Matter by Iain M. Banks
Published by Orbit UK and US
Published February 2008
585 pages (ARC); 593 pages (Hardback) (ARC copy received for review.)
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
Douglas Adams, writer of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, once wrote ‘Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.’
I was reminded of this on receiving the mighty tome that is Iain (M) Banks return for the first time in eight years to the Culture, the universe that made Iain his SF name.
For Matter (the book) is big. Really big. 20 000 + words of bigness, nearly 600 pages of text that make it the biggest Culture book to date, and for many fans a major return to a much missed place. Although Banks’s last SF novel in 2004, The Algebraist, was well received, I do remember a number of comments that went, ‘Well, it’s good, if a bit long – but it’s not The Culture.’
So, with that in mind, we herald Iain’s return to SF Culture: bigger, denser, heavier. Was it worth it?
For those new to this, perhaps I should explain the Culture a little before getting into it. For (going back to my earlier point), the Culture is also really big. Putting it simply, the Culture is a universe populated by a group of loosely connected alien species who monitor and uplift other less enlightened worlds. The Culture is a haven where society is organised with unlimited comforts, seemingly-boundless technology, has little or no need for money, and death and illness have been pretty much eradicated.
From a writing perspective, such a creation allows the author almost unlimited opportunities: the chance to write about different peoples and societies, to examine the interactions of such a large and complex society, especially in those places that don’t quite meet the utopia that the above description might suggest. In Iain’s worlds there are opposing factions, wars, unrest and political agendas a-plenty. Talking genres, such a broad canvas allows the writer to mix SF tropes – AI spaceships, antigravity, planet-sized weaponry – with elements that are Fantasy – battles on horseback, pistols, swords, Kings and Princes. Clearly, this can be a lot of fun.
In Matter such aspects are taken on with great enthusiasm. The book mainly deals with events on the Shellworld of Sursamen. (Shellworlds are mysterious artificial world-sized artefacts composed of fourteen layers, each of which has its own characteristics and has a Xinthian World-God living at its core, for reasons unknown. The Appendix at the back of the book gives some more details.)
The book begins on levels eight and nine of Sursamen, with a battle between the Sarl (people on the eighth level) and the Deldeyn (on the ninth.)
In this violent battle, King Hausk of the victorious Sarl is killed, not by the enemy but by his previously trusted friend and advisor, Mertis tyl Loesp.
This is secretly witnessed by Prince Ferbin, who, once having also been conveniently ‘killed in battle’, goes into hiding and resolves to act revenge on tyl Losep, with the help of his exiled sister, Djan Seriy Anaplian, once a Princess of the Sarl, now a highly trained super-spy and key agent for the Culture’s Special Circumstances organisation (a secret espionage group.) To gain support for his cause, Ferbin has to leave Sursamen to find his sister. At the same time, Ferbin’s younger brother, Oramen, is made Prince Regent, but really is under the close tutelage (not to mention capture) of tyl Loesp.
Thus we have the main revenge motif set up, though it would be unfair to call it simply a revenge novel. The Culture is drawn into the events on Sursamen, which initially look to be small-scale but soon become something more.
In another story strand, archaeological digs on the planet uncover the Nameless City, evidence of an advanced civilisation from aeons previous. Once buried, now slowly being uncovered by the erosive powers of a gigantic waterfall, here mysteries of the past are evidence that the Culture may have more interest here than first expected.
As with many of Iain’s books, there are layers within layers, and nothing is as simple as it may appear. (This is a motif further reflected not only in the layers of Sursamen visited, but also in the frozen architecture of the Nameless City.) The book also deals with (as many of the Culture books do) the issues of interaction between the enlightened aliens and the peoples of Sursamen. There are amusing comments on God-like aliens, AI spaceships and societal moirés, as well as the ‘bigger stuff ‘of which space opera depends.
As with any of Iain’s books to date, in Matter he deals with the material with wit and intelligence, as well as his trademark complexity and violence. It does manage to mix genres with aplomb, and there are some pleasingly jarring cultural moments when aliens intermix.
We also have the Banksian trademark of strong female characters, this time at the expense of weaker, less experienced brothers. For fans of Banks, this should not be something unusual; one of the Cultures themes is the use of strong female characters working in the shadows of the Culture in order to ensure the continued positivism of the Culture through means less pleasant. Unlike many clichés of the genre, here it is Anaplian, no longer a princess, who is the wise experienced one, who takes the actions in a predominantly male-centred world (admittedly whilst using a range of awesome technology), whilst Prince Ferbin can only follow.
If I had to pick fault, I think that as good as the book is, it is a long book, and for some it may feel a little too long for its own good. There was a lot of setting up here in the first part of the book and the Grand-Tour-style otherworld visiting that occurs, whilst fun, slowed down the narrative pace significantly.
Consequently at times there was a feeling of middle-age spread in places, which for me meant that in the middle of the book some moments became pedestrian – so much so that, surprisingly, I had to keep forcing myself to read the book. However, the last two-hundred pages or so really whizzed by, and at the end (with a typically Banks-style epilogue) I was sad to see it finish.
And at the end, its consequences are big. The events which unfold are limited to Sursamen but, as in the best space opera, have major galactic (and therefore Cultural) consequences, which fans of the series may get.
In summary, the book shows Banks’ clear skills as an SF writer and many of the trademarks much beloved by Banks’ fans. It clearly, despite my minor gripes, does not suck.
Was it worth it? Yes.
Consequently, for many the reappearance of the Culture will be a much-welcomed return. I suspect that, despite its release early in the year, this one will be high on many best-of lists by the end of 2008.
Extract from Matter here: http://www.orbitbooks.net/matter-extract
Mark Yon / Hobbit
December 2007 / January 2008
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