Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Literary Draughts
Tonics for the Curious Reader
    Book Reviews by Tobias Buckell
May 2008

Matter by Iain M. Banks

Back in high school in the late 90s, I happened to pick up a paperback copy of a book with a funny name: Consider Phlebas. The book began with a man about to die in the (almost quite literally) bowels of a castle in a very disturbing way, but the air of spy thriller combined with Space Opera caught my attention. And that was my first taste of Iain M. Banks's Culture novels. Phlebas remained one of my favorite novels, often reread, for a long while.

Getting a hold of new books, or even an author's backlist in the Caribbean was a tough chore, so I never came across another Culture novel until after college. Even then, being in the rural midwest, it was thanks to Amazon that I started to run down authors I had fond memories of to read their other books in a deliberate fashion. Until then I'd just bumped into various authors through a sort of literary brownian motion. To this day I still remember when I read Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net, William Gibson's Neuromancer, and Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep all in the same week, I don't think I'll quite get a reader's high like that again.

Excession was the next Banks novel I ordered and read, and it didn't quite have the same level of whimsy, adventure, and fun that I'd associated with Consider Phlebas. I left Banks out of my reading list after that, until Matter came out recently and I decided to delve back into Iain Banks's galaxy once more.

And I'm rather glad I did.

For those of you who haven't read a Banks novel yet, the Culture is a loose galactic civilization, comprised of a variety of different species, most humanoid. It is a free-wheeling, incredibly technological, and extraordinarily permissive society. It is mainly by artificial intelligences, including the famous AI minds that are behind massive starships that double as habitats for humans aboard them. These ships are often whimsically named, like The Hundredth Idiot, named after a famous saying that the ship tells one of the novel's main characters about: "One hundred idiots make idiotic plans and carry them out. All but one justly fail. The hundredth idiot, whose plan succeeded through pure luck, is immediately convinced he's a genius."

Matter mainly begins, much as the Walter Jon Williams book Implied Spaces I reviewed last month, in what feels like a medieval setting. Ferbin is the ne'er-do-well son of King Huask, who has set out to rule a vast realm (by his standards) on his world. But Huask is betrayed by Mertis tyl Loesp, his advisor and closest friend. Loesp wants the throne for himself. After Ferbin sees Loesp's assassination of his father, he finds himself on the run through the wild landscape of Sursamen, the world he lives on.

Sursamen is, in classic science fictional terms, a Big Dumb Object. It's a "shellworld," a giant artificial world, and Ferbin lives deep inside one of its layers, of which the world has many (think of those Russian nesting dolls). Deep down in the lowermost layer is an alien denizen that Ferbin's people think of as a god.

In order to save his brother from Loesp's clutches, and in order to save himself, Ferbin doesn't just flee through the wild world of Sursamen, but off the world itself. He's seeking his sister Anaplian, who's been exiled off the planet, and who has become a member of the Culture. In particular, she works for Special Circumstances, the division of the Culture that handles dealing with other species, cultures, first contact situations, wars, and generally adventurous stuff like that. All while the rest of the Culture continues it's carefree lifestyle.

Together Ferbin and Anaplian, as well as other allied forces, end up penetrating the shellworld to find out what alien forces are manipulating their kingdom, and seek to stop them. And that's just a watered down synopsis, one could go on and on, as this is a big, fat Space Opera.

Matter, the title, ends up referring to the philosophy of some of the characters regarding why they should risk their lives and go on adventures when the comforts of the Culture would be safer. And to be honest, the end of Matter might be to some readers a bit of a let down, certainly when compared to the frenetic building up that goes on throughout the entire book. However, the experience of roaming through the sights and characters of Banks's universe more than pays off for any off notes that come about from the end.

In particular, I myself enjoyed Matter so much, it convinced me to reverse my opinion on Banks, and I reordered Consider Phlebas to read again, as well as Use of Weapons, Player of Games, and Feersum Endjinn (not a Culture novel). I must admit, I've thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and am ordering the rest of Banks's backlist for casual reading around the house.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow is well known for his near future tales filled with elements of interest to the plugged likes of Slashdot readers and their online cousins. Combining various bits of otaku (such as his well known infatuation with all things Disney if you follow Boing Boing, the popular blog Cory participates in) with near future speculation and adventure, you have a fantastic cocktail for a current generation of l33tspeak readers. Now Cory has turned that same energy to a young adult novel.

w1n5t0n, or as he's known to adults, Marcus, is seventeen years old, networked out the wazoo and all too clever. He's pulling a Ferris Beuhler, outwitting his school's security system to get out of school and play a popular Alternate Reality Game with some of his friends on the streets of San Francisco.

They end up being on the fringe of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco, and get rounded up by the Department of Homeland Security. After refusing to give up his personal data, Marcus is beaten, kept without food, and his world shaken. When he is let go, one of his friends has gone missing, and Marcus begins to become a radicalized hacker, seeking to fight back against the fear and security pressures coming down on society.

Many are comparing the book to George Orwell's 1984, a comparison that comes easily when the title of the book is, after all, "Little Brother," referencing the famous "Big Brother: of Orwell's famous novel. To be honest, I think I would have to compare it to another Orwell novel, no less famous: Animal Farm. This is in no way to demean Cory's novel, but consider the following. 1984 is a fundamentally a dystopian novel concerning the idea "if this goes onů" Animal Farm, however, is a novel that shows the process of a revolution, with all its good intentions, becoming subverted and corrupted by an elite that take power.

1984 is about the result, Animal Farm is about the process. Likewise, Little Brother is a fictionalization of the process of DHS overreach, of fear changing civilization, and technology being used to destroy your privacy. 1984 is aimed at adults, dark and weary, somewhat oppressive. Animal Farm is cloaked in the guise of a children's fable, but ultimately, it is beloved more by adults. It speaks to adult concerns. Many children don't "get" Animal Farm, it's an interesting tale, but no less or more interesting than Watership Down from a young perspective. But having read it, the child is equipped with knowledge about the process of how equality can be lost.

Likewise, Little Brother is a YA novel, but I think it is going to be a novel less beloved by it's target audience than by the baby boomers who have already blogged up a storm of advance praise as well as spread the word. Like Animal Farm, the book speaks directly to that generation, a generation that values privacy, protest, individuality, and so on. Cory's writing is excellent, and I think many teens will enjoy it, but I don't know if it is the real target audience. I'll be fascinated to see what the two different generation responses are, as I could well be wildly wrong.

And do not forget that Animal Farm is not less an amazing and profound book than 1984, they just illustrate different things.

I imagine things will get interesting if and when certain parents and organizations that work hard to ban Certain Kinds of Books find out that a tech/geek version of the Anarchist's Cookbook is in their school and public libraries. Little Brother contains straight forward examples of how to effect the kinds of hacks to keep your privacy, and fight security. However, due to the minimal sexual content, lack of magic (two things that seem to me to scare the most banners out of the woodwork), and the fact that many won't understand what Cory is doing in terms of presenting technological hacks and ways to fight the networked Man, it might just slip under that kind of radar. Which would be a shame actually, I hope it does get a lot of attention. In many ways Animal Farm and 1984 helped people push against some of the prophecies in those books by showing individuals what the signs were of negative authoritarian traits in government.

Either way, it's a fascinating book, a cracking fast read, full of adventure and fun, little nuggets of usefulness that you may be surprised to find, and I'm betting it's probably going to be one of the more talked about, blogged about, and awarded books of 2008. And justly so.

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