It is surely one of the chief pleasures of making some substantial inroads into the bibliography of an author as prolific and imaginative as Iain M. Banks that one can debate, vociferously and at great length, the question of which of his books are good and which bad. Somehow, any discussion of Banks's novels tends to include a debate of this kind. It happened in the comments to my review of The Algebraist, and in those of Gwyneth Jones's review of Matter for Strange Horizons, and, perhaps inevitably, in the 20 best SF books of the last twenty years discussion at Torque Control. You would think that the further I get into Banks's catalogue--Matter is the sixth of his ten SF novels that I've read--the more inclined I would feel to join in these deliberations, but instead I find myself moving further and further away from the question, feeling less and less certain about the differences that make some Banks novels good and others bad.
I've enjoyed some of Banks's novels and disliked others, but the more of him I read the less significant the differences in my reactions--and in the books themselves--seem when held up against the uniform feeling of ambivalence I get whenever I turn the last page--a mixture of admiration and dissatisfaction. I've been reading and writing about Iain M. Banks for three years, and the only conclusions I've come to about him is that he's almost certainly got a great novel in him, and that he's almost certainly never going to write it. Those books of his that I've liked--The Algebraist, Feersum Endjinn, Use of Weapons and now Matter--are the ones that made me want to run out and pick up another one of his novels as soon as I finished them, not because the books themselves were so good but because they came so close to goodness that surely the perfect Banks novel was just over that next hill. The ones I've disliked--Consider Phlebas and Excession--are the ones that had me swearing him off for good, not because they were terrible but because clearly he is never going to get his act completely together.
All of which is to say that saying that I liked Matter is perhaps not quite the compliment it might seem to be. It displays the standard Banks-ian strengths--it is an enjoyable, funny, not unintelligent space opera which utilizes Banks's powers of SFnal invention to great effect--and his traditional weaknesses--it is overlong, episodic, rather weak fare as far as its political component is concerned, and somewhat cowardly in its ending. In other words, it's an Iain M. Banks novel. Still, if Banks's novels seem to fail and succeed in entirely predictable ways, he has at least never written the same book twice. Like the other Culture novels, Matter is an attempt to wrestle with the contradictions and difficulties inherent in that fantasy of an ultra-liberal, post-scarcity, self-righteous socialist utopia, but each takes a slightly different approach to the question. Consider Phlebas laid the groundwork when it established that the only need the Culture couldn't answer within itself was its citizens' need for purpose and meaning in their lives, hence its dedication to remaking the galaxy in its own egalitarian, tolerant, peaceful image, using any means necessary. Use of Weapons and Excession are complementary pieces which deal with cost of such a policy--in lives, in honesty, and in the souls of the people who implement it. Matter views the Culture not simply from the outside but from below--through the eyes of individuals whose societies are on the lower rungs of the developmental ladder, being shepherded and guided upwards by the Culture and civilizations like it.
Matter is told through the eyes of three siblings who grew up in such a society. In one plotline, Ferbin, the foppish heir of a warrior king, is surveying the field of his father's latest and most decisive battle when his escort is attacked and killed and he's forced to flee for his life. Taking shelter nearby, he witnesses the murder of his father by his most trusted adviser, Loesp, who thinks Ferbin dead and announces his plans to rule as regent until he can do away with Ferbin's younger brother Oramen. Lacking the power base to challenge Loesp directly, Ferbin, with the help of his servant Holse, tries to make his way off-world in the hopes of amassing it and returning to claim his throne. A second plotline follows Oramen in the weeks and months after his father's death as he steps into the spotlight as heir to the throne and begins to realize that there may be a plot against him. In the third storyline, Ferbin and Oramen's sister Djan, who was talent-scouted by the Culture as a teenager and now works for Special Circumstances, receives news of her father and brother's deaths and makes her way home to pay her respects, along the way learning both the truth about Loesp's actions and that there may be greater issues at stake than one throne. These are highlighted in the chapters told from the point of view of Loesp, who like his former master is solidifying his position and winning his war with the help of a more powerful alien race, whose ulterior motives he is aware of but can't puzzle out.
