Tuesday, January 30, 2018

the last book I read

Matter by Iain M Banks.

Here on Earth we take the whole planet occupation thing for granted. Simply evolve over a series of aeons from single-celled amoebae floating around in the primordial soup and over time progress in a leisurely manner to the current pinnacle of development occupying a comfy wing-backed chair puffing ruminatively on a pipe-stem perusing the paperwork for some complex hire-purchase agreement, all without ever really considering whether we're entitled to be here or not.

On a Shellworld, however, things are a bit more complex: these are artificially constructed worlds (the exact construction methods and the identity of the architects being a bit of a mystery) with various species (depending which Shellworld you choose) acting as custodians and getting to pick and choose who occupies each of the many concentric levels. So you might have humanoids on one level, beating the shit out of each other as humanoids do, and then some giant whale-creatures on the water-filled next level, and some freaky-ass motherfuckers resembling sentient hot-air balloons floating about on the next level, with the whole thing overseen by some gigantic blue lobsters. A bit more like renting a room in a shared house than just casually inheriting an entire planet.

Anyway, this particular Shellworld, Sursamen, has the usual motley selection of occupants, but our main concern is with the Sarl, basically humanoid types who occupy one of the levels, and conform very precisely to humanoid cliché by being bloodthirsty slaughtering warlike types. As we join the action there's a battle going on, during the course of which the current king, Hausk, is mortally wounded and is unexpectedly ushered into the netherworld by his supposed right-hand man, tyl Loesp. Unknown to any of the regicidal mob, the king's son, and the rightful next king, Ferbin, witnesses the whole thing and flees for his life with his comedy manservant, Holse.

Ferbin was never especially keen to be king, although pretty keen on cashing in on the whole playboy prince thing with the drinking and the whoring and the like. But that doesn't mean he'll be happy to hand the throne over to the man who murdered his father. As it happens, though, Ferbin has some other family contacts: his sister, Djan Seriy Anaplian, left home many years previously to join a shadowy organisation called The Culture (ahaaaa, etc. etc.). So he and Holse set off to find her.

It turns out that not only is Djan Seriy Anaplian a citizen of The Culture (I can't improve on "AI-moderated anarcho-utopia" from here so I'm just going to re-use it), she is an operative with Special Circumstances, the super-exclusive ultra-badass black-ops division who can kill you just by looking at you. Furthermore, she was on her way to Sursamen anyway in an unofficial capacity to pay her respects to her dead father, and is happy to turn it into something a bit more official. The added complicating factor is that Djan and Ferbin's half-brother Oramen remains on Sursamen, theoretically as Prince Regent, awaiting the occasion of his eighteenth birthday whereupon he will inherit the throne from tyl Loesp, who's been appointed some sort of Lord Protector. The trouble is, as everyone but Oramen knows, tyl Loesp isn't going to let that happen and is going to ensure that Oramen meets with an "accident", probably of the furiously stabby variety, some time before his birthday.

In the meantime Oramen is being kept out of trouble by being sent to oversee the excavations of an ancient city gradually being exposed by the retreat of a gigantic waterfall. This process is exposing some seriously strange shit, and when winter arrives and the whole falls area freezes over this allows excavations to continue behind the falls, whereupon some seriously strange shit is revealed, of the planet-endangering variety. Luckily, Djan, Ferbin, Holse and a small army of Culture drones and sentient missiles arrive at this point and embark on a furious pursuit to the planet's core to try and avert disaster.

Seasoned Banks readers will detect more than a whiff of Inversions here - vaguely mediaeval civilisation, with access to some relatively advanced weaponry (e.g. basic firearms) thanks to some judicious (or foolhardy or meddling, depending on your point of view) nudging by previous Culture involvement, and a badass female Special Circumstances agent. Obviously there is a raft of hard sci-fi stuff that Inversions didn't have - the Shellworlds, all the various alien ships that Ferbin and Djan hitch lifts on, the apocalyptic battle at the end in which (SPOILER ALERT) pretty much everyone dies.

The usual points about the morality of super-advanced civilisations intervening in the development of less-advanced ones are chewed over here (just as they were in Inversions). There's an obvious parallel between the actual physical hierarchy of levels on Sursamen and the implicit multi-level hierarchy of civilisations that runs from the Sarl up through the Oct who administer the day-to-day running of the Shellworlds, the Nariscene who supervise them, the Morthanveld who oversee them and the Culture who in turn consider themselves above all of the others.

Like all Banks' books this is not without flaws: it drags a bit in the middle between Ferbin leaving Sursamen and returning in the company of Djan, in particular during the interlude where they encounter former Special Circumstances agent Xide Hyrlis, whose function seems mainly to be tedious about multiverse theory for a number of pages and then refuse to be of any help whatsoever. And as thrilling as the bit at the end where they blast around the giant turbines and gears at the planet's core is, it all seems a bit compressed (60-odd pages out of 600) and a jarring change of pace given the leisurely unfolding of what's gone before, and the flashing and banging distracts you from the fact that precious few of the Big Questions raised are actually answered. Like, for instance: why do the Iln have such an implacable thing for destroying Shellworlds? And why, if you have such an implacable thing on the go, choose to achieve it by getting yourself buried in silt for several millennia and revived by a suitably advanced civilisation, rather than just, you know, popping off and doing the job straight away?

In the implicit league table of Culture novels that everyone who's read more than one of them keeps in their heads I would say this is in the mid-range along with The Player Of Games and Use Of Weapons - better then Excession which I found a bit tedious, but not as good as Consider Phlebas, Look To Windward or Inversions. It's all good fun and never less than compulsively readable, though, so no complaints.

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