Monday, 25 February 2008

The Heart of Matter


Matter is Iain Banks' first Culture novel since Look to Windward in 2000. So there was a great deal of eagerness - and not just by myself - when it was announced. Orbit clearly realised that Matter's publication was an event - Waterstone's has been selling the hardback at half price since a week or so before the official publication date.

There are, it has to be said, a certain number of things you expect to find in a
Culture novel. And one of those things is a Big Dumb Object. In Matter, this is the Shellworld called Sursamen, which consists of a series of vast concentric spheres, each of which is in effect a planetary surface. Shellworlds were built for reasons unknown by a race which has long since vanished.

The Sarl, a human race, live on Sursamen's Eighth level. They are at war with the Deldeyn, another human race, from the Ninth level. Ferbin is heir to the throne of Hausk, a cod-mediaeval Sarl kingdom. He's more of a playboy prince than a suitable candidate for ruler, however, so when Ferbin inadvertently witnesses his father's murder after a battle, he flees for his life. He determines to seek help from Xide Hyrlis, a Culture representative who had been a friend of King Hausk many years before. He also decides to track down his sister, Djan Seriy, who left to join the Culture, and now works for Special Circumstances.

There are three main narratives in Matter, centred on the three surviving offspring of King Hausk. Ferbin and his manservant Holse escape Sursamen and track down Hyrlis. Djan Seriy returns to Sursamen to learn the truth of her father's death. And Oramen, youngest son and now prince regent, follows the invading Sarl army to the Ninth level and the Nameless City, an ancient metropolis slowly being revealed by the great Falls of Hyeng-zhar.

King Hausk's murder, the war against the Deldeyn of the Ninth level... these are all part of a conspiracy orchestrated by Hausk's trusted adviser, friend and murderer, tyl Loesp. He is working for the Oct, the alien race which control part of Sursamen. Their objective is not revealed until a good three-quarters of the way into the story, and its result is certainly not the intended one.

The Oct are mentored by the Nariscene, who are in turn mentored by the Morthanveld. Whose civilisation is equivalent in technology and advancement to the Culture. This civilisational hierarchy is important to the plot of Matter.

Iain Banks is one of the most interesting writers currently working in science fiction - but only in the sense of science fiction as a branch of literature. He's not really an ideas man. Yes, the concept of the Shellworld is pretty impressive... but it's been done before - in Colin Kapp's Cageworld quartet. In fact, if anything, Banks has a tendency to pick up current ideas and slot them into his fictions, whether they fit or not. Look to Windward introduced nanotechnology to the Culture; and Matter introduces cyberspace. Neither had been mentioned prior to their appearances in these novels, and yet they are treated as if they had always existed. Which does make their sudden inclusion seem a little odd.

In some respects, the hierarchy of civilisations mentioned above also has the feel of an add-on required for Matter's plot to function - it's not only reminiscent of David Brin's Uplift novels, but it all seems so much busier a universe than earlier Culture novels had suggested. But denying the possibility of such additions and changes does smack a little of the "clomping foot of nerdism". Fictional universes are as flexible and adaptable as required by the story.

What makes Banks really interesting is that his sf novels are not just simple action-adventures in a space opera setting. There's enough detail in there to attract those who want immersion in a made-up universe, but he's not one to slavishly follow genre story templates. Use of Weapons features two narratives running in opposite directions chronologically; Against A Dark Background has a quest plot, in which the protagonist loses every plot coupon shortly after winning it... but still manages to finish the course (but I'm not convinced that was done knowingly).

Having said that, Banks is less adventurous with the structure of
Matter. It is, for much of its length, relatively traditional - something of a picaresque travelogue, albeit juxtaposed with high fantasy wargames on Sursamen's Eighth and Ninth Levels... However, Matter ends with an appendix - a completely unnecessary dramatis personae and glossary. And after that, an epilogue. Which changes the final shape of the story. The appendix is there to hide the epilogue. Now, that is an interesting choice.