A great deal of ink has been spilled in praise of Banks's powers of invention--the species, histories, power structures, customs, languages, struggles and wars with which he peoples his galaxy. Reading Matter, it occurred to me that though Banks is imaginative, he isn't wildly imaginative. Though his SFnal invention is a chaotic patchwork, constantly slapping another species, another Big Dumb Object, another bit of arcane history, onto the gigantic mural that is his future galaxy, in his best novels he avoids the temptation of spinning neatness for its own sake, and his feats of imagination act in service of plot and theme (meanwhile, my chief complaint against Consider Phlebas and Excession is that both read more like travel guides than novels). Without being either orderly or planned out, his inventiveness is tightly controlled. Even more impressive is Banks's ability to scale that inventiveness--to write about individual characters and their immediate surrounding, then pull back and view them from the perspective of an older, more advanced civilization, then pull back again and view that society from the point of view of one that dwarfs it, without losing sight of the complexity of any of them. Banks's novels frequently set individuals against landscapes, edifices, or organizations gargantuan in their size and complexity, and it is perhaps his greatest achievement as a writer that he can make both believable, both important and influential players in his plots.
Scale, in fact, is an important theme in Matter, and the constant shifts in it a method of bringing the novel's point across. Matter begins in a very tight focus on Ferbin, describing mainly his emotions and attitudes and only briefly illuminating his locale through his impressions of it. It takes some time, therefore, for us to realize that Ferbin's home isn't your bog standard planet, for the cryptic allusions to towers, rollstars, or the fact that he refers to his home as Eighth and that of his father's enemies as Ninth, to pile up and become sufficiently disorienting for us to wonder just where we are. At that point, the novel literally zooms out, and gives us a view of Ferbin's home, the shellworld Sursamen, a megalithic structure of ancient origins and unknown purpose made up of spheres within spheres, each terraformed and populated by a different species or nation. This is a brilliant choice on Banks's part, as it highlights the smallness of Ferbin and his nation against their surroundings in a way that a natural environment never could. We're used to the hugeness of planets, but the fact that the landscape Ferbin moves in is constructed, that he and millions of others can live their lives inside the chinks of a machine somehow makes the differences in scale between individuals and their environment more glaring. (Banks has used this device before in Feersum Endjinn, which took place in a castle built on a gigantic scale, whose inhabitants divided themselves into tribes according to whether they lived in the chapel or the throne-room.)
The shellworld is also a rather blatant metaphor for the novel's obsession with hierarchy. Each time we zoom away from Ferbin we become aware of another level of control and influence over his life. His people, the Sarl, were relocated to Sursamen by an alien race called the Oct, who control some of the shellworld's levels and vie for control of others with a race called the Aultridia. Sursamen itself is under the control of the Nariscene, who in turn are part of the Morthanveld empire, a civilization on roughly the same level of advancement and influence as the Culture. At each of these levels, we encounter examples, both benevolent and malevolent, of interference in the affairs of the people in the levels below. The Oct manipulate Ferbin's people and the inhabitants of Sursamen's ninth level for their own ends, going so far as to instigate a war between them. The Nariscene have hired a former Special Circumstances operative to orchestrate a war for their amusement. The Culture has been meddling on all levels, introducing Ferbin's father to modern theories of warfare, dispatching Djan back to Sursamen after the Oct's activities become suspicious, and none-too-subtly nudging the Morthanveld towards Culture-like values and institutions. At the same time, non-interference also has its costs--Sarlian society is deeply class-conscious, and the induced advancement of their military might has the effect of making it more egalitarian, as skill and intelligence become prized over noble birth, and when Ferbin reaches Sursamen's surface and asks a Morthanveld official for help or at least to send a warning to Oramen, she refuses, citing Prime Directive-like laws against such an act.
