In a world renowned 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.
Iain M. Banks is a pseudonym of Iain Banks which he used to publish his Science Fiction.
Banks's father was an officer in the Admiralty and his mother was once a professional ice skater. Iain Banks was educated at the University of Stirling where he studied English Literature, Philosophy and Psychology. He moved to London and lived in the south of England until 1988 when he returned to Scotland, living in Edinburgh and then Fife.
Banks met his wife Annie in London, before the release of his first book. They married in Hawaii in 1992. However, he announced in early 2007 that, after 25 years together, they had separated. He lived most recently in North Queensferry, a town on the north side of the Firth of Forth near the Forth Bridge and the Forth Road Bridge.
As with his friend Ken MacLeod (another Scottish writer of technical and social science fiction) a strong awareness of left-wing history shows in his writings. The argument that an economy of abundance renders anarchy and adhocracy viable (or even inevitable) attracts many as an interesting potential experiment, were it ever to become testable. He was a signatory to the Declaration of Calton Hill, which calls for Scottish independence.
In late 2004, Banks was a prominent member of a group of British politicians and media figures who campaigned to have Prime Minister Tony Blair impeached following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In protest he cut up his passport and posted it to 10 Downing Street. In an interview in Socialist Review he claimed he did this after he "abandoned the idea of crashing my Land Rover through the gates of Fife dockyard, after spotting the guys armed with machine guns." He related his concerns about the invasion of Iraq in his book Raw Spirit, and the principal protagonist (Alban McGill) in the novel The Steep Approach to Garbadale confronts another character with arguments in a similar vein.
Interviewed on Mark Lawson's BBC Four series, first broadcast in the UK on 14 November 2006, Banks explained why his novels are published under two different names. His parents wished to name him Iain Menzies Banks but his father made a mistake when registering the birth and he was officially registered as Iain Banks. Despite this he continued to use his unofficial middle name and it was as Iain M. Banks that he submitted The Wasp Factory for publication. However, his editor asked if he would mind dropping the 'M' as it appeared "too fussy". The editor was also concerned about possible confusion with Rosie M. Banks, a minor character in some of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves novels who is a romantic novelist. After his first three mainstream novels his publishers agreed to publish his first SF novel, Consider Phlebas. To distinguish between the mainstream and SF novels, Banks suggested the return of the 'M', although at one stage he considered John B. Macallan as his SF pseudonym, the name deriving from his favourite whiskies: Johnnie Walker Black Label and The Macallan single malt.
His latest book was a science fiction (SF) novel in the Culture series, called The Hydrogen Sonata, published in 2012.
Author Iain M. Banks revealed in April 2013 that he had late-stage cancer. He died the following June.
The Scottish writer posted a message on his official website saying his next novel The Quarry, due to be published later this year*, would be his last.
Like an onion or a profound human, the many layers of shellworlds and similar superstructures may give living space to trillion of human or whatever alien beings in the future.
Reread 2022 with extended review
Under each crust is a special species taste One of the most mindblowing features may be to mix different physics, geology, biology, mentality, and prosperity in each shell, open the gates from time to time to let them fight or cuddle and interbreed, how tentacly naughty, with each other and to manage everything with an AI-controlled, almighty, self-replicating, permanently morphing infrastructure that uses probability calculation and coincidences to let the system run smoothly. And that just for the only reason to generate data, knowledge, or entertainment for the ones running the shellworlds/amusement park studies.
A bit of altruism in the cosmic zoo, please. Another option and motivation for the builders of such megastructures might be enabling alien races to develop and evolve in different or optimized or hellish living conditions and form endless, ideological bloodlines by giving the species more and more power until they can begin uplifting or genociding others in neverending circles of revenge and vendettas.
And some theoretical physics too, please There are many concepts for megastructures, some including the use of black holes, suns, etc., directly built inside, or better said around, those space anomalies to get endless energy. And all of it will be needed for such large scale building projects, including all the manipulation of physics, artificial gravity, and suns and the avoidance of system errors and computer bugs that could wipe out a whole or some civilizations at once. Of course just as long as cosmic voodoo economics allows if, if not, it will stay impossible, dubious hard science forever in eternity until payday or galactic tax declaration.
