Matter – Iain M. Banks

Banks, Iain M. (2008). Matter. London: Orbit. 2009.

Succede abbastanza spesso, nella mia esperienza: scopri un autore, è amore a prima vista. Leggi un secondo libro, delusione. Mi è successo anche per Banks: The Algebraist mi aveva entusiasmato, questo non mi è dispiaciuto ma l’ho trovato meno bello, meno nuovo, meno ricco. Certo, qualche attenuante c’è: Matter è parte di un ciclo di romanzi, The Culture, che si svolge in un universo futuro in cui convivono civilizzazioni molto più avanzate della nostra provinciale Terra quanto a etica e tecnologia e tutti gli altri possibili tipi e gradi di civiltà umane e aliene. Non è in genere raccomandabile cominciare un ciclo (anche se questo non è propriamente un ciclo) dalla sua ultima puntata (o incarnazione o manifestazione). Ma tant’è, ho trasgredito una regola e, dirà qualcuno, adesso non ho il diritto di lamentarmi.

Naturalmente, la convivenza di civiltà galattiche avanzate e di culture planetarie arretrate è in sé un meccanismo narrativo che offre possibilità combinatorie pressoché infinite e quel vecchio marpione di Banks lo sa, e gioca bene le sue carte e i suoi registri spaziando dalla space opera al conte philosophique con un’onnipresente e gradevole ironia.

È particolarmente interessante che Banks continui – assumendo questa volta un punto di vista quasi diametralmente opposto – la sua riflessione sull’ipotesi di Bostrom (Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?) che la realtà sia una simulazione.

“You know there is a theory,” Hyrlis said quietly, walking amongst the gently glowing coffin-beds, Ferbin and Holse at his rear, the four dark-dressed guards somewhere nearby, unseen, “that all that we experience as reality is just a simulation, a kind of hallucination that has been imposed upon us.”

Ferbin said nothing.

Holse assumed that Hyrlis was addressing them rather than his demons or whatever they were, so said, “We have a sect back home with a roughly similar point of view, sir.”

“It’s a not uncommon position,” Hyrlis said. He nodded at the unconscious bodies all around them. “These sleep, and have dreams inflicted upon them, for various reasons. They will believe, while they dream, that the dream is reality. We know it is not, but how can we know that our own reality is the last, the final one? How do we know there is not a still greater reality external to our own into which we might awake?”

“Still,” Holse said. “What’s a chap to do, eh, sir? Life needs living, no matter what our station in it.”

“It does. But thinking of these things affects how we live that life. There are those who hold that, statistically, we must live in a simulation; the chances are too extreme for this not to be true.

“There are always people who can convince themselves of near enough anything, seems to me, sir,” Holse said.

“I believe them to be wrong in any case,” Hyrlis said.

“You have been thinking on this, I take it then?” asked Ferbin. He meant to sound arch.

“I have, prince,” Hyrlis said, continuing to lead them through the host of sleeping injured. “And I base my argument on morality.”

“Do you now?” Ferbin said. He did not need to affect disdain.

Hyrlis nodded. “If we assume that all we have been told is as real as what we ourselves experience – in other words, that history, with all its torturings, massacres and genocides, is true – then, if it is all somehow under the control of somebody or some thing, must not those running that simulation be monsters? How utterly devoid of decency, pity and compassion would they have to be to allow this to happen, and keep on happening under their explicit control? Because so much of history is precisely this, gentlemen.”

They had approached the edge of the huge space, where slanted, down-looking windows allowed a view of the pocked landscape beneath. Hyrlis swept his arm to indicate both the bodies in their coffin-beds and the patchily glowing land below.