Banks usually has something interesting to say, too. Matter is no different in this respect. And, if I'm reading the novel right, it's about Iraq, about whether so-called "developed" nations have the right to meddle in the affairs of other nations. The parallels are clear - should the Culture interfere in Sursamen? Unfortunately, Banks' message is muddled.
Matter's prologue shows one such intervention by Special Circumstances, and that later proves mostly successful. But the Culture's refusal to interfere in the situation in Hausk - especially given how it progresses; and they are watching it, after all - leads to a situation which could destroy everything. The epilogue shows the Culture changing its policy.

This, then, is the message from the writer who chopped up his passport over the invasion of Iraq. According to
Matter, he's now saying it is good to interfere - if the interference prevents slaughter and destruction. Or perhaps he means only to interfere in the interference of the Oct, which has caused slaughter and destruction? Banks has pre-built the moral high ground into his universe - the more evolved civilisations, the Involved, are more advanced and therefore more moral. That's part of evolution, after all. So it's okay for moral - or advanced; or, perhaps, "developed" - civilisations to interfere, Matter seems to be saying, but not for less evolved ones. That's not a good message. Because Banks' universal hierarchy is a cheat - morality is treated as if it were a physical law, as if a civilisation accrued some kind of wavicles of morality as it progressed and aged.

Other areas of
Matter worthy of comment... It is very talky. Characters waffle a lot. They often repeat themselves. The novel also suffers from a sudden flurry of small resolutions as the end approaches. Banks' digressions are often his best bits - and some of the digressions in Matter are among the best he's done - but it does mean that his climaxes frequently feel rushed. It does here. And, there is throughout the novel odd verbings of nouns and nunation of adjectives. Banks in part explains this, having Djan Seriy say the Sarl sometimes use "words oddly" - "we guilt you", "he has been jealoused". But there are occasions where even that is no defence - the neologism is neither in dialogue, nor even in a narrative set on Sursamen or featuring a Sarl character.

Oh, and why does Matter have double quotes for dialogue throughout, when normal British practice is single quotes?

One of the reasons Banks is an excellent writer is that despite all the above I liked Matter a great deal. It's likely to be one of the most interesting sf novels published in 2008. Whether that makes it one of the best, I don't know. Depends what else I read, of course. Unlike The Algebraist, Matter did not disappoint.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

I Did This So You Don't Have To - Part 2

Here's the next set of films from the SciFi Classics 50-Movie Pack.

Attack of the Monsters - another Japanese monster movie. Three kids find a flying saucer, two of them climb aboard and are whisked away to another world. They see a giant monster with a sword on its head fight a giant pterodactyl. Then they're rescued by two women in futuristic costumes, and taken into the women's base. But the women are evil, and want only to conquer Earth. Happily, Gamera the giant flying turtle arrives, kills the monster with the sword on its head, and saves the day. If you want to watch a Japanese sf film, watch The Mysterians. Not this.

Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet - this film was created from a re-edit of the Russian film, Planeta Burg, with English dialogue recorded over it and a couple of scenes featuring Basil Rathbone added. A US spaceship arrives in orbit about Venus, but the first landing mission crashes. So a second one is launched to rescue them. While the film is badly-paced, and the story doesn't make a great deal of sense, it all looks pretty cool. Well, except for the dinosaurs, which look like men in rubber dinosaur suits.

Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women - this one uses the same footage as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, with the mystifying addition of several scenes featuring Mamie van Doren and a bevy of beautiful women in bikinis who are apparently the telepathic inhabitants of the planet. Their scenes don't actually seem related to the rest of the film. Much of the movie is narrated by "director" Peter Bogdanovich. Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet was interesting but a bit dull; Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women is near unwatchable.

Blood Tide - another one that wasn't sf at all. James Earl Jones hams it up as a poet-turned-treasure-hunter on some Greek island. There's an ancient temple accessible only via a sea cave, but it has some horrible guardian. Newcomers try to horn in on Jones' treasure-hunting, the sea monster awakens, and the ancient temple is destroyed. A better transfer would have greatly improved this film. It didn't actually appear that bad - although it was hard to tell at the time as the picture and sound were so poor.

