This book review of Matter by Iain M. Banks was written in 2008 for the British Science Fiction Association‘s magazine, Vector.
Orbit, 2008, Hardback, 593pp, £18.99, ISBN 978 184149 417 3
Is it really the first Culture novel for seven years? Where does the time go?
While 2004’s The Algebraist was full of the verve and invention that we nowadays simply expect by right from Banks’ science fiction, somehow the absence of the Culture also left it lacking the ideological thrill – the politics of utopia, as it were – that gives a Banks’ novel its heart. Hence the cover of my preview copy simply says, ‘The Culture is back. Nothing else matters.‘ A statement I didn’t entirely disagree with (to the disgust of my wife). But to what, I wondered, does the cryptic title refer? What definition of ‘matter’?
Only one thing is certain: this is a Banks’ book, so it could be any or all of them.
Matter begins on Sursamen, a Shellworld, a gigantic Russian Doll of a world, built eons ago by an inscrutable and extinct race for an unknown purpose. There are thousands scattered across the galaxy (although there used to be many more), most of which are inhabited by a glorious multitude of different races. Levels eight and nine respectively of Sursamen happen to be the home of the Sarl and the Deldeyn, human-like species both undergoing their equivalent of the industrial revolution, and both at war with each other.
At the moment of his greatest triumph, Hausk, king of Sarl, is murdered by his closest advisor and we thenceforth follow his surviving offspring: foppish heir to the throne Ferbin, on the run having borne secret witness to his father’s ultimate betrayal; bookish Oramen, heir apparent to the now-vacant throne of Sarl; and finally, absent Djan. Given by her father to the Culture some years ago, she has not merely been given citizenship of the Culture, but has become a member of Special Circumstances (or SC), its shadowy secret service.
Meanwhile, Ferbin sets out on a mighty journey to enlist his sister’s help in avenging their father, although Djan is already returning to Sursamen for reasons of her own, and both hope to save their naïve younger brother, who is in terrible danger from his father’s killers.
The Culture can’t intervene directly on Sursamen for various diplomatic reasons, so their possessing an SC agent is perhaps fortuitous – as much as anything is ever fortuitous in the Culture (I’m thinking of the Sleeper Service and its deep deep cover mission in Excession, which is pointedly recalled here).
Most of Matter follows characters to whom the Culture and other such advanced civilisations are distant legends, so we’re very much down and dirty with the locals.
Readers hoping to be thrust once more into the Aladdin’s cave of the Culture per se may be disappointed; this isn’t another Inversions, but rather somewhere in-between. While there are wonders by the score, interesting characters aplenty and even a few amusing ship names thrown in for old times’ sake, Matter feels like something of a marginal Culture novel, serving mainly to give us a better idea of the Culture’s place and standing in the galactic hierarchy. The story (and especially the ending) feels a bit tenuous. All the various threads work well enough on their own, and the set-pieces, as always, are awe-inspiring, but the story doesn’t pull together into a satisfying whole: simply having everyone blunder entertainingly about, incidentally visiting some marvellous places, does not a great novel make, I’m afraid.
In fact, I think there are two novels wrestling each other here – with the one featuring the Culture coming off least well. You have to ask, if the Culture wasn’t here would it make a very great difference to matters, and the answer is ‘only to its fans’ (of which I’m definitely one). There’s also some frankly lazy infodumping – fascinating info, I grant you, about which I hesitate to complain because Banks’ infodumps have in the past changed the way I think about science fiction as a genre – but info is being dumped upon you, and no mistake.
So, a slight disappointment then; but a slightly disappointing Culture novel is still a standard that many other writers should aspire to. Matter is a cracking read on its own, just not a great addition to the Culture canon, adding little to our understanding of everyone’s favourite post-scarcity wish-fulfillment civilisation.
And what ‘matter’ do I finally think Mr Banks is referring to? I rather suspect it to be a little joke: that even the stupendous Minds of the Culture still depend upon matter as a stratum for their thought processes, so that, ahem, matter matters.