Thursday, April 2, 2009

Iain M. Banks - Matter

Iain M. Banks, Matter, Orbit, 2008.

Spoiler warning.

This is a novel in the much-admired Culture setting. Life in the Culture usually lacks the sort of events that make interesting reading, since it is a post-scarcity society with little conflict and people can backup and become effectively immortal. So, as in the other Culture books, the narrative focuses on the societies at the fringes of the Culture, and on the work of Special Circumstances, the Culture's elite group of agents involved in rare interventions in other societies.

The Big Idea in this novel is the Shellworld of Sursamen. This is an artifact created by an ancient, extinct species. It is composed of several hollow globes one inside the other, like a Russian doll or an onion (but with gaps between the layers). The outer surface of each globe can be inhabited, with the inner surface of the surrounding globe becoming the outer limit of the layer's space. While this is only the setting, it is both an inspiring and mysterious concept, and also relevant to the development of the story.

The main characters of the story are three siblings from a backward human culture on one level of Sursamen. The youngest brother, Oramen, is heir to the kingdom of Sarl, which is rapidly progressing from medieval to industrial culture. This society is aware of the outside universe, alien species and the Culture, but chooses to progress at its own pace (although there have recently been interventions). The second brother, Ferbin, escapes from a scene of treachery and seeks outside help to save Oramen and the kingdom. He searches for his sister Anaplian, who has become a Culture Special Circumstances agent. As can be expected, there is more to the story than is apparent at first, even to the characters themselves.

One of the main themes of the Culture novels is revisited here. To what extent should the Culture interfere with other societies? This theme is relevant to our current lives, with many in Western society feeling what can be called post-colonial guilt, and having a resulting aversion to the very concept of intervention. This may also result from the post-modernist concept of everything being relative and nothing having intrinsic value. The implications of this approach are explored in Matter, with the Sarl society allowing such things as women dying in childbirth and a rigid class system. Anaplian is presented as fortunate to be able to leave Sursamen and join the Culture, thus gaining an education and independence that women in Sarl are denied.

To me this story offers clear support to the idea that some things do have intrinsic value, and some social conditions are preferable to others. Given the choice, I believe it is clearly better for people to be born into a free society where they can advance on merit rather than being restrained by class or gender prejudice. It is clearly better to have advanced medicine and health care, and when it becomes possible, I believe the option of creating backups and being able to be reborn after death with most of one's memories should be made available to all (except those who prefer to live only once, like some Culture characters in other novels). If these social choices are inherently preferable to others, it seems to me that advanced societies have a duty to intervene and help more backward cultures change and adopt better values. The argument that societies should be free to keep their traditions can only apply if these traditions are considered equally worthy to others. People who use this argument in our current world are effectively supporting discrimination, corruption, preventable disease and death, and other such outcomes of these traditions.

Without giving away too much about the ending, the book also contains a powerful and moving theme of self-sacrifice that seems rare in current thinking.

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