Review of “Matter”, by Iain M. Banks

Matter is Iain M. Banks’ last installment in his series of stories set in the Culture universe.  For those who don’t know, the Culture is an extremely advanced, post-scarcity, libertarian communist society of various human-ish worlds (both natural and artificial), “ruled” by super-intelligent machine intelligences.  Sounds fun, huh?  Actually, Banks is of the opinion (and I am inclined to believe) that stories set during normal times in the Culture would be extremely boring, so he focuses on periods of turmoil and war, or of events on the outskirts of the culture, and many of his characters are rejects and misfits in the civilized Galaxy.  Anyway, on to a brief synopsis:

(WARNING: minor spoilers ahead!)

The novel starts out with a battle between 2 early-industrial groups, the Sarl and the Deldeyn, on the Eighth Level of the Shellword Sursamen (more on Shellworlds later).  One of the protagonists, Prince Ferbin, witnesses the murder of his father, King Hausk, by his supposedly loyal advisor Mertis tyl Loesp.  Ferbin manages to remain unoticed, and was thought killed in the battle.  He tries to escape the Eighth with his relucatant servant Holse,  and seek the help of his sister Djan Seriy Anaplian, a member of the shadowy (for an egalitarian utopia) Special Circumstances section of the Culture.  Meanwhile, tyl Loesp becomes the Regent of the Sarl, ruling in the name of Ferbin’s younger brother Oramen, who doesn’t know of tyl Loesp’s regicide or of his brother’s survival.  Tyl Loesp plans to invade the Ninth Level, home of the Deldeyn, with the assitance of the alien Oct, who have plans of their own.  I don’t want to give too much away, but all of these plot lines intersect in the end, with an ancient artifact discovered on the Ninth throwing a kink into everyone’s plans.

Banks interjects a whole lot of thought into his idea of Shellworlds.  They are planet-sized artifacts, built of a nearly indestructable material by a long-extinct species to protect the Galaxy from some ancient threat.  They are now inhabited by various exiled and developing species, who are mentored and protected by the Involved, the high-level civilizations of the Galaxy, including the Culture.  Each Shellworld consists of various levels, hundreds of kilometers from floor to ceiling, supported and linked by enormous towers that reach from the core to the surface.  They are lit by artificial suns, some fixed (“Fixstars”), and some moving in huge tracks across the “sky” (“Rollstars”).  Banks describes them artfully, in his characteristic style, and you can almost imagine yourself there.

Speaking of Bank’s style: for those who aren’t used to it, it can be difficult sometimes to read.  He will often pile on adjective after adjective, and spend a paragraph or a page elaborating a minor detail.  It reminds me, in some ways, of Neal Stephenson’s style.  Many don’t like this, but I happen to be attracted to it.  Often, he does this from the point of view of a single character, and the “rants”, if you will, give you a good view of what the character is thinking and feeling.  Bank’s characterization is top-notch; you can even sympathyze with the alien characters, even if you can’t always understand them.

One thing that I didn’t like about Matter was the seeming abruptness of the ending, after a few hundred pages of events that aren’t really linked to the main story.  Its a minor quibble though, and all-in-all, I would recommend Matter to any fan of literary science fiction at its best.  Fans of New Space Opera authors, such as Vernor Vinge, Alastair Reynolds, and Stephen Baxter, will also like this galaxy-spanning tale.

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~ by wombatron on 02/07/2009.

One Response to “Review of “Matter”, by Iain M. Banks”

  1. It sounds interesting, though I’m not really a fan of Space Opera type science fiction. The type of science fiction I tend to prefer is stuff like what Harlan Ellison does.

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