The Birdcage Archives

Thursday, 8 March 2012


Hello Gentle Reader

When one looks up at the night sky, they see those twinkling lights. Far off and distant, those twinkling lights are stars. Looking up, from so far below, one cannot help but feel so insignificant by lying down and looking all the way up. Past the shadowy tops of the trees. Overhead the chimney, puffing out smoke. Above the other roofs and the houses, there lays the stars. In an ominous primordial stew of nothing – a great void of nihilistic, aimless objects. That is space. Yet there is something, quite beautiful in thought of space. Who could forget the moon landing? When the first animal and first man were sent to space? All of those occurrences, were the first time that mankind was finally starting to realize its potential. The knowledge of the V2 Missile of Nazi Germany must have been quite frightening, to learn that it was the first object (manmade) to official make it into space. Certainly the human races, desire, and absolute goal of understanding what is unknown – be it space, or the very depths of the ocean; there is a demand, and a desire – a desire I am sure fuelled by fear, to get out there. To get out there, and demand to be out there, and discover what is out there.

Yet there is still something romantic about the vastness and the human races, inability to comprehend the entire scope of what is out there – or even the entire universe itself. What about this concept of a ‘multi-verse,’ this to me is rather boring. It just is for whatever reason. I do not find any concept of a ‘multi-verse,’ all that intriguing or interesting. In fact if anything at all, I’d be more interested in the concept of if space is up or down, or what shape is the universe?

Yet for a while, there I had a desire or a real craving for science fiction. While at work, I would occasionally pop into the science fiction section and for a brief few minutes. I’d look through the titles. Nothing of course sounded even slightly interesting. There were of course H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Hugo Gernsback – who all three are often popularly called “The Father of Science Fiction,” – though in my opinion – seeing as I live from a post-colonial English speaking country, with a constitutional monarchy – H.G. Wells is often referred to as a the “Father of Science Fiction.” Though all three of the authors had pioneered the science fiction genre in their novels, and short stories.

There were other novels as well. “Robopocalypse,” by Daniel H. Wilson, which had an interesting cover, but it just didn’t really fly up my alley. There were others there as well. China Mieville’s new novel “Embassytown,” and some other mass market paperbound novels, that looked both unappealing and were more or less likely to be unappealing in any way or form for me. Then I found Iain M Banks, and his novel “Matter.” I know who Iain Banks was – author of “The Wasp Factory,” “Song of Stone,” “Dead Air,” “The Bridge,” among other interesting novels that were literary but also flirting with genre conventions as well. So I decided to give on one of his science fiction novels a chance. The front cover of the novel says it’s a “Culture Novel.” So before we continue on with a review of the novel “Matter,” it is time for some background information.

The best way to summarize what the “Culture,” is it’s an interstellar society, which follows the political ideologies of anarchism, socialism, and is also utopian. Picture a giant place of space (at least this is how I pictured it) with different planets, and what not, and all those different life forms, that identify itself, as part of the “Culture.” The “Culture,” itself is limitless, and has eliminated any concept of possession. So all the limitless, wealth, technology and anything and everything else, is free. The entire “Culture,” is Egalitarian – meaning its society is all equal. It does not use any military force unless necessary and usually to protect others.

That is the “Culture,” in a nut shell.

The entire novel of “Matter,” on the surface is a tale of three siblings, two sons and a daughter, from a “Shellworld,” (from my understanding a ‘artificial,’ world, made up shells or levels) that is not part of the “Culture,” and is rather low-technological. In fact steam powered technology has just come into existence on the planet. Yet even though this planet – or rather more specifically this level of the planet Sarl, is aware of the other more advanced civilizations that watch over them, and exist. However, these civilizations like Sarl, hare prevented from having any contact with the other more developed civilizations like the “Culture.” Which explains why steam-powered technology just came into existence? Which makes more sense; because why a civilization aware of other would more advanced and more mature civilizations not have the same technology. But because these civilizations can only be aware of each other, and not actually interact with each other, each one must mature and grown on their own. However with anything, there are exceptions. One of the three siblings (the daughter Djan Seriy Anaplian) was sent to live in the “Culture.” However by the time the novel actually starts, Anaplian has joined a branch of the “Culture,” titled “Special Circumstances,” which in my opinion is a lot like a spy agency or an intelligence service. More or less “Special Circumstances,” deals with the concept of the “Culture,” meddling or influencing and making other civilizations and other things its business.

