thing with Arthur and Lancelot that starts with the death of Arthur's father Uther and ends with the death of Arthur and the collapse of his kingdom? Remember what that thing used to be called? That's right -- it was called the Matter of Britain.

and yes, Banks is absolutely, positively riffing on this. No question. No, there are no analogs to Arthur or anyone else. That would be obvious! And stupid! But it's about the villainous and heroic goings-on around the end of the old feudal order, at the end of which there are Heroes, Villains, and a new world without a king. IMS we are specifically told that the dimwitted Ferbin has been rehabilitated as a heroic martyr, so presumably future generations of Sarl will indeed look back at this as the equivalent of Arthurian legend.

2b2 -- and come to think of it, isn't the whole "history melts into legend" thing a core part of this book? We're given huge infodumps of history which are quite clearly tagged as legendary, incomplete, or just plain wrong. Most obviously, the Oct are digging up the death machine thinking it's a benevolent god, which is exactly and 180 degrees incorrect, but that's just one example -- we're given multiple instances of muddled or confused or absent historical facts.

In this context, note that the "Matter of Britain" was not alone -- there were other "Matters", most notably the Matter of France (which was a legend cycle about Charlemagne and his paladins). I humbly suggest that Banks is implying that ALL history is a Matter, or will eventually turn into one.

and finally,

3) It's almost tediously on the nose, but how does the Iln machine plan to destroy the world? by detonating a big pile of antimatter. And how does Anaplian kill it? by suicide-detonating the grain of antimatter in her head.


Doug M.

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Roderick T. Long 4 days, 7 hours ago

And of course one of Ursula Le Guin's anthropological-sci-fi short stories is titled "The Matter of Seggri."

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Aylwin 4 days, 5 hours ago

Less of the "dude", I suggest.

The thing about the social hierarchy and historical "progress" stuff is that it's text rather than subtext, so it's all there out in the open for the reader without needing a critic to highlight it, and that it's frankly not terribly interesting. So it's reasonable not to single it out as something to write about.

I think the Arthur idea is rather a stretch myself. And where do you get this thing about Ferbin's reputation being rehabilitated?

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Douglas Muir 2 days, 22 hours ago

tfw you take the trouble to write a long response and you get some guy tone policing you. and for using "dude"? what?

anyway. it's "rather a stretch" to think that this is the Matter of Sarl? to me it seems pretty obvious. it's a bloody tragedy about the complete destruction of a royal family by treachery, random violence and death in battle, and the subsequent end of the old order. it opens with a battle scene, in which a member of the royal family is victorious, and ends with the royal family being wiped out in a battle that kills off everybody, hero and foe alike. but it's not all about battle! there's also court intrigue! and people going on quests! lots of quests, actually.

I dunno, man. how on the nose does this have to be?

social hierarchy as boring text: man that is just the starting point. if it were *just* about peasants and lords, maybe. but there are multiple nested class structures here. most obviously, you have the idea of classes of societies, all the way up to the "Optimae" -- and let's note that Banks knew his Latin, and this is a slight corruption of "Optimates", which was the Roman term for the senior Senatorial class. and when you're talking about class *between* societies, as opposed to within them, you're talking about colonialism and imperialism. are colonialism and imperialism subthemes in this book? well, the first scene is a member of the royal family thwarting an imperialist war of conquest, and then the very next scene is her father dying as he completes a successful imperialist war of conquest, so... maybe just a little? and of course colonialist issues are of course always present whenever Special Circumstances enter the picture.

meanwhile, where does most of the action take place? in a "shell world", which literally consists of levels, above and below. could there be a reason Banks chose this particular setting? a reason beyond "it's cool"? well, does Banks have a history of using large artificial structures as enormous metaphors? _The Bridge_, _Canal Dreams_, _A Song of Stone_? maybe sometimes, yeah?

note that if you look at the shell world as a literal *class structure*, the Iln machine becomes a lot more interesting. the surface read is, it's something like a Berserker, a machine simply programmed to destroy shell worlds. but if you see the shell world as a metaphor for class, then the Iln machine becomes a revolutionary -- and that's super interesting, because it's an *evil* revolutionary, a nihilist that must be stopped! which it is. by, um... the noble self-sacrifice of a couple of royal aristocrats.