Special physics for special circumstances Banks´ legendary Special Circumstances are around too to make the reading the ultimate Sci-Fi overkill. These unconventional problem solvers are the James Bonds of the culture, having to deal with all kinds of escalations and ethical disputes in this amazing universe, using creative problem-solving techniques and sensitivity. Or the sledgehammer of total technological superiority.
This is one of those horribly complicated books that is simultaneously strong and weak in the same exact areas at the same time. *groan*
I mean, it starts off strongly with fantasy-type trials and tribulations in the empire, a king dying and his son being supplanted by the king's best friend, taking over the kingdom. Pretty standard... but then the whole other part of this novel is chock-full of purely wonderful heavy SF ideas that isn't entirely obvious at first but then becomes an infodump masterpiece of oddness and wonder and a world that really belongs as a movie just because the visual elements are completely amazing.
The world. Oh my lord, the world. Layers and layers and layers with ancient species and high tech and even ascended species. These humans are only on some outer layer. The infodumping doesn't do it justice.
Just... wow. Plus there's also different factions of the Culture, Special Circumstances against the rest, and no one seems to agree how to deal with people. :) And then there's the rogue Culture fragments that may or may not be in with the actual culture (either side), and the sister of the poor deposed kingling decided to quit Special Circumstances to help him out.
Everything else just devolves into a huge technothriller with huge stakes and ships and some really amazing descriptions and adventure.
So why am I only giving this a 4 star?
Because while the ideas are amazing and this author is known for his wonderful characters and his ability with traditional fiction, too, the character's names are too difficult and the ideas are too info-dumpy rather than a flowing masterpiece.
And to be entirely fair, I don't know how he could have done it better except by turning this novel into something much longer and gentle.
So it feels flawed and utterly brilliant at the same time. Which is a shame. I really want to LOVE this novel, not just appreciate it to death. Which I do. Hell, I want to kind of worship it, but I can't quite LOVE it. How frustrating.
I'll keep going! For straight ideas, Banks is one of those grand masters of SF. :) His characters, for their flaws, are still some of the most richly imagined. The plots are usually mind blowing.
And if he could ever keep it all flowing and working together right without tripping over each other, I might start worshipping the man as a god. :)
The eighth book in the culture series. If you're reading this, you're familiar with the Culture, and you don't need yet another review telling you how fantastic this particular entry is. All I'll say is that it's no exception, and stands right up there with all the others.
Two quotes that really stood out for me from this fantastic book:
“Behave honourably and wish for a good death. He’d always dismissed it as self-serving bullshit, frankly; most of the people he’d been told were his betters were quite venally dishonourable, and the more they got the more the greedy bastards wanted, while those that weren’t like that were better behaved at least partly because they could afford to be." - “War, famine, disease, genocide. Death, in a million different forms, often painful and protracted for the poor individual wretches involved. What god would so arrange the universe to predispose its creations to experience such suffering, or be the cause of it in others? What master of simulations or arbitrator of a game would set up the initial conditions to the same pitiless effect? God or programmer, the charge would be the same: that of near-infinitely sadistic cruelty; deliberate, premeditated barbarism on an unspeakably horrific scale.”
[Swirling patterns. Weird, vaguely familiar, futuristic music. Is it the Doctor Who theme tune? Slowly the camera pulls back to show the title
Celebrity Death Match Special: Blackadder versus The Culture
and we realize it's an unusual setting of the Blackadder song.
Dissolve to ROWAN ATKINSON and HUGH LAURIE, who looks rather unhappy]
ATKINSON: Is everything alright, sir?
LAURIE: Oh yes, rather, absolutely spiffing, top hole, couldn't be better. Except for one little thing.
ATKINSON: And that is?
