(2008) Iain Banks, Orbit, £7.99, pbk, 593pp, ISBN 978-1-841-49419-7
It has been eight years since Iain Bank's last 'Culture' novel Look to Windward and four years since his SF but non-Culture The Algebraist, and so this novel, Matter, is a welcome return to the Culture with a great romp that also resonates with some recent real-world events.
Of course if you have never heard of the Culture then you need to know that it is an ultra advanced, highly civilised interstellar 'human' civilization in a Galaxy that exists separately alongside other intelligent species (including non-human), some of which are as equally advanced but many of which are not. (I say 'human' as in one previous Culture short story – State of the Art – a Culture craft comes to late 20th century Earth and from this tale it appears as if Earth humans have little to do with the Culture other than sharing the Galaxy: all of which raises thorny biological questions of convergent versus divergent evolution. If you are really interested in this question then get a convention to ask me to participate in a panel on the subject sometime.) You might consider Culture citizens to be ultra high-tech mega-billionaires except that the Culture has advanced beyond money (internally at least), and whose individuals are somewhat hedonistic: think of vaguely geekie hippies in space.
The Culture civilization is about as advanced as any Galactic civilization can get before it sublimes: moves to another (higher?) dimension adopting some sort of quasi-godhood. The Culture rubs along with the few other currently ultra-advanced civilizations and loosely interacts with less-developed civilizations, nurturing some, gently nudging others and preventing third parties from stepping in an mucking things up. All this sort of front-line secret service work is undertaken by Culture agents in what is called 'Special Circumstances'.
Matter concerns the goings-on in a shellworld: an artificial world of concentric spheres with each sphere being a level and separated from the next by a hundred miles or so by giant towers. The shellworlds were constructed ages ago before the Culture arose and were built supposedly to generate (along with the other shellworlds surrounding the Galaxy) a force field about the Galaxy: at least that is the legend. Today the Sursamen shellworld is managed by a couple of intermediately advanced species and on two of the shellworld's levels are two less-developed races of humans. These two races are very aware of the advanced species managing the shellworld, and are even aware of the Culture and other highly advanced civilizations beyond the shellworld, but are themselves barely as advanced as late nineteenth century Europe was on Earth.
Matter's opening chapter sees a fierce battle between the two human civilizations. The prince of one, cowering in a house, sees his father the king brought in wounded by his supposed long-term friend and army commander, however the army commander finishes off the king. The prince knows that, if he finds him, the commander will then kill him too as he now stands in the commander's way to take the throne. So the prince stays hidden before quietly making off.
Knowing that the commander is after him, and far from the Royal Court and possible friends, the prince does not know what to do. He knows the commander's army will prevent him from returning home. He also knows that the commander will soon effectively control the kingdom as his younger brother will not be old enough to inherit for a few years yet. The only thing to do is to get off the shellworld and find an ally. Here the prince has two hopes. First there is an old Special Circumstances Culture agent and second there is his long-departed sister who was given to the Culture for the purposes of forging a relationship with his kingdom. What the prince does not know is that in the intervening years his sister has become a trained Special Circumstances agent for the Culture. Of course there are more pressing questions on the prince's mind than what his sister has been up to. Why did the King's life-long friend, the army commander, suddenly decide to usurp the king? Why were the intermediately advance species controlling the connecting towers between the shellworld's levels having problems with a rival species and would this prevent the prince escaping? Why was the commander so bent on such certain victory in the current war? All in all, things are set for a right rum time.
The above is about as succinct a summary as I can provide without it all sounding so terribly complicated. Indeed in one sense Matter is frightfully complicated with such a cast of characters that there is an 18 page appendix of terms, species and other data to help you navigate the book tucked away near its end. I have to say this sort of thing I find intimidating but fortunately Bank's SF is logical so that while the appendix is useful (and indeed a read through before you start on the story itself helps considerably) it is not absolutely necessary. Yet annoyingly the appendix is tucked between the end of the novel and an epilogue, which means that you will find a second bookmark helpful so that you can find it with ease. There is also some odd use of terms denoting time intervals: 'eon' I always thought of as being a variant spelling 'aeon' which itself in Matter is used in its astronomical (as opposed to geological or other scientific) sense and 'decieon' I had never heard of before. But why the effort with such terms considering their usage in the novel is so occasional? It just seems a little pretentious.
The shellworld itself is a passably interesting structure but I can't see it capturing the attention that, say, Niven's 'Ringworld' did: it is all a bit contrived. And let's just say that the author tried to deal with the orogenesis /erosion balance issue and the question of internal illumination in his own way: this is, after all, just science fiction so just enjoy the concept as one of fun.
Where Matter really scores is the juxtapositioning of various civilizations in various states of development against a backdrop of literally galactic proportions. Here the reader hears the occasional steampunk twang within the novel's space opera perspective. As for the novel's theme it is clearly an anti-war story, and specifically a warning about thoughtless interference in societies by the more advanced on the less-developed. Here the novel has resonances with some recent current events such as the second Gulf war: indeed, we know that the author has strong feelings about this issue -- also see here. Of course this is Banks and though the novel deals with some heavy themes – it has its share of blood and guts – there are also the occasional comic moments and here the Prince's valet cum batman was particularly delightful. The Culture, as ever, also had its fun moments: the prince's batman cum butler also has his shining moments.
To sum up, this was a rip-roaring return to the Culture that affirms that Banks is still giving comparative newcomer Alastair Reynolds a run for his money at the head of the space opera pack. All of which, for fans of wide-screen space opera, is absolutely fantastically good news.
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