9 February 2008

Use of weapons

by Iain M Banks (Orbit)

The Culture is an anarcho-communist, galaxy-spanning civilisation of post-humans and machines that has been the playground of some of Iain Banks’s best novels, published with or without his middle initial. The Culture is vastly curious and tolerant: just about the only thing it won’t accept is being attacked. Thus its war with the Idirans, the backdrop of Banks’s first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas (1987), was a battle forced upon it by a fundamentalist enemy that refused to negotiate.

If that sounds vaguely similar to some contemporary geopolitical narratives, Banks is now out to extend the analogies further in Matter, his first Culture novel for eight years. In it, representatives of various advanced civilisations debate the ethics of intervention in other people’s affairs, even if it’s for their own good. Luckily for a writer who is so skilled at scenes of violent action, the Culture has a secretive arm called Special Circumstances that specialises exactly in deniable intervention. Its armed officers constitute a kind of interstellar equivalent of CIA Black Ops.

The reader has to wait, unfortunately, for all this to kick in, because it rapidly becomes heart-sinkingly clear that here, the particular society in which the Culture might or might not intervene is one of faux-medieval fantasy fiction. The uniquely hopeless odour of leather, horse-like animals, stale sweat and tortured syntax wafts from the pages, and there is a tedious drizzle of invented proper names. In the midst of battle, a ruthless usurper kills a king, observed in secret by the king’s eldest son, Ferbin. The usurper returns to court declaring Ferbin killed in action, and the younger prince goes around thoughtfully saying things like “But I am not king?” while Ferbin goes on the run with a comedy servant.

With considerable relief, we learn at length that the king’s daughter has for years been hopping around space with the Culture, getting upgrades and being initiated into Special Circumstances itself. She is named Anaplian (after, we might guess, either the ancient Greek for sailing upstream, or the place where Saint Daniel perched atop his pillar every day). She learns what has happened on her homeworld, and decides to go back. The stage is set for a Culture clash, in which a figure with magical alien tech wreaks havoc among the primitives. But it doesn’t work out like that: before she returns, Anaplian has to turn off her special powers. Eventually, she turns them all back on anyway, to a small cheer from the reader, who wonders nevertheless whether her having to turn them off in the first place was merely a device to engineer the excitement of their reactivation. Instead, something very weird happens with the planet inhabited by the sub-Tolkien folk.

It’s in the nature of sf that a reader may forgive much for a certain quota of conceptual invention. And the planet itself, called Sursamen, is an extraordinary creation. You can watch the prose clicking into a kind of rapturous hard-sf overdrive as Banks begins to describe it:

Sursamen collected adjectives the way ordinary planets collected moons. It was Arithmetic, it was Mottled, it was Disputed, it was Multiply Inhabited, it was Multi-million-year Safe, and it was Godded.

This means, as Banks evinces an infectious delight in explaining, that the planet is a series of concentric shells held up by massive towers, with internal suns rolling across each ceiling, and a different species of lifeform living on each level. The whole thing (and thousands of others like it) was built long ago, by an extinct alien civilisation, for purposes unknown. At its centre lives another kind of alien, and no one knows what that is doing there either.

Such is the epistemic suspense that drives the narrative, as aficionados of the Culture series welcome the fecund variety of new spacefaring species, as well as the pleasurable return of familiar paraphernalia such as knife missiles, and new additions to the catalogue of arch ship names, chosen by the machine Minds of the ships themselves: here is the Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill; there the Experiencing a Significant Gravitas Shortfall ((I was wrong to say this is a new addition: according to Wikipedia, there’s also a ship of that name in Look to Windward that I hadn’t remembered. (Possibly it’s the same ship, though if so it has changed class from GSV to GCU.) My favourite ship name, since you ask, is the What Are The Civilian Applications?, from Use of Weapons.)) ; and over there a kind of hero, the Liveware Problem. The novel itself has a kind of liveware problem: the ship Minds are more sympathetic characters than most of the medieval-fantasy humans.