LAURIE: Well, I made a rather foolish bet with a chap named Iain Banks. I'm afraid I lost, so I need to write him a full-length science-fiction novel by tomorrow. Otherwise I'm going to be dropped in a block of concrete and buried for the next twenty million years.
ATKINSON: Dear me, how very unfortunate. Please accept my commis---
LAURIE: So you think you might be able to take care of it?
ATKINSON: To be honest, there are certain technical---
LAURIE: Excellent, excellent, I knew I could count on you. Well, I'm just off to dinner at my club. I'll drop by and collect it later on.
[Exit LAURIE. Enter TONY ROBINSON as BALDRICK]
ROBINSON: I couldn't 'elp overhearing that.
ATKINSON: Baldrick, what are we going to do?
ROBINSON: I 'ave a cunning plan.
ATKINSON: I might have guessed.
ROBINSON: No, really sir, it's very cunning. I took this collection of old novels by Mr. Banks, and I fed them into this computer, and I told it to cut them up and make us a new one.
ATKINSON: Baldrick, don't be ridiculous. You can't just create a novel by cutting and pasting old ones. You need characters---
ROBINSON: I know sir. I've put in plenty of characters. Me and 'is 'Ighness to start with.
ATKINSON: Baldrick, do you and His Imbecility look like characters from a science-fiction novel?
ROBINSON: Well sir, we could come from a backward planet.
ATKINSON: Anyway, two characters aren't enough.
ROBINSON: I agree sir. I also added Mr. Shakespeare's 'Amlet.
ROBINSON: And Miss Lara Croft.
ATKINSON: Lara Croft???
ROBINSON: From the video game sir. Very fetching young lady. Well-proportioned.
ATKINSON: Are there aliens?
ROBINSON: Yes sir. More aliens than you could shake a stick at. I've thought of everything. 'Ere, 'ave a look.
[He hands over a large pile of paper. ATKINSON flicks through it]
ATKINSON: Hm. Well, it's nice and thick.
ROBINSON: Thank you sir. 593 pages.
ATKINSON: We might just get away with this.
ROBINSON: I was hoping so sir.
ATKINSON: You did put in an ending?
ROBINSON: Ah, well, sort of sir. In a manner of speaking.
[ATKINSON turns to the end and looks up, appalled]
ATKINSON: You have scrawled in pencil, "Then they killed the bad alien and Baldrick lived happily ever after."
ROBINSON: I'm sorry sir. The printer broke down.
[ATKINSON is just about to start hitting him when LAURIE enters and sees the manuscript]
LAURIE: Already finished? Marvellous, Blackadder, marvellous! I must say, I just don't know what I'd do without you.
This is a book I really wanted to like, and failed. I like Iain M. Banks style, I like his willingness to run risks, to give you the whole punch. And in this book, he barely delivers.
The book are 500 pages of set-up, and forty pages of resolution, and not a very satisfying one.
Too many characters doing not very interesting things in utmost detail, and then the interesting parts are just glossed over. Add wooden (and not very new in his books) characters, when part of his magic is making great inhuman characters. This time even the humans are flat.
The only real interest are a few imaginary locations, which are well thought and well presented. But that's it, nice locations, a quite straightforward plot (advancing at a glacial pace during the set-up).
I want to emphasize the glossing over. Here we lose the high adrenaline space opera descriptions, the witty banter, the powerful messages, the moral dilemmas. They are potentially there, they just are not in the text. And knowing the villain may be feeling a certain unease is not a moral quandary.
It is probably the Banks book I have spent more time reading, and that is a bad thing. I think I will reread Use of Weapons, that explores many of the same areas much better.
Entertaining, thought-provoking, full of mindboggling inventions, aliens, worldbuilding. Rich, dense and very sardonic. This one includes all of the author's leitmotifs, such as how war and brutality get justified, what exactly is this weird construct called "civilization" and can it actually give lives meaning, and of course the futility of tryna reason why because ours is just to do and die, dummy. Plus a nihilistic ending that's also a happy ending, very Banks.
