Matter by Iain M. Banks

Published by Orbit

ISBN 978-0-31600-536-4
February 2008
432 Pages
Reviewed here ( by Hobbit


Iain M. Banks is one of the standard bearers of British Science Fiction, specifically Space Opera.  His ongoing Culture saga is one of the most acclaimed and popular sets of books in the genre, painting an enormous canvas of a complex and well-thought out galactic mega civilizations. Orbit Books, the recently launched US “cousin” imprint of the venerable UK imprint is ushering the Culture saga back into print with the publication of Banks’s most recent Culture novel, Matter.  I, as someone who has never read any book by Banks, including his Culture novels, might be the target test audience for the book.


The first thing that struck me about the book was how seamlessly Banks blended elements of Science Fiction and High Fantasy.  In this great, technologically advanced civilization, there are still planets that resemble a monarchy of the middle ages, with a ruling king, a prince-in-waiting, and a royal advisor.  Set against a fantastic backdrop, this would seem like a fantasy novel.  When artificial intelligences, genetically modified humans/humanoids, and planet-sized megastructures are thrown into the mix, they story floats back into the realm of Science Fiction.  This may seem a bit unsettling when trying to get a feel for the story, at least on the surface, but Banks makes it work effortlessly.  This really isn’t a surprise since he has been plotting stories in the Culture universe for over 20 years.


The story is set in motion when King Hausk is brutally murdered by his advisor Mertis tyl Loesp just after an important victory on the battlefield.  Unbeknownst to tyl Loesp, one of Hausk’s sons, Ferbin, saw the treachery unfold.  Unfortunately, Ferbin is presumed dead and would likely be killed on sight under orders from tyl Loesp if he were to show his face in Sarl.  Tyl Loesp’s grand plans include placing Ferbin’s younger brother, Oramen, on the throne as a puppet ruler in order for tyl Loesp to maintain the façade of trusted advisor.  Ferbin; however, has plans of revenge, which entail him contacting and convincing his sister Djan Seriy a Culture Special Circumstances agent, to strike back at tyl Loesp. 


Helping to support this major plot of the story are several subplots along the way.  One of which is the nature of the Shellworld, specifically the one upon which the majority of the action takes place.  As an artificial structure, it is simply a wonder to imagine.  Here, Banks has admitted some influence from Larry Niven’s Ringworld, possibly the most famous of all science fictional Big Dumb Objects.  However, Banks’s Shellworld has a multitude of levels and a core that is alive and sentient.


So what do we have here, just a simple revenge story?  On the surface, perhaps, but throughout the novel Banks uses the plot structure and milieu of his Culture to explore some very wide ranging, as well as basic, human themes. One of the themes that continually recurs, especially in the character of Ferbin, is responsibility.  Based on conjecture from those characters around him and who know him, Ferbin was something of a fop prior to his father’s murder, with no real desire for ruling.  Only when his father is murdered before his eyes does Ferbin royal sense of responsibility truly take hold of him.  Seriy often comments on these when the two are reunited.  Then again, Seriy has her own sets of responsibility issues, she is both the daughter of the murdered king and a Culture Special Circumstances agent.  If she leaves her post in the Culture-dominate sector of the galaxy to attend to the aftermath of her father’s death, she might lose some face with her higher-ups.  So here, Seriy is truly torn. 


Banks devotes ample time to the development of Oramen’s character and story arc as well, playing on the dichotomy he faces.  Oramen is torn, not so much between dueling responsibilities, but rather what his mind and heart tell him.  He wants to believe the man whom his father trusted for countless years is indeed trustworthy, but Oramen, although young, is not a complete dummy.  Perhaps the only character to have one single drive is tyl Loesp, as his plans for Hausk are enacted early on and he devotes himself to keeping the plans that were set in motion by that murder intact.


This being an epic science fiction novel, Banks spends as much time dropping details about the Culture universe that would (I assume) be nice nods to long-time readers of the saga as he does with plot and character.  The earlier-mentioned artificially created worlds, the divergent races of his universe, (not the least of which are the lunar-sized Xinthian), and the vast history of the galactic civilization all evoke the “sense o’ wonder” feeling that is the great hallmark of great Science Fiction.  These elements work very well to entice readers whose first Culture experience is Matter to delve into other books in the uber-saga.  Fortunately for those readers (like myself), Orbit Books (in the US at least) is gradually bringing the Culture novels onto shelves. So, back to one of my earlier pontifications – yes, Matter works well as an introduction to Banks’s fiction.  Whether or not Matter will work as a great Culture magnet for U.S. readers remains to be seen. I can’t compare it to what he’s done in the past, this being the first Banks or Culture novel I’ve read, but I enjoyed the novel nonetheless, despite a few slow points along the way. 



© 2008 Rob H. Bedford


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