This is the question that all Culture novels boil down to--is interference in the affairs of less developed nations imperative, or imperialistic?--but Matter further complicates it by constantly moving up and down its nested spheres of influence and highlighting how what looks like an injustice on one level seems right and proper on another, and vice versa. Banks keeps this effect of perspective shift constantly in the readers' minds by having his characters repeatedly discuss the scalability of attitudes, relationships, and social constructs as one moves up and down the civilizational ladder, but it is also a prominent aspect of Ferbin's plot arc. Ferbin repeatedly refers to his father's murder as an abominable, unconscionable betrayal (though it's never explicitly stated, one gets the impression he views regicide as more serious than any other kind of murder), but the further from home he gets the less persuasive his protestations are.
"I would have thought that the brutal and disgraceful murder of an honourable man--a king to whom all in his realm save a few jealous, treacherous, murderous wretches paid grateful, loving homage--would seize at the heart of any creature, no matter how many layers and levels distant from such humble being as ourselves they might be" Ferbin stiffly announces to the Morthanveld official when she refuses to help him, but he is repeatedly proved wrong in this assumption, not only because to beings on other planets the king's murder is a distant and academic fact, but because the injustice of it begins to seem less clear-cut the further one gets from Sarl and Sursamen. As Djan realizes once her Culture education gives her a broader historical perspective, her father was "just another strong man, in one of those societies, at one of those stages, in which it was easier to be the strong man than it was to be truly courageous." The further one gets from Ferbin's frame of reference, the more it seems that his father lived by the sword and, however regrettably, died by it, and that this is no great tragedy when compared to the deaths he himself caused or the vast amounts of injustice and cruelty in the galaxy.
Ferbin himself, however, never changes his frame of reference. No matter how far he comes from his home, how much he sees, and how much he changes, he never loses his fundamental assumptions about how the world works--that it is in the interests of justice and morality that his father's murder be avenged, that he has the right to claim his father's throne, that he is inherently superior to his subjects and servants. This is because, in addition to scaling between different levels of civilizational development, Matter scales between genres. Above and beyond the fact that space opera shares many similarities with that subgenre, the Sursamen-set scenes in Matter read like an epic fantasy, and the three main characters' plotlines--the prince forced to flee the scheming of the evil vizier and fight to reclaim his throne, the young monarch plotted against by his guardian, the unappreciated princess who discovers that she possesses great power--are staples of YA fantasy (this is now the second time, after Neal Stephenson's Anathem, that I've noticed an ostensibly SFnal novel luxuriating in the tropes of YA and epic fantasy). Sarl itself is a medieval fantasyland only just beginning its journey towards modernism--though the Sarlian army uses artillery and projectile weapons, some of the more rustic noblemen still show up to battles in chain mail, and lament the lost romance of the battles of old, which were fought on flying steeds--and its inhabitants speak in a highfalutin' poetic manner completely at odds with the more naturalistic speech prevalent outside Sursamen.
Once the narrative leaves Sursamen, however, Matter's world becomes SFnal, and the underlying assumptions of epic fantasy and the fantastic bildungsroman no longer hold true. When Ferbin leaves the shellworld, the genre of his life changes, which he never notices. Far more observant is his servant Holse, whose eyes and mind are opened as he gains greater understanding of the forces controlling his life, and who over the course of the novel grows from a man content to waste his skills and intelligence in the service of a less worthy aristocrat to a man willing to claim his own share of destiny. In her review of Matter, Gwyneth Jones calls the relationship between Ferbin and Holse Frodo-and-Sam-ish and the fantastic segments of the novel a jab at Tolkien, and though she's probably going a bit far with this--as several commenters point out, Ferbin and Holse map just as well if not better to other airheaded aristocrat/cunning servant duos such as Jeeves and Wooster or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza--there's no doubt that both the epilogue and the appendix which close the novel are blatant Lord of the Rings references. In Banks's hands, however, the departure of wonder with which the novel ends is the departure of the monarchic system, as all three heirs to the Sarlian throne are disposed of and the Culture steps in to guide the nation towards a more egalitarian system of government.