The novel starts however with the death of the King of Sarl, and the report that one of the princes (Anaplian is the princess – daughter of the king) Ferbin, has also been killed. Ferbin however did not meet an untimely end, and is still at large. The youngest sibling Oramen, is too young to inherit the throne, and so the kingdom is left in the hands and leadership of a Regent.

The entire novel may or may not be summarized now as this – Ferbin is a live, whose life is marked, and is being hunted. He goes in search of help. Anaplian travels home, and Oramen learns the dangers of an intriguing court, and the game he himself is playing by soon being a king.

That of course once again is the plot on a very superficial level. To be quite honest, a five hundred and ninety-three page, novel should go past such a superficial level of a plot – which it does.

However, this book for me was not a considerable enjoyable one. First and foremost I am not a veteran science fiction reader. The names, the civilizations and species, they all seem so odd to me. Every culture and every civilization bears in mind some very basic concepts. All those concepts and all those faults, always lead back to what the authors know best. The only civilization they know best, the only sentient being they know – human. All the species (sentient ones) always seem a bit too human. Now of course, science fiction can easily be summed up, as quite frankly a metaphor for the human condition, using different civilizations or the future, modeled on the present situation of the world. Which is true, the worlds present situation can easily be put into the future. Stem-cell research, can be seen in some science fiction novel, as the gateway to getting rid of disease, and almost annihilating the concept of death. The building up of nuclear weapons, and suddenly the emanate consequences of the destruction of the world – by a nuclear holocaust, leads the survivors (or those that can afford it) to head out to space and colonize a planet or planets that can sustain life – only to do it all over again. They can become parables, to the extent of certain behaviours and outlooks not changed, and how they can become, more serious problems in the future. A totalitarian government soon takes over a country or a state, at the meddling of another country or foreign power – all in the name of good or whatever. The increase of globalization, has lead to the increase of information and transport of goods, but has intertwined the governments, and economies and causing the world to be on very shaky ground when handling resources from unstable countries. That is the strengths of science fiction – if done correctly.

Iain Banks does do well with the globalization and the interfering with the affairs of others, with his novel “Matter,” and the human traits of power and the need for power, and overzealous ambition, and the need for war – and warmongering in some cases. However certain parts do bother me. The artificially intelligent spacecrafts for example that have some odd names – or more like sentences for names; like “we do it my way,” or whatever. I didn’t quite grasp the concept of that. It just seemed odd to me. Why not name the ship a normal name or something like that. I assume the names of these ships, were intended to be funny, however I personally find them tedious and annoying. The other aspect is the triteness, of certain areas. The Oct’s weird way of speaking that was incomprehensible and just felt like it was there to take up space on a page. Then there was the insect creatures (I think they were insect creatures) that used pheromones to talk as well, again it felt annoying to me.

Then there came the aspect of sex changes. Why would something go from being a man to a woman to back to a man, to then going to being something of a ball or whatever it was or is? That made even less sense to me. I realize that some people are transgender, and that they are the wrong gender, which is one thing, however without any real psychological depth into the changing of one’s structure, of any kind just felt odd to me. Then again I do realize that some people do change parts of their bodies. They get tattoos; they pierce their ears, or eyebrows, lips tongues, or whatever. But to this extent it just felt superficial and rather hedonistic (even though that such aesthetic body modifications are rather hedonistic and superficial) without any psychological output though it just felt out of place, or rather unnecessary.

Though there were clever little plots. The way Holse presents arguments to his ‘master,’ Ferbin, were rather interesting to read. The glossary at the back (after discovering it) was a great help in some ways, but a bit more detail on what the “world god,” was would have been helpful, and a bit more detail on the species, and other important facts would have been nice, and would have helped shape less confusion.

In the end though my science fiction fill is over, and quenched, and certainly there does not come a feeling or desire to go back there for a while. At least not for any of this “space opera,” stuff. Maybe in the future some time I’ll give Samuel R Delany’s science fiction a go but that would be about it.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
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