First Spaceship on Venus - this is actually a badly-dubbed version of the East German film, Der Schweigende Stern (The Silent Star). Scientists analyse the debris of huge meteor impact, and discover a recording from a crashed spacesuit. They determine the spaceship was from Venus, and so send a mission to that planet. En route, they decode the recording. It's an invasion plan... The production design is really good, with some excellent model work and some truly weird sets. I plan to get a copy of the original version - happily, it's available on DVD.

Buck Rogers: Planet Outlaws - not the grinning beefy loon in a spandex girdle of the 1980s television series, this is the original one: Buster Crabbe. His prototype airship crashes on its maiden flight at the north pole, and he is frozen... and woken up centuries later. He ends up helping the inhabitants of an invisible city in their war against the evil Killer Kane. This involves such cunning ploys as hiding behind rocks, and jumping out at Kane's men as they pass by. If you like Flash Gordon serials, then this is, well, exactly the same.

Killers from Space - Peter Graves of Mission Impossible stars as a scientist whose plane crashes during an atom bomb test. When he turns up later, no one believes his story of alien abduction and invasion. Unlike Whitley Strieber, it seems he's telling the truth. This one wasn't as bad as it sounds.

She Gods of Shark Reef - when the box cover says "SciFi Classics", that's what you expect: science fiction. By no stretch of the imagination could this film be considered that. Two gunrunners are shipwrecked on a Hawaiian island populated only by attractive women. When one of the women is chosen for the annual sacrifice to the shark god, the gunrunner who is in love with her tries to rescue her. Another film I suspect was more fun to make than to watch.

The Atomic Brain - a scientist experiments with brain transplants, including transplanting a woman's brain into a cat, and vice versa. You can't help but wonder how a human brain would fit into a cat's skull, or what he used for padding when he put the cat's brain in the woman's skull. Judging by the woman's acting, it was probably blancmange or something. This is the sort of film that gives B-movies a, er, bad name.

Son of Hercules: The Land of Darkness - another spaghetti sandal epic, and yet another random bodybuilder in the title roll. Except he's not a son of Hercules, he's actually Hercules himself. Although, for some bizarre reason, the English language dubbing calls him Argolese throughout. The blurb on the CD pack says, "Hercules falls for the daughter of a deposed king whose kingdom is held in thrall by an evil queen." I know I've watched this film, but I can't remember what actually happened in it.

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger: Crash of the Moons - this is a compilation of two episodes of a 1954 television series. It shows. Rocky's sidekick, Winky, is annoyingly stupid. The female, Vena Ray, might prance about in a miniskirt, but she's surprisingly assertive for the early 1950s. The special effects - apparently expensive for the time - are a little better than Flash Gordon from two decades earlier, but not much. Forbidden Planet this isn't.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians - the theme-tune to this film is great, a perfect piece of 1960s bubblegum pop. Sadly, it's all downhill from there. Green-skinned Martian kids are addicted to Santa Claus on Earth television, so their parents decided to kidnap him. But Santa sets up shop on Mars, and wins everyone over with sacks full of cheap toys. I suspect that seeing the film as an allegory for the rise of Japan after World War 2 might be reading a little too much into it. Especially since it's, well, crap.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

2008 Reading Challenge - A Surprise for February

I tried, but I couldn't do it. In what has to be a turn up for the books (pun intended), I couldn't finish the novel I'd chosen for February for my 2008 reading challenge. I read about a quarter before giving up. And it's supposed to be the author's best book too.

The book was For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. And given his stature, I never expected to dislike Hemingway's prose so much. But... the incessant repetition annoyed me, the Spanish syntax used throughout for the dialogue annoyed me, and when the book went into an extended flashback narrated by one of the characters, I couldn't face any more.

Ah well, I suppose it means the challenge is doing what I intended it to. I may have expected it to introduce me to authors I would like, but I never meant that it had to. Perhaps one day, I'll watch the film, or try another novel by Hemingway. But for now, it's time to move on...

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Irony in Action

They say Americans suffer from an "irony deficiency", but I think recent events have proven that untrue.

While the neocons are busy trying to redefine fascism as left wing in order to distance their own right wing politics from such jackbooted nastiness, Bush is demanding that travellers to the US ask nicely for permission to visit from Homeland Security before booking tickets. He also wants information on passengers over-flying the US - not landing in the US, just flying over US territory.

