Communicator (communicator) wrote,
Communicator
communicator

Matter

I have just finished listening to the audio book of Matter by Iain M Banks. It's been in the top three downloads of audible UK for a month or so, since it came out. I dithered before downloading it because I knew it would be a big time commitment (21 hours) and Banks' last couple of SF novels weren't quite my cup of tea. Also I felt it would be a very male-oriented book, unlike the woman's-eye view of Sarah Water's The Night Watch, which I had enjoyed so much in March.

I think all Banks novels employ a narrow male-view even though he has female viewpoint characters. In Excession and The Algebraist I think he let it run away with him, constructing species and societies which didn't make sense. Getting all Marxist for a moment, I would say that the male role in our society can only exist because of the existence of the female role. Let me put it crudely - a gender can only express the values 'be clean, but never do any cleaning' or 'be a parent but don't do any parenting' if there is a complementary servant-gender which performs those missing functions. A species without entropy-work or parent-work could exist, but it would be alien in a way that Banks never achieved - despite the superficial trappings of alienness - in either of those two previous books. They too closely mirrored human concerns.

These problems do not arise in the same way in Matter, which I think is in his better work. I have to be careful here, because I thoroughly enjoy having these books read to me, and I feel such admiration for the reader (in this case Toby Longworth) that it might make me insufficiently critical. Matter is an exuberant and entertaining book, perhaps not quite Player of Games but jolly good. Like Inversions it is mainly set in a low-tech human culture - a feudal society which is going through industrialisation. It follows the stories of three siblings

princes and princesses of a Royal House. One prince is a spoiled upper class git, with an interesting arc of character development: his servant is a very appealing character, who starts at a much higher level, but also matures. The other prince is very young but highly intelligent. His story is also fascinating, because we readers know more about what is going on than he does, and Banks shows him using his brains to dodge metaphorical bullets coming at him from all sides. I love both these types of story-arc. The Princess is less interesting in herself, simply because she is already very wise and competent. She offers a viewpoint onto this wide diverse galaxy of alien species and artefacts: 'Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide'. Her character doesn't develop much, because she is mature and sensible from minute one. This nuanced characterisation and development is something I think I've missed in many recent Banks novels.

Matter comes full-on with big set pieces and strange aliens, very enjoyable. The other thing that struck me, in listening to it, is how competent Banks is with long complex sentences.

The reading was also great, I thought. As I say, I do appreciate the readers. Toby Longworth has created a range of distinct voices, covering several different human cultures, plus alien species, plus various drones and ship's Minds. The species have a way of talking, and then individuals are distinguished within that. The Drone, amusingly, talks like Marvin, while the ship has two voices in its different avatars - one Scottish and one a bit like James Mason. The brainy servant talks a bit like Corporal Jones, and the expert on alien artefacts sounds a little like Patrick Moore. Anyway, this is just to give you some indication of the breadth and creativity of the voice work. I wonder what readers think when authors include a description of a voice within the text, especially when that voice is described in an extravagant way such as 'the voice sounded as if a bank of clouds were exuding quiet breath' or something like that. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey in his company.

This is the first SF I've read in a while, and I did enjoy it. Perhaps I'd better go back to reading SF again.
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