by Iain M. Banks
Review by John Berlyne
Orbit Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781841494173
Date: 07 February 2008 List Price £18.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
The first Culture from Banks in seven years! A major international hardcover release from Orbit. Reviewed this issue.
"In a world renowned even within a galaxy full of wonders, a crime within a war. For one brother it means a desperate flight, and a search for the one -- maybe two -- people who could clear his name. For his brother it means a life lived under constant threat of treachery and murder. And for their sister, it means returning to a place she'd thought abandoned forever. Only the sister is not what she once was; Djan Seriy Anaplian has become an agent of the Culture's Special Circumstances section, charged with high-level interference in civilisations throughout the greater galaxy. Concealing her new identity -- and her particular set of abilities -- might be a dangerous strategy. In the world to which Anaplian returns, nothing is quite as it seems; and determining the appropriate level of interference in someone else's war is never a simple matter."
Without Iain Banks -- with or without his "M" -- I am certain that my love of story could not have developed as it did. His books were a formative part not only of my reading, but of my youth. For me, The Wasp Factory was as important as The Catcher in the Rye had been for previous generations. It didn't turn me into a psychotic animal-killing, gender-confused Scot -- or at least it hasn't done so yet! -- but something in the writing hooked me on a gut level, so much so that I have closely followed the author's extraordinary career for nearly 24 years now.
The aforementioned "M" -- as most of you will know -- is inserted between Banks' fore and surnames when he writes his works of science fiction. Banks has carved out a considerably impressive niche in this area -- his first Culture novel Consider Phlebas is rightly regarded as a cornerstone of modern British SF, paving the way for subsequent Banks novels, and in the process, influencing an entire generation of British genre writers. Consequently the term "Banksian" has become synonymous with super-scale space opera -- without him carrying the torch, would we, could we have seen the emergence of such writers as Peter F. Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds? With this stellar reputation, a new Culture novel is a big happening in genre terms, a major major release -- and Matter is the first such novel from Banks in seven long years.
Matter takes some time to emerge in terms of it being a Culture novel. This far-future society is recognised by readers in terms of its politics, its technology and its propensity for interference. The Culture thrives on what could be interpreted as the antithesis of Star Trek's "Prime Directive": they seem to regard it almost as their duty to involve themselves with the internal wranglings of other societies, so long as it is to their advantage. Banks opens Matter with a scene of war between factions that inhabit two different levels of the shellworld Sursamen, an almost incomprehensibly vast artificial construct. We focus on the victors of this conflict, but in the process we witness a terrible crime -- a king slaughtered by an opportunist aide. This dreadful scene is also witnessed by the heir to the throne, Prince Ferbin, who can do little to prevent the regicide and can only flee the scene in panic. The aide, Mertis tyl Loesp, proclaims Ferbin dead and himself regent to Ferbin's young brother, Prince Oramen.
Around all this, Banks begins to weave the fabric of his story. There are other species involved, the Oct, the Aultridia, the Nariscene and the Morthanveld, each playing some vital part in political machinations that are shifting like tectonic plates, slow and inexorable. The sheer density of Banks' universe and the precision and clarity he displays in its depiction is as extraordinary as it ever has been.
We learn of another sibling in this royal family -- Djan Seiy Anaplian, a daughter to the murdered king. Some years ago she left the shellword and became a citizen of the Culture, moreover one in the employ of "Contact" and "Special Circumstances", essentially the wing of the Culture military that is concerned with espionage. Agents of SC are enhanced with all sorts of extraordinary bodily modifications and the mind truly boggles at some of the wondrous concepts that Banks so consistently comes up with. On learning of her father's death -- though not of its nature -- she decides to return to Sursamen.
There are, then, three main plot strands to Matter. We follow the paths of the two princes: Oramen, the reluctant heir under the thumb of the increasingly despotic tyl Loesp, and Ferbin, presumed dead but determined to avenge his father. He and his faithful servant leave the shellword in search of help and his long-lost sister; Djan, in turn, must take a circuitous route in order to return to the place of her birth. Surprises await all three protagonists.
This long-awaited and much-anticipated return to the Culture universe is a welcome addition to the Culture canon, but it is not without its flaws. Crucially, though the three main plot strands are clearly defined, Banks only loosely gathers them together. The effect on each member of the trio is therefore an untidy one. For example, Oramen is under threat from the antagonist, yet Banks keeps tyl Loesp off-stage for much of the action. Likewise young Ferbin seems to spend much of his time running away from the action rather than towards it, caught up in business that really has scant bearing on the matters, and Djan's long journey home, which lasts for most of the novel, seems far less interesting to us than what she might actually do when she gets there. The scenery of her journey is really the sole source of all the Culture elements of this novel, and it is, alas, mostly window dressing.
Perhaps because of this, Matter is a novel slow to reach its climax. In an effort maybe to spice things up a little, Banks employs some gear changes as we move into the final part of the story, but far from fixing the problems, the net result is a jarring one. The late appearance of what is essentially little more than a macguffin so sharply switches the focus of the novel that -- for me at least -- the story completely spun off the track as it rounded the final bend. All the conflicts so effectively built up seemed to get swept aside in the desire for this explosive finish. Loathe as I am to report it, I was left with a feeling of profound dissatisfaction and disappointment -- a suspension of my suspension of disbelief.
There is in this critique the question of whether any of these flaws actually matter? No pun intended! Fans of Banks' SF books will not be discouraged, and nor should they be, from reading Matter, but I wonder if they will recognize the odd pacing and experience the same sense of forced completion that I did. For readers new to Banks' work, I certainly recommend Matter -- but only once you've read all the preceding Culture novels.