The story’s superbly kinetic endgame, meanwhile, seems a little squeezed. Here, Banks gleefully mashes together tropes from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the matériel of his universe works at maximum efficiency: combat drones work offstage magic and talking combat suits helpfully emit expository info-bursts. The story’s highly intriguing last act could perhaps have been fruitfully expanded into a greater space, and the long setup could have been compressed. Having front-loaded the novel with so much talky scene-setting, Banks might have ended up relying slightly too much on his (and our) favourite gadgets.

  • Gareth Rees

    I found myself wondering if the staleness of the monarchical setting of the early parts of the novel was a deliberate choice, part of a subversion of the heir-to-the-throne story. In a typical genre fantasy the story would follow the quest of the “rightful” heir to regain his throne, it being a trope of the genre that blood runs true, that “the hands of a king are the hands of a healer”, etc. Matter certainly starts out looking as if the plot is going to run along those lines, but once Banks shows us the complexity of the wider universe, with all that science-fictional invention, the squabbles of the monarchists seem rather petty by comparison and monarchy no longer seems a sensible way to run a society. And all the recognizable fantasy plotlines — not just the heir to the throne, but the war between the levels, the evil vizier and the younger prince, the princess returning to avenge her father’s death — come to a rather abrupt full stop when the science fictional conflict intervenes.

    Maybe I’m trying slightly too hard to rescue one of Banks’ third-raters by finding a more interesting reading. But I think this reading is in keeping with the way that his other Culture novels depict non-Culture societies, trying to achieve a more objective viewpoint by looking at them from a distance.

    P.S. “Ferbin”, not “Ferbyn”.

  • Thanks for the correction. I think you are right to say that one of the metanarratives of Matter is a kind of structural argument that the standard fantasy plotline is parochial when viewed in a wider context — this reading would certainly dovetail with all that explicit (perhaps rather over-didactic) material throughout about how there’s always someone more powerful than you, who is to you as a god, and this is true even for the Culture, etc. I suppose I wonder exactly how much of the uninspired fantasy stuff one needs to write in order to make this point. And, as I said in the review, I thought the properly sf stuff suffered from a lack of space in comparison: some really interesting ideas but a too-hasty dénouement. Is it one of M. Banks’s third-raters? Maybe that’s unkind, but it’s not one of the first-raters (to my mind, Consider Phlebas, Against a Dark Background, Use of Weapons, Excession).

    I don’t much like the new book’s names any more than you do (with the exception of Anaplian), but for some reason I always loved the name Bora Horza Gobuchul.

  • Take a look at Banks’ Inversions. It’s a similar story line, but with a few different twists (the SC operative is the core of the story, and it isn’t revealed that she’s an SC op, we can only surmise that from her actions).

    Banks does an interesting twist with the story telling. It’s told from at least three different points of view, each with their own perspectives. It’s up there with Use of Weapons as one of my favourite culture novels.

  • Ah, I actually reviewed Inversions when it came out (and was going to refer to it in the Matter review, but space forbade), but I hadn’t put the article up on this site. Here it is. Thanks for the reminder.

  • I think it’s one of Banks’s first raters, and I’m surprised having read it that the reviews I read first were so lukewarm. “I think you are right to say that one of the metanarratives of Matter is a kind of structural argument that the standard fantasy plotline is parochial when viewed in a wider context…” I agree with that. Some of that may be Banks’s rather idiosyncratic approach to plot. – I liked ‘Matter’ so much, not least because of the dialogue, that I decided to read the Banks novels I’d missed, and started with ‘Dead Air’ (which Steven has also reviewed). In that, there’s an incident where the narrator is ‘kidnapped’ (his drink is laced with something, but pride in being able to sexually perform causes him to pour it away, as it happens on his producer’s jacket – and this may have been the first proper clue that the narrator is a selfish wee shite – so he escapes later on. Now the producer’s jacket, the reader may think – that’ll go to some CSI department in the Met. But it doesn’t. It gets cleaned by a ‘friend’ of the producers (as a way of telling us he’s gay). Possible plot line meets cul-de-sac. I’m never sure if this is brilliant storytelling (a lot of things do go nowhere, life is like that) or just a lack or rewriting.