I respected this book and thoroughly enjoyed it, but it may be one of the few Culture novels that I'm not particularly interested in rereading. If I do, it will be for the worldbuilding - the "shellworld" of Sursamen is a phenomenal creation - and the narrative's exceedingly creepy Final Boss, which doesn't appear until the last quarter of the book. But otherwise, a lot of what I enjoyed here I actually enjoyed even more in prior novels. I preferred the medievalism-on-an-alien world of Inversions; I thought the characterization of genuinely alien beings and Minds to be stronger in Look to Windward; the portrait of a female Special Circumstances agent was both more dynamic and more sympathetic in Consider Phlebas; Use of Weapons' nihilistic ending was far more emotionally wrenching. And yet, all of those things I just mentioned were also enjoyable in this book, so I'm not really complaining.
All the Culture novels are standalones... and so I wonder if Matter may be an ideal entry point, given that its many strong points are actually done even better in other books in the series. I've wondered about which book would be the best introduction to The Culture many times. I sure do spend a lot of time wondering about pointless things!
Perhaps most compelling to me about Matter is its slow-burn illustration of just how fucking stupid the rationales behind brutality and war can be and how necessary manipulation is in making sure battles continue to be fought. It's like a dunce-on-dunce pile-up except these dunces are killing hundreds of thousands of people while other "higher beings" follow their shenanigans as if they're watching a telenovela featuring politics and massacres. JFC! But there is a positive message in this too: the actions of brave individuals can actually impact many, for the better. Especially if those individuals are acting in concert with each other.
Hyrlis rapped on the clear material separating them from the view of the battlefield. "We are information, gentlemen; all living things are. However, we are lucky enough to be encoded in matter itself, not running in some abstracted system as patterns of particles or standing waves of probability."
"Might you not simply play the game against each other then, sir?" Holse suggested cheerily. "Dispensing with all the actual slaughtering and maiming and destruction and desolating and such like? Like in the old days, when two great armies met and, counting themselves about equal, called up champions, one from each, their individual combat counting by earlier agreement as determining the whole result, so sending many a frightened soldier back to his farm and loved ones."
Hyrlis laughted. The sound was obviously as startling and unusual to the generals and advisors on the balcony as it was to Ferbin and Holse. "I'd play if they would!" Hyrlis said. "And accept the verdict gladly regardless." He smiled at Ferbin, then to Holse said, "But no matter whether we are all in a still greater game, this one here before us is at a cruder grain than that which it models. Entire battles, and sometimes therefore wars, can hinge on a jammed gun, a failed battery, a single shell being dud or an individual soldier suddenly turning and running, or throwing himself on a grenade."
Hyrlis shook his head. "That cannot be fully modelled, not reliably, not consistently. That you need to play out in reality, or the most detailed simulation you have available, which is effectively the same thing."
Holse smiled sadly. "Matter, eh, sir?"
"Matter." Hyrilis nodded. "And anyway, where would be the fun in just playing a game? Our hosts could do that themselves. No. They need us to play out the greater result. Nothing else will do. We ought to feel privileged to be so valuable, so irreplaceable. We may all be mere particles, but we are each fundamental!"
Culture novels & stories read so far, ranked:
#1: Inversions (although not an appropriate starting point) Use of Weapons Look to Windward The Player of Games Consider Phlebas "The State of the Art" - from The State of the Art Matter "Descendant" - from The State of the Art Excession "A Gift from the Culture" - from The State of the Art
I originally read this novel a number of years ago but am posting this review having just “read” it again, or more accurately listened to it on audiobook.
I’ve read all of the books in Iain Banks’ Culture series. For me two of the early novels, “The Player of Games”, and “Use of Weapons”, stand out above the others. Most of the remaining books tend to merge into one in my memory. When I saw this was available in my local library as an audiobook, I realised that all I could remember of it was the setting and, for some reason, the beginning, (but not the end). Listening to it was therefore like reading it for the first time.