wait, a committed Socialist writing a story where heroic aristo sacrifice themselves to stop a wicked revolutionary from committing genocide? did I just imagine that? well, does Banks have a history of flipping the narrative, playing with expectations, *inverting*? maybe just a tiny bit now and then, yeah?

and of course the Iln is a successful revolutionary in that it kills off the entire surviving Sarl royal family, clearing the way for the new Republic. that's not its intention, of course. but "the result you got is not what you intended" is a recurring theme both in this book and in Banks' work generally.

Doug M.

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mx_mond 2 days, 20 hours ago

“tfw you take the trouble to write a long response and you get some guy tone policing you. and for using "dude"? what?”

misgendering someone is a matter of tone to you?

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Douglas Muir 2 days, 14 hours ago

"can dude be used as a gender-neutral term" is currently up in the air; google it and you'll find dozens of blog posts, reddit threads, what have you. at least in the US, there is not currently a clear consensus.

"call people what they want to be called" is the rule, and if El doesn't like it I'll never do it again. but that's up to her, no?

Doug M.

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Aylwin 2 days, 12 hours ago

So what you're saying is that there is a sizeable body of opinion, well-known to you, which would make this an offensive form of address in this case, that you don't know how the person you're talking to feels about it, but that you don't see this as a reason to err on the side of caution? What would that cost you?

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Elizabeth Sandifer 2 days, 12 hours ago

It's generally not a good idea to use it when talking to a trans woman, and I resent that I have to come down here and make a voice of god ruling on what should have been a fairly obvious point of etiquette.

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Douglas Muir 2 days, 8 hours ago

I apologize; the usage was careless; no offense was intended. I'll indeed err on the side of caution in the future.

Doug M.

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Aylwin 2 days, 13 hours ago

How on the nose? Well, actually bearing some specific resemblance to Arthurian legend would be a start, rather than just operating in the extensive generic realms of pre-modern political violence and fantasy fiction, where the sort of features you mention are pretty routine. Especially given that the book explicitly points to a much less tenuously-connected and more meaningful field of interpretation regarding the significance of its title. Multiple references are of course possible, and you can read it how you like, but this is hardly a clearly-established resonance, let alone the kind of open-and-shut case you suggest. And you haven't explained where we are "specifically told that the dimwitted Ferbin has been rehabilitated as a heroic martyr".

"Optimae" is surely just a coining from the same root-word as "Optimates" rather than being derived from it, not that this matters very much, since it is the meaning of that word - "best" - that counts. But again, the hierarchy between societies is overt text, the related issues of imperialism are nothing new in this series, and I think this book has less to say about them than earlier ones, so there is no special reason to focus on them here.

The Shellworld does not work as a metaphor for social hierarchy, since there is no hierarchical relationship between the different levels, except in as much as the highest-status people are found right at the top...and, er, also right at the bottom. Well, never mind. Even if it were, an attempt at destroying the entire thing and its whole population would not stack up as a metaphor for attempting to eliminate hierarchical distinctions within it. Nor does an anachronistic relic of a long-defunct galactic power pursuing an ancient vendetta against a people long extinct, with casual disregard for the present state of things, make any sense as a stand-in for a revolutionary or a revolutionary movement, which are expressions of forces within a society intensely concerned with how it is and how it might be. The whole point about the Iln machine is that it stands right outside the socio-political dynamics of this world and upends them in passing.

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Roderick T. Long 4 days, 7 hours ago

"This is the second Culture novel to spend an extended amount of time with a vaguely medieval society ... and it’s also the second one to not really work. Banks just fails to thrive with this setting."

Your mileage may (well, obviously does) vary, but "Inversions," the previous mediaeval/Culture mash-up, is one of my favourites in the series -- partly because it has some of the most memorable characters (unlike "Matter," at least for me -- though I did like "Matter" more than you did).