“War, famine, disease, genocide. Death, in a million different forms, often painful and protracted for the poor individual wretches involved. What god would so arrange the universe to predispose its creations to experience such suffering, or be the cause of it in others? What master of simulations or arbitrator of a game would set up the initial conditions to the same piti­less effect? God or programmer, the charge would be the same: that of near-infinitely sadistic cruelty; deliberate, premeditated barbarism on an unspeakably horrific scale. ”

Hyrlis looked expectantly at them. “You see?” he said. “By this reasoning we must, after all, be at the most base level of reality – or at the most exalted, however one wishes to look at it. Just as reality can blithely exhibit the most absurd coinci­dences that no credible fiction could convince us of, so only reality – produced, ultimately, by matter in the raw – can be so unthinkingly cruel. Nothing able to think, nothing able to comprehend culpability, justice or morality could encompass such purposefully invoked savagery without representing the absolute definition of evil. It is that unthinkingness that saves us. And condemns us, too, of course; we are as a result our own moral agents, and there is no escape from that responsibility, no appeal to a higher power that might be said to have artifi­cially constrained or directed us.”

Hyrlis rapped on the clear material separating them from the view of the dark battlefield. “We are information, gentlemen; all living things are. However, we are lucky enough to be encoded in matter itself, not running in some abstracted system as patterns of particles or standing waves of probability.”

Holse had been thinking about this. “Of course, sir, your god could just be a bastard,” he suggested. “Or these simulationeers, if it’s them responsible.”

“That is possible,” Hyrlis said, a smile fading. “Those above and beyond us might indeed be evil personified. But it is a stand­point of some despair.” [pp. 338-340]


The morning after he’d taken them to the great airship full of the wounded, Hyrlis summoned them to a hemispherical chamber perhaps twenty metres in diameter where an enormous map of what looked like nearly half of the planet was displayed, showing what appeared to be a single vast continent punctu­ated by a dozen or so small seas fed by short rivers running from jagged mountain ranges. The map bulged towards the unseen ceiling like a vast balloon lit from inside by hundreds of colours and tens of thousands of tiny glittering symbols, some gathered together in groups large and small, others strung out in speckled lines and yet more scattered individually.

Hyrlis looked down on this vast display from a wide balcony halfway up the wall, talking quietly with a dozen or so uniformed human figures who responded in even more hushed tones. As they murmured away, the map itself changed, rotating and tipping to bring different parts of the landscape to the fore and moving various collections of the glittering symbols about, often developing quite different patterns and then halting while Hyrlis and the other men huddled and conferred, before returning to its earlier configuration.


The display halted, then flickered, showing various end-patterns in succession. Hyrlis shook his head and waved one arm. The great round map flicked back to its starting state again and there was much sighing and stretching amongst the uniformed advisers or generals clustered around him.

Holse nodded at the map. “All this, sir. Is it a game?”

Hyrlis smiled, still looking at the great glowing bubble of the display. “Yes,” he said. “It’s all a game.”

“Does it start from what you might call reality, though?” Holse asked, stepping close to the balcony’s edge, obviously fascinated, his face lit by the great glowing hemisphere. Ferbin said nothing. He had given up trying to get his servant to be more discreet.

“From what we call reality, as far as we know it, yes,” Hyrlis said. He turned to look at Holse. “Then we use it to try out possible dispositions, promising strategies and various tactics, looking for those that offer the best results, assuming the enemy acts and reacts as we predict.”

“And will they be doing the same thing as regards you?”


“Might you not simply play the game against each other then, sir?” Holse suggested cheerily. “Dispensing with all the actual slaughtering and maiming and destruction and desolating and such like? Like in the old days, when two great armies met and, counting themselves about equal, called up champions, one from each, their individual combat counting by earlier agreement as determining the whole result, so sending many a frightened soldier safely back to his farm and loved ones.”

Hyrlis laughed. The sound was obviously as startling and unusual to the generals and advisers on the balcony as it was to Ferbin and Holse. “I’d play if they would!” Hyrlis said. “And accept the verdict gladly regardless.” He smiled at Ferbin, then to Holse said, “But no matter whether we are all in a still greater game, this one here before us is at a cruder grain than that which it models. Entire battles, and sometimes therefore wars, can hinge on a jammed gun, a failed battery, a single shell being dud or an individual soldier suddenly turning and running, or throwing himself on a grenade.”

Hyrlis shook his head. “That cannot be fully modelled, not reliably, not consistently. That you need to play out in reality, or the most detailed simulation you have available, which is effectively the same thing.”

Holse smiled sadly. “Matter, eh, sir?”

