After a very long dry spell, the Culture is back in Iain M. Banks’ new novel, Matter. I’ll state upfront that I absolutely love Banks’ Culture novels. In fact, Use of Weapons currently holds the top spot in my ‘Most Favoritist Science Fiction Novels’ list, so you can imagine the glee with which I tore into Matter. And, for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed.
Matter is the story of three siblings whose father, King Hausk, conqueror of the 8th level of the Shellword Sursamen, is traitorously murdered by his right-hand man Mertis tyl Loesp during the final battle of conquest. Ferbin Hausk witnesses the murder and ends up on the run from those who seek to keep the King’s murder secret. Ferbin’s brother, Oramen, is next in line to become king when he reaches the appropriate age, if he lives that long, and Loesp will act as Regent until then. Djan Seriy Anaplian, the sister of both Ferbin and Oramen, was sent to live in the Culture and is now part of Special Circumstances. It’s to her that Ferbin ultimately turns to for help.
Earlier I said that the Culture is back. Well, that isnt’ quite true. The Culture, in the form of Anaplian, is a major character in the book, but she takes a leave of absence from Special Circumstances to attend to matters surrounding her father’s death. So, in that respect, the Culture as a whole doesn’t really come into play in Matter. If you’re looking for something set entirely within the Culture, you’ll have to look elsewhere. The best I can describe the feel of Matter is Inversions crossed with Feersum Endjinn. But, typical Banks, more is going on than appears at first glance. The Minds of Special Circumstances take an interest in the goings on around Sursamen and Anaplian’s trip has more than a hint of SC help behind it.
The other prblem I had was the pacing of the book. The majority of the book moves along at a very deliberate pace. We have three different major story threads to follow (Ferbin, Oramen and Anaplian) and a couple of minor ones. Banks weaves in and out of these threads which serves to slow the pace down. Ferbin and Anaplian don’t meet until roughly 100 pages till then end. At that time, we start to find out what is really going on and Banks kicks it into high gear for high speed action till the end. That’s not necessarily bad, as the end section gives us plenty of SF-nal action, but it does clash with the pace of the rest of the book.
Speaking of SF-nal stuff, Banks gives us his usual array of cool ideas. The Shellworlds, think of Russian nesting dolls, only each ‘level’ is a world, with an alien ‘god’ at the center, the awesome Morthanveld orbital, the usual assortment of unique ship names and a terrific SF battle at the end. Along the way we are treated to some smaller ideas, those that happen to exist on the Shellworld. But if you’re looking for the ‘soaked-in-SF’ setting of the other Culture novels, Matter isn’t like that. It’s more of a political intrigue thriller than straight out SF action story.
But Banks does give us a healthy dose of his trademark humor and interesting characters. In fact, two of the best turn out to be Ferbin’s retainer and manservant, Holse, and an avatar of the ship Liveware Problem. Both end up being both more, and less, than what they were when they started.
Which brings us to the end. Matter actually has two endings. The first is the typical Banks, non-Hollywood ending, with the characters doing what needs to be done. You may, or may not like this, depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing. It didn’t really bother me much, but I was still a bit sad at how things turned out. Then the Appendix shows up, which is weird, because, after the Appendix, is more story, in the form of an Epilogue. It’s here that I think Banks pulled off one of the best endings in the Culture series. I won’t say much, but I think it was pitch perfect, showing the growth of the characters involved and it plays directly opposite to the tone of the first ending. It’s that last 100 pages, and this ending, that really brought this book out of the middling range to something special.
Is Matter the best Culture novel by Banks? No, that’s still Use of Weapons. However, Matter can sit comfortably alongside Consider Phlebas for second.