So there you go. With each passing year, it seems the US drifts further towards the left -

No, wait.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Jackboots in Space

I've always believed that Paul Verhoeven's response to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers was the only sane one. He made a satire of it. (He also never bothered to finish reading it either, which is probably even more sane.) I saw nothing wrong in holding this opinion even though I'd never read the novel myself.

Recently, however, I decided I was being unfair, if not hypocritical. I "knew" the book was crypto-fascist, despite every mention of it on the tinterweb claiming that it isn't.

Well, I've now read it. And...

Starship Troopers isn't even a novel. It's a lesson in military operations and Heinlein's crypto-fascist politics wrapped in the thinnest of stories. Rico is a stand-in for the dumb reader, who is lectured in every chapter on how fair and democratic is the Federation, and how effective a military force is the Mobile Infantry. We know this because we're told it. Repeatedly.

The plot, such as it is: Johnny Rico graduates from high school, and follows a friend into Federal Service. He is assigned to the Mobile Infantry. Earth goes to war against the Bugs. Rico fights a number of battles and rises up the ranks.

That's it.

Military sf Starship Troopers almost certainly is. But does that make it crypto-fascist? Let's examine the evidence (all page numbers and quotations from the 1998 NEL film tie-in paperback).

Exhibit 1:
Only veterans of the Federal Service of the Terran Federation have the vote. Heinlein apologists claim that Federal Service is not necessarily military, but this is not true. When Rico signs up, and is given a physical, the doctor says to him:

"No offense. But military service is for ants ... And for what? A purely nominal political privilege that pays not one centavo and that most of them aren't competent to use wisely anyhow." (pp 32)

Further, the recruiting sergeant on duty when Rico signs up has no legs and only one arm. Because, he explains:

"... suppose we do make a soldier out of you. Take a look at me - this is what you may buy... If you don't buy the whole farm and cause your folks to receive a 'deeply regret' telegram." (pp 30)

Exhibit 2:
According to Heinlein, spanking produces well-mannered moral children. After a page or two discussion on the best way to raise puppies - when they make mistakes, scold them, rub their noses in it, and spank them - Rico's "History & Moral Philosophy" teacher, Mr DuBois, explains that the same methodology should be applied to children. Because not doing this led to the lawlessness of the Twentieth Century:

"Back to these young criminals - They were probably not spanked as babies; they certainly were not flogged for their crimes ... This incredible sequence could go on for years while his crimes increased in frequency and visciousness..." (pp 101)

Exhibit 3:
Heinlein directly references fascism. Once again, Rico - and thus the reader - is being lectured in "History & Moral Philosophy". During this, the instructor explains the actual meaning of the vote:

"Force, if you will! - the franchise is force, naked and raw, the Power of the Rods and the Ax." (pp 155)

The Rods and the Axe, of course, is the fasces, the word from which Mussolini derived the term fascism.

Exhibit 4:
Any society which is authoritarian, elitist, militarist and nationalist fits the characteristics of a fascist state. The Terran Federation as described in Starship Troopers certainly meets that description. As Mussolini himself said, "Anti-individualistic, the fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only insofar as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal will of man as a historic entity." True, Rico is in the military and at war, and so his interests are firmly aligned - by training and indoctrination - along the lines demanded by the Terran Federation. But that continues to hold true should he leave the Mobile Infantry, because only someone who has served is part of the political process.

It's been said that just because Heinlein posits a fascist state in Starship Troopers that doesn't necessarily mean it's his own personal politics. For most novels and novelists, this is certainly true - Robert Harris, for example, wrote Fatherland, set in an Europe in which Germany won WWII, but that doesn't make him a Nazi. But in Fatherland's case, Nazi Europe was the setting for the plot. Starship Troopers is not a story, it's a poorly-disguised lecture. Which suggests to me that Heinlein adheres to the politics described in Starship Troopers.

I have now read Starship Troopers. My opinion on its politics remains unchanged. Paul Verhoeven's film adaptation is greatly superior to the book.