Author: Iain M Banks
352 pages • £18.99 (hardback)
The Culture feels like an Iain M Banks equivalent of Hogwarts, a society that legions of starry-eyed SF fans dream about visiting. But despite its fun-loving utopian ways, there’s something about its hedonistic and interfering nature that sometimes stops it from being a place of perfect wish-fulfilment. And here in Matter, a novel of war and manipulation, the Culture is one of many powerful peoples seeking dubious influence over others.
The novel has a core theme of political manoeuvring, but this is an adventure story of great pace; though for a Culture novel (the first since Banks delivered Look to Windward in 2000), everyone’s favourite fun-loving species get scant page time. It’s less a space opera and more a fantasy about a newly-conceived castle-and-musket society’s territorial battles. If you liked Inversions this approach will feel like familiar territory. The book follows the court betrayal of Sarl princes Ferbin and Oramen; their sister Djan Seriy Anaplian, now assimilated by the Culture’s Special Circumstances unit, must decide whether to use her new upgrades to help them.
Banks creates a universe that, somehow more than before, seems crammed with spies, power struggles, demarcation debates and populations jostling for control. The Culture’s elite status in the universe feels somewhat diminished: the book teems with alien civilisations at different levels of advancement, and we’re often reminded that Djan’s adopted “do-gooding busybody” friends are just one of many “Optimae” species. Much like her Shellworld home is divided into onion-like layers, galactic politics is split into levels – the Culture is part of concentric circles of influence and intrigue which encompass the Morthanveld, the slightly-less powerful Nariscene, who take responsibility for the unfathomable Oct and so on... Each population has its relationships with other species, its ambassadors and delegations, while supplying technology or offering military services behind the scenes.
Throughout the book, people are observed covertly or even have concealed weapons trained on them – sound like any place you know? But as always with Banks, this is not preachy, and the author’s trademark wit is everywhere. His wry character observations are a joy to read, and the book has a rich seam of humour. In the midst of war people’s petty concerns are never forgotten: Ferbin must have a bigger gun than his servant; Oramen’s assistant is thrilled just to be called “Mister”. Where else but in an Iain M Banks novel would you find an AI missile that disguises itself as a sex toy in order to board a ship in someone’s luggage? And the eccentric ship-naming convention never fails to amuse: the first great vessel we encounter is named Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill…
Matter is accessible and packed with adventure, set in a vast, beautifully-realised environment with appealing characters. There’s a stack of world-building information to take in – a couple of infodumps do detract somewhat from the story’s progress, and there’s a hefty 18-page appendix to help you keep track of everything. But as you’d except from Banks at his best this is never confusing or off-putting, and you can visualise everything he describes, even the most monumentally huge objects and bizarrely alien concepts.
If there's any criticism of the plot it’s that a few threads are left hanging at the end. A rapid, high-energy finish that breathlessly diverges from the build-up, it leaves you hoping that Matter was plotted as part of a series, and not just a one-off. Nevertheless, this long-awaited return for both a writing legend and his finest creation is a delight.