Matter by Iain M Banks

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Matter by Iain M Banks

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A tale of galactic intrigue and Special Circumstances action with a panache and in a style that confirms the author's place at the very pinnacle of his genre. The characters are particularly well done: humane, interesting, and naturally developing throughout. The last part is weaker & the conclusions bit rushed, but still very much recommended to all fans.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 656 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-1841494197

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A king of Sarl dies - seemingly in battle, but really by the hand of his right-hand man and friend. On of his sons runs away with his trusty servant to seek help from the representatives of civilisations so advanced that they are practically gods. A Special Circumstances agent, once the unruly princess and daughter of the king, on learning of his demise decides to get de-fanged and go back to a world which she thought she had left for good. The other son, for now Prince Regent, dodges several assassination attempts while personally supervising the discovery of a mysterious, unimaginably ancient and seemingly sentient artefact. Two of the most advanced civilisations in the Galaxy, the Morthanveld and The Culture, dance round each other trying to figure out why exactly one of the client cultures of Morthanveld created a phantom fleet of warships.

And all of the action seems to concentrate and point to the strange and fascinating artificial world of Sursamen, a so called Shellworld, a sphere comprising 14 levels of various habitats layered above a core inhabited by a creature called a WorldGod.

As usual, Banks spins his tale of galactic intrigue and Special Circumstances action with a panache and in a style that confirms his place at the very pinnacle of his genre. The characters are particularly well done this time, humane, interesting, and noticeably and naturally developing throughout the novel.

A lot of the action takes place in a primitive world of Sarl, living a quasi-feudal existence on one of the levels of Sursamen: and presents a convincing picture of how such a culture could function in a world where the most advanced civilisations attained practical immortality, faster than light travel and developed AI so advanced that spacesuits and missiles are technically more intelligent than humans.

With all its shameless space-operatic paraphernalia, socially it's a much more realistic picture and I couldn't stop making analogies to our own small world in which the technological distance between some of the poorest indigenous people in the world and the richest citizens of the most developed countries presents a similar contrast. But then, most of the sf is about here and now anyway.

The title hints at the philosophical implications touching on the basic onthology of the whole world, while the big moral themes of intervention, independence and what exactly it means to be a god (or a godlike civilisation) recurring in all Culture/Special Circumstances novels surface quite a few times, especially in the middle part of the Matter, providing, in passing, one of the best if perverse anti-solipsist (and, incidentally, anti-theist) arguments I have encountered in popular fiction.

All of that somehow, and not entirely beneficially, disappears in the action mayhem of the last third. I had a feeling that the last part of the novel was the weakest, with Banks somehow rushing to the resolution of the plot and thus losing some of the intellectual momentum of the earlier sections. The denouement, although of literally world shattering proportions , somehow lacked the convoluted sophistication I expected, while a lot of interesting things that could have been shown were not (and some that could have been safely missed were presented). But the ending is great, bringing to the reader a suitable surfeit of pan-galactic compassion in the face of yearning, longing and loss. Despite the demise of a significant proportion of the major characters, it's entirely satisfactory and not particularly depressing.

The spectacular imagination doesn't fail the author, and there is enough material in the Sursamen alone, never mind the whole concept of the Shellworlds, for 5 novels by lesser writers. Less usually, there is quite a lot of explaining in Matter - more than I have seen before in Iain M. Banks's novels, and although the tale becomes easier to understand thanks to those little lectures at the beginning, it also loses the suspense of uncertainty, so characteristic of the best Banksian space operas (and mainstream novels too). There are, also, occasionally, a few at least rather wordy paragraphs which could have been safely excised.

Still, a pretty riveting read, and a god reward for a long wait for the new Culture novel.

Thanks to the good people at Orbit for sending a copy to the Bookbag. We also have a review of The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks.

Those looking for a space opera with more of a technological angle will like Polity Agent by Neal Asher, while The Bookbag still thinks that in The Algebraist Banks fulfilled the space opera archetype with the most exemplary panache.

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