I suppose that in reading a sci-fi novel I’m looking for an imaginative setting, and the author delivers that with the concept of the shellworld, an artificially constructed planet consisting of concentric layers, each a world in itself. At the same time, Banks goes into overlong descriptions of the landscapes and design of his featured shellworld, and of other worlds within the wider galaxy. At times these descriptions threaten to overwhelm the novel itself.
There are two main strands to the plot. One features a people, the author calls them Sarl, who inhabit one level of the shellworld, and who have a level of technological development that very roughly equates to early modern Europe. Individual aspects of their society range from medieval to 19th century. This story revolves around palace rivalries for the succession to the Sarl monarchy, and to be honest the characters seem a bit hackneyed. There’s a ruthless and ambitious Regent with designs on the throne, and two princes, one of whom - foolish, arrogant and over-entitled - is accompanied by his uneducated but able servant. The Prince eventually becomes a better person through adversity. These events are connected to wider disputes within the advanced species that inhabit the wider galaxy.
This is a long book, and I would say the pace is moderate until the denouement, when the author manages to inject some much-needed energy. If you’re thinking of reading the Culture books, then books 1-3 are worth it. I’m less sure about the others.
Matter starts out with some baroque steampunk fantasia with grim political dealings that reminds me of Jack Vance, George R.R. Martin, and Mervyn Peake. Than it switches to a wide screen galactic romp and winds ups as a apocalyptic high-tech thriller with more than couple elements from Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space. There is three pronged story moving through these stages involving three siblings. The relation between Ferbin and his servant Holse is filled with odd couple comedy like Cervantes or Wodehouse, Djan travels home through morphing political climate, and Oramen has a fight for survival ripe with bitter irony. The book is tragic and funny in equal strides and quite dark and violent with action scenes that manage to be tense and absurd at the same time. The eerie scenes on the planet Bulthmass are one of many highlights. But, really there a lot as can’t quite remember having this much fun reading a book in awhile, as it is that mix of serious and entertaining I love. With recognizable allusions and similarities to Hamlet, Revelation Space, Song of Fire and Ice, Vance’s Dragon Masters, Lovecraft, Dr. Who, and Douglas Adams, it might seem that this is a hodge podge but it felt cohesive with great characters, self referential wit, brutality, and astounding imagination. This may not be a better novel, than say, Use of Weapons but I think it might be more fun.
Matter is the 8th volume in Iain M. Banks’ “Culture” series and my favorite so far. It is the story of a seemingly unimportant far-future medieval coups attempt that takes on much larger proportions as the story progresses.
Most of Matter’s events are either set on or revolve around a “shell world” named Sursamen. Shell worlds are artificial planets constructed by an ancient race called “the Involucra,” ostensibly as components of a galactic force-field of unknown purpose. They are composed of practically indestructible concentric spherical layers. Each layer is supported internally by thousands of megalithic floor-to-ceiling towers that are also used as an inter-layer transport system. Like Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riverworld” series, each layer houses a different alien or human culture of varying technological advancement. Amid all the far-future tech, the story revolves around a pre-industrial human civilization called the Sarl. Matter also gives us a look at a roughly Culture-equivalent species called the Morthanveld, an aquatic race that constructs interwoven tubular habitats so large they encircle suns. The Morthanveld are the most advanced race, other than The Culture, we’ve seen so far, and it was interesting to observe diplomacy between the two. Matter massively expands the Culture setting to include many alien races, technologies, planets, and human cultures far beyond what I’ve mentioned here.
Banks showcased his medieval intrigue writing in his book Inversions, the sixth book in the series, and he puts those skills to work again in Matter. If you were to wrap the book Inversions in a larger science-fiction story, as was done in Matter, the books would be very similar indeed. These low-tech interludes allow the author to shift between wild imagination and familiarity, then blend the two in a very pleasing way.
