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REVIEW: Matter by Iain Banks

REVIEW SUMMARY: Banks has written another very good book set in his Culture universe.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: See JP’s excellent review for a synopsis.


PROS: Great write-up with highly interesting characters and lots of good sci-fi ideas.

CONS: Hard to fault much, perhaps the ending was a bit of a surprise. It is deep in space opera concepts and so its hard to recommend to non-sci-fi fans.

BOTTOM LINE: Awesome book – science fiction fans of all types can certainly find a lot of like about this book.

JP did a great job writing about the book and his opinion of it, and I agree with almost everything he wrote, so I’ll let that stand.

However, I did find several aspects of the book interesting enough to comment on here. This isn’t a review, but more of a commentary on parallels I saw between this book and the real world. If you haven’t read the book, you might want to stop to avoid spoiling it.

A simple plot of regicide this isn’t, with the higher order being involved. However, I think I saw a parallel between what is going on in the world today with terrorism and Iraq and this book. OK, I might be chasing shadows, but stay with me a second. The theme of meddling in other cultures development felt like the US and Iraq today. Even if Banks didn’t intend it, you can’t deny that there is a sort of ‘we know what’s best for you’ between the US and Iraq and that this certainly is a part of the higher order civilizations in Banks’ books and they way they influence the lesser civilizations. Also, the idea that there was a race of beings bent on destroying the shellworlds – regardless of how many people they kill – over ideology, felt like terrorism to me.

All right, maybe I’m been smoking something, but I felt the need to comment on at least an unintended parallel I see in this book.

11 Comments on REVIEW: Matter by Iain Banks

  1. Robert, I’m not sure what you meant by this link? If you’re implying that somehow I’m seeing an anti-Bush slant to the book, then to be clear, I don’t see such a thing.

    If you see some personal politics of mine in the review, then I suggest you read the review again.

    This commentary of might contain a crack-pot theory, but I can assure you it isn’t pro or con any particular politician or political party.

  2. This interpretation is kind of undermined by the fact that:

    *Terrorism has a political component. The Iln was not in any way interested in politics.

    *The shellworld inhabitants were all transplanted, immigrant cultures in the first place, so their cultures were already interfered with.

    *The Oct actually don’t give a crap about other species and never claim to.

    *The Culture, the only ones in the piece that DO think they know what’s best for other people, actually did know what was best. (This time around)

  3. Fair points Greg, I knew it was crazy…

  4. Matter is quite clearly about the US and Iraq. It’s about intervention by technologically more advanced civilisations… and that maps pretty accurately onto the US and Iraq. I don’t think it’s a necessarily clear message, but it’s quite plain.

    This is what I thought of it:

    Oh, and “The Culture, the only ones in the piece that DO think they know what’s best for other people, actually did know what was best”… Well, there you go. Says it all, doesn’t it? I’m not surprised you can’t see what the book is really about…

  5. Gah. It’s “quite clearly about…”, “I don’t think it’s a necessarily clear message…” I need to think a bit more, er, clearly before I post. Sorry.

  6. I thought Banks himself had made it quite clear that there is no significant statement made in pretty much any of his SF books and that the readers themselves infer more into it than he does when writing the books.

    Personally, I didn’t see any particular statement being made unless it is one made in general about larger/stronger states and their influence and involvement in smaller ones. But not in particular in regards to Iraq.

    Personally, I think people read far too much into some stories and then fail to enjoy them as moments of escapism in their own right. If you want to read into them that much, that’s great… but I really don’t think it’s necessary to be drawing conclusions that the writer himself probably doesn’t intend and then dressing them up as fact.

  7. This is a book by a writer who cut up his passport and sent it to Downing Street in protest over the invasion of Iraq. Given that he feels that strongly about it, then of course he’s going to write about it. Whether he sets out to do so or not.

    “…unless it is one made in general about larger/stronger states and their influence and involvement in smaller ones” – of which the most recent example is Iraq. Let me rephrase that: of which the most recent one that has turned into a complete f*ck-up is Iraq. And in Matter, the Oct intervention in Sarl hardly goes swimmingly.

    “… drawing conclusions that the writer himself probably doesn’t intend …” If it’s there to be read, then it’s there. Doesn’t matter what the author intended (no pun intended).

  8. I like how you cut off my “for once”. Are you arguing that the Culture’s actions and intent in the novel were incorrect in the context of the events of the novel, rather than whatever current events you choose as a lens to read it through?

    “but from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.” &c. &c. &c.

  9. What “for once”? Sorry – if it was there, I didn’t see it.

    My point was that no one knows what is best for anyone else. Banks cheats by creating a hierarchy of civilisations, in which the more evolved are by definition the more moral. But that’s a specious argument. In Matter, he shows one civilisation meddling and screwing things up… and then shows the Culture trying to pick up the pieces. But that’s as much an argument for not meddling as it is for anything else. And it’s pretty easy to see Iraq in that.

    You can read Matter as escapist sf if you want, but good books are more than just escapism. And Banks writes good books.

  10. Whoops – actually, I wrote “this time around” not “for once”. I apologise for that. Either way…

    Look, Banks has been writing about “technologically more advanced civilisations” intervening with lower ones since he wrote Use of Weapons in the seventies. It is pretty much a given that any Culture book will deal with these themes in some way. We’d be surprised if they didn’t.

    I do not think of these books as “just escapism” and never said as much. I just vehemently disagree that Matter is in any way an allegory for the Iraq conflict. It simply does not fit without a mammoth amount of hammering. To say that it’s clearly “about” this is a stretch.

    On another issue, to argue that the hierarchy he creates is more moral by benefit of being more evolved is not one that Banks makes and misses the entire point of the Culture sequence, and Matter in particular. They think they are, but they aren’t. Which is true of Iraq, Vietnam, Colonialism, pretty much humans in general. That’s part of what Matter is “about”. But it’s also about space crabs and things exploding.

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