Saturday, February 23, 2008

"It was Arithmetic, it was Mottled, it was Disputed"

How can you resist a novel that contains the sequence of words "She left in an all-species pod taxi"?!?

At any rate, I was in need of some high-quality light reading (I sent out the final revisions of my academic book manuscript on Monday), and really there seemed nothing so suited to requirements as Iain M. Banks' new Culture novel, Matter...

I'm a longtime Banks devotee (here are some back Light Reading posts), though with a preference for his non-"M." novels (the science fiction ones are published as Iain M. Banks, the others just Iain Banks). I think my couple favorites (though of course The Wasp Factory and Crow Road are the classics...laziness is making me only post in a single Banks Amazon link rather than separate ones for each book) are Whit and The Business, with Canal Dreams and Complicity also particularly to my taste--but really you can't go wrong, his last couple have been very enjoyable also.

(I have said it before, but one thing I like about Banks' writing is that his characters seem to live in a world and experience it in a way that is recognizably familiar to me! Not, of course, that I am floating around in tanks with spiniform creatures, or arming myself with high-tech weaponry, or indeed working for a mysterious global business enterprise--but his female characters in particular just seem to think about things and make decisions in a way that makes sense to me...)

This one's a very enjoyable read. The writing is extraordinarily lively and vivid in the places where we're really just getting descriptive context on the interplanetary world of the Culture, those are the most fun parts (it's perhaps a bit long in terms of the sub-Shakespearean faux-medieval-with-comic-sidekicks planetary scheming?!?), but it builds to a really excellent conclusion, a great fast stretch at the end that I raced through with considerable enjoyment.

I am especially pleased to report that there's a very good swimming scene in the middle! Which I believe I will transcribe for your reading enjoyment...

(And first I must also quote again the lovely sentence Steven Poole mentioned in his Guardian review and which was frankly the thing that made me know I had to read this book. Poole: "You can watch the prose clicking into a kind of rapturous hard-sf overdrive as Banks begins to describe [the planet]: 'Sursamen collected adjectives the way ordinary planets collected moons. It was Arithmetic, it was Mottled, it was Disputed, it was Multiply Inhabited, it was Multi-million-year Safe, and it was Godded.'" Mmmmm....)

Forthwith, swimming-related...
As on most Morthanveld ships, the water was generally kept as clean as desirable by fixed and static scrubbing units; nevertheless, the fact was that the bait species and accrescent flora the Morthanveld liked to feed on needed water with nutrients in it, and the Morthanveld themselves regarded having to visit some special place to relieve oneself of waste as the mark of a species insufficiently at home with itself. Or gas-breathing, which was almost as embarrassing.

The water they lived, swam, worked and played within, then, was not perfectly unclouded. However, it was always plasant to have a clear view, especially in such a vast space.

The Morthanveld very much approved of themselves, and the larger the numbers of their kind there were present, the more self-approval they felt. Being able to see the hundreds of millions of their fellows a Great Ship normally carried was generally regarded as an extremely good thing, so rather than rely on their naked eyes to see their way round a space as vast as that of a Great Ship's interior, they used thin-film screens covering their eyes to present them with the view they'd be able to see had the water been perfectly clear.

Djan Seriy had decided to adopt the same strategy and so swam with a modified thin-film screen over her own eyes. She moved through the water in a dark suit like a second skin. Around her neck was what looked like a necklace made of fluttering green fronds; a gill arrangement that provided oxygen to her nose through two small transparent tubes. This was somewhat ignominious to her, as with her old upgrades her skin would have ridged and puckered over whatever area was required to absorb the gases she needed straight out of the water.

The thin-film screen was stuck across her eyes like a flimsy transparent bandage. She had switched off her blink reflex; the alternative was to let the screen bulge out far enough for her to blink normally, but the air-gap introduced unwanted distortions. The screen provided her with the virtual view of the real space, showing the cavernous semi-spherical spaces of the Great Ship like some staggeringly vast cave system.

She could have patched directly into the ship's internal sensory view to achieve the same effect, or just swum with her own senses and not bothered with the greater, seemingly clear view, but she was being polite; using the thin-film screen meant that the ship could keep an eye on her, seeing, no doubt, what she could see, and so knowing that she wasn't getting into any Special Circumstances-style mischief.


Djan Seriy powered up and to the left to avoid a fore-current, found a helpful aft-current, curved round a set of long, bulbous habitats like enormous dangling fruits and then struck out towards a tall bunch of green-black spheres each between ten and thirty metres across, hanging in the water like a colossal strand of seaweed. She switched off the prop unit and swam into one of the larger spheres through a silvery circle a couple of metres across and let the draining water lower her to the soft, wet floor. Gravity again. She was spending more time aquatic than not, even including sleeping, as she explored the huge space vessel. This was her fifth day aboard and she only had another four to go. There was still much to see.

Her suit, until now coating her body as closely as paint, promptly frizzed up, forcing the water to slide off and letting it assume the look of something a fashionable young lady would choose to wear in an air-breathing environment. She stuffed her necklace gill into a pocket and -- as the suit's head-part flowed downward to form an attractive frilled collar -- flicked one earing to activate a temporary static field. This sorted her hair, which was, today, blonde. She kept the thin-film screen on. She thought it looked rather good on her; vaguely piratical.

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