Incidentally, "Winds of Dune" (which I haven't read; I haven't read any of the Brian Herbert / Kevin Anderson continuations of the Dune saga, though I suppose I should read at least one to see if they're as unsatisfactory as most Dune fans say) came out the year after "Matter," and there's just a teentsy chance that the cover of "Winds of Dune," was influenced by the cover of "Matter," don'tcha think?

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Aylwin 4 days, 6 hours ago

Yes, I think the "point" to the book is the intersection of the "matter still matters" stuff about chaos and the fortuitous repercussions of small events with the way the story stresses the tininess and perishability of human life in the cosmos.

It's a book that really emphasises the vastness of things in Banks's galactic meta-civilisation in space and time, stressing the vast antiquity of artefacts like the Shellworlds and of species and societies both extant and extinct, and featuring the very biggest of his megastructures (the Nestworld of Syaung'un, which I think is also, apart from Culture Orbitals and ships, the only one not to be the enigmatic product of some long-vanished civilisation). Then there is the impact of that near-OCP that so casually sweeps aside all the political intrigues and agendas of the human characters and their immediate mentors that have dominated so much of the book, reflecting the tenuous fragility of all human lives, efforts and intentions in the face of the brute forces of History and the yet larger powers of the material world. All this sets up a bleak mood almost of cosmic horror (the ancient world-killer, released from its slumber of billions of years to wreak havoc for its own inscrutable motives is the closest the Culture series gets to an Eldritch Abomination). That is then counterpointed by a resolution which affirms Hyrlis's point about the potentially vast impact, just every now and then, of individual human actions in the right place at the right time.

It's a bit of an undersold and so-whattish point though, and doesn't really work artistically overall, for the kind if reasons you discuss. I was also baffled and dissatisfied with the very rushed and awkwardly contrived resolution, and what I felt was a tonally off-kilter epilogue.

Speaking of the Lovecraftian aspect, one of the most entertaining aspects of the book for me is the hilarity of the sheer jaw-dropping un-genre-savviness of everyone at the Falls. "So we're doing a really exciting dig in an ancient city built by an unknown vanished civilisation hundreds of millions of years ago! What's it called? Oh, we don't have a proper name for it, we just call it the Nameless City. You think that sounds a bit creepy? Well, it's funny you should say that - as we approach the heart of the city there have been increasing reports of horrifying apparitions, people going mad and blinding or killing themselves, all sorts of odd things. Still, I'm sure it's nothing to worry about. What we're all most excited about right now is this huge structure buried beneath the very centre of the city. We're calling it the Sarcophagus. I can't wait to see what's inside!"


Another way the book sets up expectations and then frustrates them, perhaps deliberately, is with regard to the enigmatic original purpose of the Shellworlds. I think any reader will be naturally inclined to wonder if there will be revelations about this, and especially to suspect that the vaguely defined and barely substantiated but apparently universally accepted narrative of the benevolent aims of the Involucra will turn out to be ill-founded. Then right at the end the Iln machine claims exactly that, but Djan Seriy just says "nah, it must be bullshitting to confuse us", and that's all there is. Which does just seem kind of wilfully provoking.

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Aylwin 4 days, 6 hours ago

One thing I did like about the resolution, though, is the remark that Culture Enabler programs (freeze-dried First Contact procedures) purvey "subtle misconstructions about Contact and Special Circumstances". Because of course they would.

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Aylwin 4 days, 5 hours ago

Incidentally, The Algebraist, published right in the middle of the eight-year gap between Look to Windward and this one, features simulationism as the official "religion" of its galactic empire, so it does seem to have been a concept he had on his mind for a while.

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Daru 3 days, 11 hours ago

After having a first read of the article El, went to have a look at my book collection, convinced that I had it still on my shelf. Just found out that I didn't seem to have kept it. Some of the set pieces such as the falls and the setting of the Shellworld made an impression on me certainly. It has been a while since I dipped into the Culture novels and will likely again soon based on the Cultural Marxism pieces, but I wonder if I will rush to Matter? perhaps, but others would come first.

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