Each Culture book has raised the quality of character development and dialog, and Matter is no exception. The main characters were all very distinct, colorful, and endearing. All of the main characters are believably flawed and developed well enough that I understood their motivations. Decisions made by characters were consistent with their developmental foundations, and above all, enjoyable. The supporting cast’s legions made the setting feel populated and alive, but not cluttered or distracting. I will miss Djan, Ferbin, Oramen, Choubris, Xuss, and the entire cast.
Matter’s story is primarily one of intrigue, but it also includes a fantastic mystery set in an archaeological dig. This portion of the book reminded me of Alistair Reynolds’ book Revelation Space and written equally well. There are plenty of well-written action scenes, plot twists, humor, and one of my favorite endings ever. As always, Banks’ writing is smart, elegant, and beautiful.
Matter is my new favorite book in one of my favorite series of any genre. Highest recommendation to anyone who has read at least The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, and Look To Windward.
Rereading this after a decade or so; I picked this up and read it when it first came out (1st edition hardcover!) and there are very few authors I do that for. 😎
There are lots of things to love about Matter and some things that, well, did not work quite as well. This is really the first Culture novel to really explore the rest of the galactic civilizations in some detail, establishing Culture as a relatively small part of a greater whole. In particular, the Morthanveld, a species of equivalent tech to Culture, but water-based and their civilization is much larger; they have one gigantic 'orbital' for example that encircles a sun and is the largest 'city' in the galaxy, with over 40 trillion inhabitants! Similar kinds of mind-blowing stuff populate Matter including the massive 'shellworld' where most of the story takes place. The imagination of Banks is on full display here for sure!
On the other hand, the plot is rather thin and follows the 'script' if you will of several other Culture novels-- Special Circumstances dealing with some kind of threat to Culture if not the galaxy itself. The main characters-- Ferbin and Djan-- are noble brother and sisters born in the eight level of a shellworld. Their father the king has a dream of uniting the peoples on the eighth level and indeed, even the ninth (they are all 'humans' to some degree). Djan left the shellworld years ago and is now an agent in Special Circumstances working on a distant planet. Ferbin, the second son of the king and next in line after his older brother's death, witnesses treachery first hand as the king's most trusted advisor kills him during a battle; assuming he will be next, he manages to escape and flee the shellworld for help. Djan finds out about her father's death (although not the details) and takes a leave of absence to travel back home...
Coming back to the things I most enjoyed about the novel were all the various alien species presented here in no small detail that both brother and sister encountered during their travels. And, of course, the snarky wit of Banks and the at times snappy dialogue. Banks also, as usual, contrasts his post-scarcity universe to others in fun ways (money-- what a drag and who really needs it?). While Banks does toss in some interesting twists along the way, the plot itself is rather bland and somewhat predictable. If you just focus on the tech and aliens, this is 5 stars all the way; taking the story as whole, however, maybe a three. I will compromise here and give this 4 solid stars!!
Another superb Culture story, and in fact one of the finest. Banks' usual themes of galactic inter-civilization intrigue, war, the dilemma of interference/non-interference in alien civilizations, etc are on display, and as usual we mostly observe the Culture from the outside looking in. This story adds the perspective of a technologically underdeveloped civilization and introduces the fascinating concept of "Shell worlds" - enormous, ancient and artificially constructed planets which are essentially huge nested spheres, with enigmatic origins, each containing a multitude of species and civilizations. Banks' creativity is on full display, with a panoply of never before described alien species, technologies and galactic politics and history.
Highly recommended! For Culture newbies, note that these books can be read in any order. Rather like Ursula K. Le Guin's Hainish cycle, the Culture is a shared universe, rather than a series of connected stories that should be read in a particular order.
Having now read all but one of the Culture novels, my ranking of the series, best to worst would be:
Player of Games Surface Details Matter Excession The Hydrogen Sonata Look to Windward Use of Weapons Consider Phlebas
With the exception of Consider Phlebas, which I consider very good, I would classify all the others as great, with there not being much appreciable difference in the greatness from the top to the bottom of the list.
