Iain M. Banks


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

March 14, 2010

atter is a novel set in Iain M Banks far future "Culture" universe, and that is a good thing. This is the eighth(?) book in a series of loosely related novels that describe a distant future in which humanity has advanced to such a technological state of sophistication that citizens can freely tour the galaxy; they are practically immortal, they are free of material wants, and can freely modify the form of the body that they inhabit. Enormously powerful Artifical Intelligences called Minds control the civilization and keep the peace. The galaxy is an enormous stage, and Banks has the imagination to populate it with wonders.

Indeed, Matter is mostly a travelogue. Much of the first 400 pages (of this 600 page novel) describe the journeys of Ferbin, a prince of Sarl; parallel chapters detail the journeys of his sister Djan Seriy Anaplian. Ferbin is on the run from a treacherous usurper; he is fleeing from a battlefield where he witnessed traitors murder his father, the King. The kingdom of Sarl is on the eighth layer of a "shellworld" - this is one of Banks marvelous "Big Dumb Objects", akin to Larry Niven's Ringworld or the Dyson Sphere in Fredrick Pohl's "Farthest Star". The humans that populate the Eighth level of the shellworld have only primitive technology, roughly 19th century industrialized Europe. So when Ferbin and his servant Choubris Holse flee the assassins, we get a tour of wonderous technology seen through their uncomprehending eyes. There are vast landmasses, weird aliens, and engineering projects of mind-boggling size. Banks does a great job with inventing unique but believable aliens.

Meanwhile, Djan Seriy Anaplian has heard about the death of her father, so she is returning to the shellworld and the kingdom of Sarl to pay her respects (she doesn't know yet about the treachery). Djan was exiled long ago from Sarl and now works as a special agent for the Culture. Since Djan has completely adapted to the Culture civilization, her trip back to the shellworld is seen through eyes that understand and interact completely with the aliens and technology. This traveling back and forth doesn't really advance the plot much, but because of Banks inventiveness, it is still a great read. (At the end of the book is a short interview with Banks, in which Banks mentions that he may stop writing science fiction because he is running out of ideas. The huge number of clever aliens and civilizations inside Matter certainly show that Banks still has a lot of creative mileage left, I hope that he continues to produce more SF books.)

Djan Seriy Anaplian and Ferbin have another brother, young Prince Oramen, who remains in Sarl. Oramen does not realize that his father, the King, was murdered by the conspirators. Nor does he know that his brother Ferbin is alive, because the official word is that Ferbin perished on the battlefield. The main plot moves forward in these sections, with Oramen in unwitting danger from assassins. Oramen's story tells of a fantastic waterfall, the Hyeng-zhar falls, on the ninth level of the shell world. This monstrous cataract has been rapidly eroding the old soil of the Ninth level, and uncovers an ancient city. The ancient city may contain technology from long forgotten alien species; suddenly the activity on the shellworld is of interest to many more beings that just the primitive humans of the Ninth and Eight levels.

My biggest disappointment with Matter is how abruptly it ends. It takes 600 pages to get to the climax of the story, couldn't Banks have fleshed out more about the Oct and Xinthian? I enjoy the tour guide portion of the book, but I don't want it to come at the expense of the major battles. The other thing I don't like is the foolish names that Banks continues to assign to the Culture Spaceships. I realize he is trapped in this tradition now that it is established, but it seems too silly to me.

Banks writes some of the best space opera - I love his galatic scope and endless inventiveness. His Culture civilization is a wonderfully fun place to visit. Matter was a good book that I enjoyed reading.