Book 8) Matter – This is one of the denser books within the series, but if you’re looking for something that scratches a deep itch, Matter will definitely do the trick. It starts off in the middle of a medieval revolution on a shell world. Shell worlds are ancient megastructures built by a long-dead civilization that contain several worlds and environments within them, like a matryoshka doll. The first one hundred and fifty pages are admittedly an information dump. But it feels deliberate, catching the reader up on the situation at hand. Right as the reader starts to feel comfortable, the perspective switches and the reader has to adapt again. Banks uses this tactic again and again throughout the story, muddying the water of the conflict at hand.
In all honesty, it’s not even worth it to give a plot summary for this book beyond the basic setup. Pages and pages can be devoted to explaining this story and diving into the different character motivations and still you’d ask us, “what the hell is going on?” But as I mentioned previously, that’s sort of the point. Banks wrote an incredibly complex situation, nested within three to five other complex situations. Each is given its due treatment within the book as new characters are introduced at shorter and shorter intervals. As the plot intertwines and accelerates, characters have to make faster and faster decisions while the reader is provided with less context and less information. The plot development approaches lightspeed as it nears the climax, making it harder for the reader to keep track of what’s going on. It’s cleverly handled, giving the readers a taste of what the characters must be feeling and dealing with.
But also on the other hand, there is somewhat of a paradox; while the reader is pushed further and further away from the story, the characters themselves have stronger and stronger ties to what actually might be happening. They are able to intuit some of the situations as they soak up more absurd context as information is shoved down their throats.
Ultimately, it feels like Banks is questioning the nature of information itself within the story, probing the reader and his characters with the question, “when does one have enough information to make a decision?” Banks frames the question well through switching between his different characters, highlighting their individual goals and biases while having the different threads question and counteract each other. As the story continues, further and further context is provided to the characters, hitting again and again upon the idea of choice paralysis. The pacing only sharpens this focus as a ticking clock is added in order to force the characters down whichever routes they end up following. It’s a beautifully crafted story that solidifies this conundrum in a heartbreaking climax.
I feel the less that is said about Matter, the better. It may not be your cup of tea, but it certainly is mine. The core theme is so well realized through the entirety of the book it’s impossible not to admire, even if you end up being less than entertained by it.
Book 9) Surface Detail – Surface Detail closely examines the ideas behind religion, both in the universe of the Culture and our own world. For full disclosure, Banks was a known atheist, but I think he actually evaluates the power and meaning of religion in good faith. But, the pivotal idea behind Surface Detail is the examination of the nature of punishment: how it defines us and how it changes us. The book explores this by waging a war with hell.
Surface Detail introduces us to a new division of the Culture – Quietus – who deal with the dead of various civilizations. In this galaxy, the dead are never quite dead. Numerous alien civilizations, through the use of powerful technology, have created/designed afterlives for their societies. Many of these societies have created virtual paradises for their citizens that can fulfill their every desire. But a larger subset have also created hells to eternally punish their members that have been deemed unfitting in life. Since morality isn’t fixed, the idea that some people are punished for all of time based on rationality they don’t subscribe to upsets the Culture. So they decide to cancel hell.
As previously noted, Banks is particularly adept at exploring the nature of pain. Detail is no different, but instead, Banks chooses to focus more so on the nature of punishment and how that pain relates to one’s place in the world. The Culture is at war with Hell, and through the eyes of several characters, Banks paints an intimate portrait of how one becomes who they are through the hell they go through. The different perspectives shed light on how some can gain salvation through punishment, while others gain purpose. Specifically, there are two characters I find most interesting in this book, Chay and Vatueil.
Chay is a member of a species that uses Hell to control the behavior of its citizens. She ventures into hell with her partner Prin and ends up getting stuck within hell as her partner escapes. She is tortured and brutalized in the ways that many of Hell’s inhabitants are. However, in a sick reversal of fortune, she is given a little of her sanity back and tasked with being an Angel of Mercy, offering salvation to one soul a day, by killing them in Hell. What makes her story interesting is how little she relishes the task at hand, seeing it as a duty eventually losing her identity to the task. She is consumed by the endless suffering, able to affect the smallest bit of change, one person at a time. While she is painted as sympathetic, her efforts feel meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
Meanwhile, Vauteil is a soldier in the war against Hell. He has died over and over again, in the pursuit of destroying Hell. He explores every avenue available to him, probing at weaknesses in the walls, dying in the process. Eventually, he determines he has to cheat at the war in order to win. How he cheats I will leave as a mystery, but he serves as an excellent foil to Chay, and really highlights the struggles different people go through in combating overwhelming suffering. Vatueil serves as an excellent example of how sometimes you have to break the rules in order to provide a better world to those who are in agony.