What makes this victory of socialism unsatisfying is first the way in which it is brought about. For most of its 600 pages, Matter is a meditative, meandering story whose plot is largely a justification for giving its characters room to pontificate, to muse about their pasts, the societies they grew up in and the ones they've visited, and the power dynamics that are the novel's ultimate subject, while simultaneously learning about themselves and figuring out what they want from life (which, for the three Sarlian heirs, means deciding whether they want to be king and how they might go about ruling). It's not terribly exciting stuff, but it is funny and engaging, succeeds in raising some interesting questions, and the characters are, for the most part, appealing enough that their social studies-like internal monologues don't grate too much (there is, of course, some variance on this front--Ferbin, Oramen and Holse are extremely likable, but Djan is a little flat, too much the perfect and omni-competent Special Circumstances agent, and though Loesp starts the novel with some intimations that he might have had complicated reasons for betraying his king, he soon devolves into a stock villain). Then, less than a hundred pages from the novel's end, a Big SFnal Menace is revealed, paving the way to a tense, race against the clock finale with the fate of Sursamen itself at stake. It's a fun ending, but it doesn't belong to the novel preceding it, and it's hard to escape the conclusion that it comes instead of a more thought-provoking, less clear-cut ending that Banks was either incapable or uninterested in writing.
It is by making Matter's ending so clear-cut that Banks once again manages to miss out on writing a great novel. Though its beginning and middle raise questions about the rightness of the Culture's actions and its right to meddle with less developed societies, these are steamrolled by its ending, in which the Culture's willingness to meddle and its operatives' willingness to lay down their lives saves the day while the Oct, the Nariscene, and the Morthanveld either stand idly by or actively make matters worse. And if the class-bound structure of Sarlian society is meant to map onto the nested spheres of influences outside Sursamen, then surely the fact that Matter ends with the Culture taking the first steps towards eliminating that structure in Sarl is an indication that its actions outside Sursamen are also justified, and ultimately in service of bringing about a more just, more peaceful way of life. I don't necessarily object to Banks coming down, ultimately, on the Culture's side, nor do I entirely disagree with this conclusion (while still feeling that the near-infallibility of the Culture renders it useless as a metaphor for corresponding behavior in the real world), but the manner in which he reaches that conclusion, and tries to take his readers there, feels dishonest. We're supposed to root for the culture not because we've come to an ethical decision that its actions, however imperfect, are preferable to inaction, but because its representatives beat the evil alien.
The impression I got while reading Matter was that Banks not only recognizes but is playfully referencing the sameness of his novels, their repeated reliance on the same questions, situations and plot tokens, such as when Djan expresses irritation at the whimsical names Culture ships give themselves, or when her drone partner is refused entrance into Morthanveld space because "SC agent + combat drone was a combination that was well known far beyond the Culture." Which to me suggests that he's found his comfort zone and isn't too interested in exploring the realms beyond it, and that, however enjoyable, however clever and funny and thoughtful, his novels will never amount to more than admirable yet unsatisfying. It is perhaps admirable in itself that a writer who has yet to provide me with a single great reading experience, whose finest achievements are the components of his work--a scene here, an alien species there, a clever observation about human nature followed by a good joke over here--rather than the work itself, as well as a fresh and perhaps unique spin on space opera which he has nevertheless consistently failed to fully develop, is still so fascinating to me, and his work still so appealing. Even now, realizing that I will probably never truly love any of Banks's novels, I'm tempted to pick up another one. Not because I'd like to categorize his remaining novels into good and bad, but because I'm hoping that one more dip into his bibliography will finally help me to decide whether Iain M. Banks is a good or a bad writer.