Matter is Iain. M. Banks’ latest novel set in his much lauded Culture universe, an advanced, interstellar society of (mainly) humans, operating in a scarcity free economy and protected by benevolent artificial intelligences. I’ve very much enjoyed Banks’ previous outings into science fiction and the Culture, and Matter is his first Culture novel for eight years and his first science fiction novel since 2005′s The Algebraist, so I was eager to find time to read this latest offering.
We follow events in the life of several members of the royal house of Hausk, the first family of the medieval level race of humans known as the Sarl, who reside on an artificial planet known as Sursamen. Sursamen is a Shellworld – one of thousands – an enormous, ancient construct of concentric spheres with different species living on the surface of each sphere. Prince Ferbin, next in line to the throne of the eighth shell where the Sarl rule, witnesses the murder of his father King Hausk at the hands of a traitorous lieutenant, Mertis tyl Losep. Fearing for his own life, he flees Sursamen to seek out his half sister Djan, a superhumanly enhanced agent of the Culture black-ops organisation Special Circumstances. Unbeknown to Ferbin, Djan has also heard of her father’s death and is returning home by her own means.
Matter is woven from many threads.
Much of the narrative deals with the journeys of Ferbin and Djan as they cross the vast distances that separate them from their goals. Banks lets his ample imagination run riot as we progress, vividly describing the incredible locations our heroes pass through, from the upper levels of the Shellworld to a vast Morthanveld artificial colony world larger than the orbit of the Earth around the Sun.
We also follow tyl Losep’s political maneuverings to assassinate the prince regent, Ferbin’s bookish young brother Oramen, and claim the throne of Sarl for himself. Oramen finds himself isolated from court, overseeing archaeological excavations that have uncovered a number of mysterious cube-like artefacts. The Oct, an advanced race that are mentoring the Sarl and who claim to be descended from the original Shellworld builders, have taken an unusual interest in the artefacts and may have engineered the war that allowed the Sarl, their clients, to uncover them. Unusual Oct military deployments add to the intrigue.
Ferbin starts as a spoiled and slightly wet fop, a feudal prince who never desired to rule or do battle but who is now forced into both, and he grows in confidence and courage accordingly. His servant, Holse, begins very subservient, but as he and his “master” journey further from home, his own confidence grows too and by the climax both men speak as equals. Despite losing her father, Djan is implacable and all business as the experienced secret agent.
Amusingly, and strangely, the Sarl speak with the tortured language of a Jane Austen character. I guess that’s how we know they’re less developed than the Culture, but it can be hard going to parse at times.
The concepts of cultural development “level” and mentoring by more advanced civilisations, which Banks has touched on before and which were the central pillar of David Brin’s Uplift series, is expanded in Matter. The Sarl are mentored by the Oct, who are in turn mentored by the Nariscene and then the Morthanveld, who are at an equivalent level to the Culture, the galactic hierarchy mirroring that of the Sarl court and of the Shellworld itself. Unlike Brin’s species, Banks’ spend a lot of time debating the merits of interfering in the affairs of their client species, reflecting, some say, contemporary real world debates over our dealings in foreign lands. I don’t know about that, I just read about spaceships.
Ferbin’s and Djan’s paths eventually cross. Conveniently, a Special Circumstances starship reveals itself at the same time and allows our protagonists to make all speed for Sursamen. Equally conveniently, Djan decides to re-enable all the Special Circumstances abilities and weapons she was forced to disable for her journey through Morthanveld space, robbing us of the tantalising possibility of a SC Agent going into battle with all her toys switched off.
Herein lies my problem with Matter. The first half or two thirds of the book is barely science fiction, largely irrelevant and feels disconnected from the last hundred pages or so. Or perhaps it’s the other way around – a sci-fi adventure novella has been tacked on to the end of a medieval political thriller.
The locations, though dramatic and beautifully rendered, have little meaning and may as well have been passively observed out the window if our heroes had made their journeys by horse-drawn carriage. It drags at times and the whole “journey” plot would have been better if compressed somewhat. The sheer bulk of text dilutes any tension that may have otherwise built up about what the Oct were digging for on Sursamen, and the rapidity and convenience with which the journeys end is jarring and false.
But the problems don’t end once we’re over the disconnect. The final sequences are savage. The ending is unexpected and brutal – par for the course with Banks, and no bad thing as such – but it literally had me saying “What … the f**k?” out loud (it’s OK, I was at home) and looking for the missing pages when I read it.
Perhaps most damming though is that the destination of the narrative – the unearthed alien cubes – is barely explored. We find out quickly enough they are Ancient Bad Things, when one arbitrarily vaporises most of the characters we’ve spent the first two thirds of the book getting to know (instantly making those first two thirds ever more irrelevant), but I feel there is a book’s worth of depth and back story missing. What are the cubes? Who built them? Why were they buried? Why on Sursamen? Why did they need reassembled? Are they truly bad news, or just misunderstood? Is there a deeper purpose to the Shellworlds? Why do the cubes want to destroy them? Seriously, I think you could write a novel on Cubes vs. Shellworlds alone, never mind cramming that and the conclusion of Matter into the last hundred pages or so.
Banks says of Matter “it’s so complicated that even in its complexity it’s complex”, and the book includes a set of reference appendices as if to prove it, so perhaps I’m missing the point and those more insightful than me will appreciate the work for what it is. It just seems to me that much of its 200,000+ word budget was badly allocated and could have been better spent on other parts of the plot. Perhaps it’s just that the skeletal subplots are the ones that I’m generally most interested in.
I’m sorry to say I was disappointed with Matter. I’d been looking forward to a new Culture or Iain M. Banks novel, but not rabidly and to the point that anything he produced would have been a disappointment, so I think I’m valid in my feelings. Overall it’s inconsistent and lacks a certain coherence, though I wouldn’t say it’s actually bad. The ideas contained in Matter and final chapters are Banks at his science fiction best; I just wish the whole book could have been like that.