Religion is a major focus here, as many different societies have different concepts of Hell, and who deserves to be sent to Hell. Through the power of technology, these societies have created virtual hells wherein the consciousnesses of their dead citizens are uploaded to eternal damnation. Heaven exists too, but it takes a backseat as the overwhelming majority of the galaxy’s dead live in perpetual suffering.
Belief is also a heavily examined theme in Surface Detail, from a number of angles. There is belief from the viewpoint of religion, with its obvious strengths and criticisms, but there is also an examination of belief and its effect on reality as a whole. The afterlives are simulated, and theoretically not real. What grants the Hells power over their charges is the belief that the victims instill in them. Banks examines how people’s beliefs greatly change the lens through which people view the world, and how two people with different beliefs can experience the same event differently.
Book 10) The Hydrogen Sonata – The Hydrogen Sonata was written by someone who knew they weren’t long for this world. For those of you that don’t know, Banks sadly died of cancer in 2013. The Hydrogen Sonata was one of the last books he wrote (there was one additional non-Culture story afterward), and his impending death definitely had a very heavy effect on the text, in a surprisingly beautiful way. Many of the Culture’s books deal with the subject of death, but none as closely as The Hydrogen Sonata. It’s a book about the meaning of life, the meaning of death, and what you do with both.
The Gzilt civilization is on the verge of Sublimation (ascension to a higher level of existence), leaving their vaunted technology to competing civilizations. The Culture is in town to bid the Gzilt goodbye and facilitate the transfer of their infrastructure to the other civilizations, who are circling the body like vultures. Meanwhile, Vyr Cossont, a member of the Gzilt, is struggling with the choice to Sublime and has been dedicating her life to playing the Hydrogen Sonata, a complex musical piece that requires a specific instrument, that she had to grow two extra arms to play. During her studies, she is contacted by the Culture to look into an important lost secret of the Gzilt. She, unfortunately, knows the type of folk who would know how to find such a secret, and the Minds are ever so curious.
As mentioned before, Sonata spends a lot of time examining the idea of purpose. The characters are approaching the end of their time in the physical world, and there are a plethora of reactions to how people want to spend it. Most want to spend their final days partying, as they feel there is little purpose in doing anything meaningful. Why would you spend effort doing anything when you are about to move to a higher plane of existence? However, a select few like Vyr find themselves making their own meaning and purpose and the pursuit of creation. Banks shows that creation is a struggle, but that regardless of what is made in the process it is wondrous because we have struggled to make it.
Another major theme of the book is the nature of origins, and how they do and don’t define us. Sonata posits that we cannot escape being marked and molded by our origins, it is simply a part of how life unfolds. But, the book also shows that we are always more than where we come from. We get to choose how much the place we start influences where we end. Destiny, to a degree, is a choice that a person is constantly making. They are free to reinterpret the direction of their life as they see fit.
Death is something that I have always struggled with as a person. The idea of dying, and that being the end of your journey, terrifies me. What is just wondrous about Sonata, is that there are characters who choose not to go on to the next stage of life. They want their time in the material/mortal world to be their only time, and they want to spend it on the pursuit of creativity, art, and personal experience. The way Banks shows the marvel of this sentiment brought me to a state of zen tranquility and has helped me deal with my own mortality in the last year.
While these ideas are thoroughly explored throughout the vastness of science fiction, Banks is incredibly good at distilling them into a single book. It helps that some of them have been addressed in previous iterations of The Culture, but Sonata brings them into sharp relief within the hurricane of a plotline. Each character is filled with a distinct purpose within the story, but they’re also alive as if their purpose was a choice, not a heavenly decree. Their dialogues highlight specific grand ideas but also deal with their individual struggle with answering those big questions. The backdrop of upstart civilizations vying for contractual control of left behind technologies serves incredibly well, even though it’s not the main focus of the story. It adds a myriad of flavors to the more personal character stories, enriching and deepening their discussions, and adding meaning to their struggles. Banks is amazing at sharpening his themes through each individual book, building each to a deafening crescendo before cutting the speakers. Sonata is the grand masterpiece that echoes through the hall, even in its absence, leaving one with an experience that will forever reverberate through every interaction.