Review: Matter, by Iain M. Banks

matter

Orbit, 2008. ISBN 978-184149-417-3

(Review first published on the ASIM website, December 2007)

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Matter is the latest Culture novel by Scottish SF writer Iain M. Banks, who (under the pseudonym ‘Iain Banks’) also writes non-genre fiction.

Banks’ stories of the Galaxy-dispersed Culture civilisation appear infrequently enough (it’s apparently been an eight-year wait since Look to Windward), and are sufficiently baroque in plot, that I generally retain very little memory of the preceding book by the time I encounter the latest volume. This doesn’t, however, diminish my enjoyment of them. The novels are almost hermetically self-contained, with completely different casts of characters in each book, and little or no direct plot connection between volumes. The features that they do share are, in no particular order: an almost obsessively detailed exercise in worldbuilding; much advanced gadgetry; highly complicated storylines; and, importantly, a broad cast of solidly drawn, highly individual characters, tending generally to divide relatively cleanly into ‘good’, ‘bad’, and ‘neutral’ camps. The end result is a kind of high-end space opera.

Matter concerns the actions of three siblings, thrown into chaos by their father’s murder. Ferbin is the elder surviving son of King Hausk, ruler of Sarl, the eighth layer of the fifteen-layer artificial planet (‘shellworld’) of Sursamen. At the book’s beginning, Hausk’s medieval/steam-age kingdom is at war with the invading army of the Deldeyn, occupants of Sursamen’s ninth level who seek to expand their territory. Ferbin secretly witnesses Hausk’s murder at the hands of the late king’s ostensibly faithful adviser, Tyl Loesp. The people of Sarl are, however, told that Hausk has died in the battle, and Ferbin alongside him. Tyl Loesp declares himself regent, the nominal ruler of Sarl for the next year until Ferbin’s half-brother Oramen, the apparent sole surviving male heir, attains his majority. But the fugitive Ferbin, and Oramen, also have a half-sister Djan Seriy, who for the past fifteen years has been absent from Sursamen, and who is now a fledgling Special Circumstances operative in Culture’s Contact division. It is to Djan Seriy that Ferbin (accompanied by his retainer, Choubris Holse) must ultimately look for assistance in his efforts to claim a crown he doesn’t want, and to protect his younger brother Oramen against tyl Loesp’s undoubtedly deadly but hidden machinations. This interpersonal drama is played out against, and interleaved with, a backdrop of developing Galactic intrigue involving Sursamen’s guardian species and the various races which seek to exert some influence over the shellworld.

Matter bears strong stylistic similarities to Banks’ most recent preceding SF book, the non-Culture novel The Algebraist. Both stories start slowly (though are certainly eventful enough) and build with almost imperceptible gradualness to a tension-filled conclusion. Along the way, there’s ample space for Banks to demonstrate his flair for depicting highly unusual and detailed imagined worlds (and species), and to pepper the narrative with sufficient clues that something seriously untoward is afoot. The slow pace can mean that the books can be somewhat inaccessible – if you’re feeling impatient, Matter can be a frustrating experience – but Banks, I think, knows what he’s doing. Ultimately, like the native North American’s buffalo, everything gets used, everything has its purpose. Nothing is wasted. And, for my money, the final chapters of Matter contain some of the most deliciously evoked action I’ve read in a long time. Banks has that British thing of being able to juxtapose high-peril headlong adventure with a degree of whimsy that could, in other hands, seem inappropriate: the byplay between Djan Seriy and her Culture colleagues, in an action-packed, nearly-certain-death situation, is a hoot. ‘Total panic now mode’, as one character describes it. (And yes, this being a Culture novel, there are, ultimately, the Culture staples: combat drones, knife missiles, and high-end sentient spacecraft with names like ‘Now We Try It My Way’. There’s even what appears to be an updated version of the infamous FYT suit, familiar to readers of Use of Weapons.)

I enjoyed Matter. I think what I most appreciated is that, although Banks takes considerable pains to develop in detail (too much detail, some might say) a picture of the Galaxy as a complicated convolution of coexisting civilisations, Matter is ultimately a novel dominated by personal actions, personal choices. It doesn’t succumb to its own Big Ideas, doesn’t seek to present us with a revolutionary new perspective on the nature of the Universe, it just tells a story. A rather beautiful story, in the end, in my humble opinion.

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(Review by Simon Petrie, 2007)

 

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