    But in ‘Matter’ even the story arcs that aren’t have character development as compensation. Ferbin, Oramen, and Choubris all grow as people, which is something. There’s something of a proper story in the references to ‘King Lear’ and ‘Hamlet’ and the travel narratives. I think there are themes which aren’t developed: why is tyr Loesp disloyal? Why does the Culture’s meddling miss the bigger picture? Why is the artefact buried in the first place? On the other hand, it’s much funnier, especially the dialogue, than I remember Banks as being. There seems to be less sadism. The obligatory character who is a long way from the rest of the Culture and humanity through his own choosing and therefore must die (we could call him the ‘Max Gogarty’ character after the Guardian’s ill-fated gap year blogger) is dispensed with quickly and almost relevantly to the meta-plot (although what happens to the Oct ships after they get to where they’re going?).

    “The novel itself has a kind of liveware problem: the ship Minds are more sympathetic characters than most of the medieval-fantasy humans.” I don’t agree. I think that’s usually the case – and may be the case here with the drone Turminder Xuss (have to check the spelling there), who may have appeared before. But I found the regent, the prince regent, the younger brother, the assassins, the doctor, the court adviser (the one person who sees what’s going on), and of course, the fool figure very engaging. Yes the ship is interesting, but mostly in the human need for physical contact in Mr Quicke and in the disingenuousness of the Special Circumstances.

  • The obligatory character who is a long way from the rest of the Culture and humanity through his own choosing and therefore must die

    I’m glad you mentioned that guy! The way he and his ship were introduced so deftly and funnily (he was a bit of a twat, but not dislikeable), and then zapped to smithereens, all within the space of a few pages, was a really brilliant set-piece of writing. And, to my taste I’m afraid, so much more economical and vivid than what happens on Sursamen.

    I’d forgotten that I’d also reviewed Dead Air. I really hated it. Seems I’ve been a bit of a stalker-critic of Banks’s over the years. But only because I’m convinced that he can write excellent books, so am always freshly disappointed when he doesn’t, quite.

  • Gregor

    I essentially stopped reading Banks after The Business- well, more accurately half-way through the Business. If only I had let it at that, but I picked up Dead Air. Is the title an allusion to White Noise? Its more like Nathan Barley. As a teenager I had almost all of his books, but as with Yellow Dog, Dead Air was one of those special books that make you want to chuck out the back catalogue.

    One thing that struck me about Banks before that was that like a lot of baby boomer men, he seems to have a fascination with female protagonists, and is completely hopeless at writing them. As with William Boyd, he seems to delight in creating selfish, spoilt (and always young) women, who would just be regarded as d-kheads if they were male. When he writes from a male viewpoint, the guys are mainly fine, but when he writes from a female viewpoint, the men are all pervy and obnoxious (or both).

    A lot of my closest friends are girls, and it seems that to people of my age group gender conflict has largely been resolved. We have not turned into androgyns, but have a lot in common. For this reason, despite the sci fi themes, I think that Iain Banks always reads as being slightly anachronistic.

    Anyway, Great Site Mr Poole!!

  • Leinad

    Iain M. Banks writes wish-fufillment everything, in that respect his spaceships, planets and women are alike.

    And Iain Banks has been losing it since Complicity

  • Leinad: harsh, but maybe fair.

    Glad you like the site, Gregor. In case anyone’s interested, I’ve added my reviews of The Business and Dead Air to the archives.

  • Leinad

    That is, _post_ Complicity.

  • richard

    The ship names strike me as identical to blog names – which makes some sense, since they’re self-selected identifiers, intended to convey meaning about content and also to compete in an informal humour competition. The more I think about this, the more impressed I am that Banks seems to have anticipated the trend.

  • That’s a really nice idea — and I see that there are not a few blogs named for Culture ships now. It’s interesting that something that presumably began as a bit of throwaway fun for Banks has become one of the most beloved aspects of his novels.

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  • Footnote(1): Culture ship names are usually the names of the Mind controlling the ship. It would be perfectly in order for Experiencing a Significant Gravitas Shortfall to transfer from a GSV to a GCU.

    The ship minds being much more interesting than the evolved biological sapients, incl. Culture citizens and their allies, is also a feature of the excellent Excession. Another redemeeing feature of Excession c.f. Matter is that in the former almost all the evolved biologicals are entertainingly insane or very close to it. No mediavalism there at all, not even among the vicious Affront.