|Tonics for the Curious Reader|
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
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.