“Matter.” Hyrlis nodded. “And anyway, where would be the fun in just playing a game? Our hosts could do that themselves. No. They need us to play out the greater result. Nothing élse will do. We ought to feel privileged to be so valuable, so irre­placeable. We may all be mere particles, but we are each fundamental!” [pp. 346-348]


A strange thing had happened to Choubris Holse. He had become interested in what was, if he understood such matters rightly, not a million strides away from being philos­ophy. Given Ferbin’s unrestrainedly expressed views on that subject, this felt tantamount to treason.

It had started with the games that they had both been playing on the Nariscene ship Hence the Fortress to pass the time […].

There were even more realistically fashioned diversions available, games in which you really did seem to be awake and moving physically around, talking and walking and fighting and everything else (though not peeing or shitting – Holse had felt he had to ask), but those sounded daunting and overly alien to both men, as well as unpleasantly close to some of the disturbing stuff Xide Hyrlis had been bending their ears about back on the disputed, burned husk that was Bulthmaas.

The ship had advised them on which games they would find most rewarding and they’d ended up playing those whose pretended worlds were not all that different from the real one they’d left behind on Sursamen; war games of strategy and tactics, connivance and daring.


Which was how he came to be interested in the idea that all reality might indeed be a game, most specifically as this concept related to the Infinite Worlds theory, which held that all possible things had already happened, or were happening now, all together.

This alleged that life was very like a game or simulation where every possible course and outcome has already been played out, noted down and drawn up, as though on an enormous map, with the beginning of the game – before a piece has been moved or a move has been made – in the centre, and every single possible end state arranged along the outer fringe of this implau­sibly stupendous chart. By this comparison, all that one does in mapping out the course of one particular game is trace a path from that central Beginning of things out through more and more branches, chances and possibilities, to one of the near infinitude of Ends at the periphery.

And there you were; the further likeness being drawn here, unless Holse had it completely arse-before-cock, was that which held; As Game, So Life. And indeed, As Game, So Entire History Of Whole Universe, Bar Nothing And Nobody.

Everything had already happened, and in every single possible way, too. Not only had everything that had already happened happened, everything that was going to happen had already happened. And not only that: everything that was going to happen had already happened in every single possible way that it possibly could.

So if, say, he played a game of cards with Ferbin, for money, then there was a course, a line, a way through this already written, previously happened universe of possibilities which led to the outcome that involved him losing everything to Ferbin, or Ferbin losing everything to him, including Ferbin suffering a fit of madness and betting and losing his entire fortune and inheritance to his servant – ha! There were universe-lines where he’d kill Ferbin over the disputed card game, and others wherein Ferbin would kill him; indeed there were tracks that led to everything that could be imagined, and everything that would never be imagined by anybody but was still somehow possible.

It seemed at first glance like utter madness, yet it also, when one thought about it, appeared somehow no less implausible than any other explanation of how things truly were, and it had a sort of completeness about it that stifled argument. Assuming that every branching fork on the universe map was taken randomly, all would still somehow be well; the likely things would always outnumber the unlikely and vastly outnumber the ludicrous, so as a rule things would happen much as one expected, with the occasional surprise and the very rare moment of utter incredulity.

Pretty much as life generally was, in other words, in his expe­rience. This was at once oddly satisfactory, mildly disappointing and strangely reassuring to Holse; fate was as fate was, and that was it.

He immediately wondered how you could cheat. [pp. 385-387]

OK, scusate le lunghe citazioni, ma mi sembra di avervi dato così un’idea del sottofondo filosofico del libro (altro che Matrix!), della maestria e dell’ironia di Banks (Choubris Holse è il personaggio più simpatico del libro, un geniale Sancho Panza interstellare) e, per soprammercato, del perché il romanzo sia intitolato Matter.

Chiudo, giusto per divertimento, con due fulminanti dialoghi.

“That is absurd,” he said.
“Nevertheless,” Hyrlis said casually […] [p. 345]

“You blush? Do you blush? Can you? […]”
“[…] Of course I blush not. I translate. I speak to you and in your idiom […]. All is translation. How could it be otherwise?” [p. 514]

Pubblicato su Recensioni. 1 Comment »