I'd go as far as saying that this is the 3rd best novel in the series so far, after "The Player of Games" and "Use of Weapons" in that order. I was blown away by the quality of the story, the interesting and well-developed characters, and the sheer scale of the novel. Four stars, highly recommended. but if you haven't read Culture novels before, I recommend just starting at the beginning. "Consider Phlebas" is still the weakest novel in the series, but it is the first one and sort of a rite of passage. After that, it's nothing but excellence. If you're into science fiction at all, these are must-reads.
The 8th book in The Culture series i.e. Matter was a big let down for me, because it had pretty interesting ideas like Shell word and Nest world but Banks spends so much time exploring those ideas, and giving you info dumps regarding those ideas that the story of the book takes a back seat in the whole book. Also he uses a lot of complex names for his characters which after some time becomes quite irritating as you do not have index on audio book to remember all the characters.
Some of the strong points of the book are
1. Shell world 2. Different species involved. 3. A decent plot.
Some of the weak points of the book are
1. Main plot goes for a toss. 2. Too many characters with complex names.
Let me elaborate on the above strong points
1. Shell world
This is really an interesting concept where we have a group of planets whose core basically consists of different layers. Now each layer is a world in itself and is inhabited by different species. Also each layer has its own star and set of mountains, rivers and species. These layers throughout the core of the planet are supported by huge towers through which you can move from one layer to another. Also these planets were built by species who have long ago sublimed, so we do not get any info regarding their purpose.
At the core of the shell worlds there are believed to be dirigible behemothaur present, who are worshipped by the species on the shell world to be a world god. We last encountered them in the book Look to windward.
2. Different species involved.
Once such shell world is the Surasmen where most of our story takes place, it is inhabited by interesting mix of species. Some of the species on this world are
They are humanoid species who live on the 8th level of Surasmen and they have been involved in a war with another humanoid species known as Deldine for a long time.
They are the species who consider the builders of the shell worlds to be their ancestors, they are shown to be technologically more advanced than the Sarl and are the governing species of Sarl. They are also shown to be searching something on the 9th level of the shell world.
They are governing species of Oct and they keep themselves aloof from any happenings which are going below their levels on Surasmen, they have a theory that species should be allowed to evolve naturally and so do not interfere in any matters.
They are governors of the planet Surasmen and are on par with Culture regarding the technological progress. They are water species and live on super structures of Nest world.
This is a mix of species which we get in the book, it makes a fascinating read to see how the species interact with each other politically, like the Oct seem to involve themselves in all situations which profit them while the ones like Nariscene and Morthanveld tend to remain aloof.
3. A decent plot.
The book starts when the Sarl are in the middle of the war and prince Fabrian sees something which will make him flee to his sister Djan Seriy Anaplian in the culture. Meanwhile his brother Prince Oramen rules as puppet king with regent Tyl Loesp in complete control.
The plot mostly consists of Fabrian travelling with his companion servant Chubris Holse to different planets and ships in search of his sister.
Let me now elaborate on the weak points of the book
1. Main plot goes for a toss.
As you can see from the above strong points I have written much about the different places and species present in the book without giving much into the plot of the book, this by far is the biggest issue of the book because Banks makes his characters travel so much in the book that he has to give info dumps regarding their surroundings or the different culture ships they are travelling on that the main plot takes a back seat throughout the book and keeps popping up in the middle due to which you quickly start losing your interest.
2. Too many characters with complex names.
Although in previous books Banks has used lot of complex names but in this book the no of species involved is quite large due to which it becomes very difficult to remember each and every character when doing this book on the audio.
Considering the above points it is a weak Culture book, and I give it 3/5 stars.
Reading prompt: Book that has been on your ‘to read' list for over 5 years Virtual 12 sided dice roll: 7
For the first time I floundered while reading a Culture novel. Not because the book wasn't Banks' usual fare, but because I have ended up with 4 library books due within days of each other. This one is an e-book with someone waiting for it, so it became priority one. I didn't want it to just disappear before I finished reading. Not the best conditions for reading pleasure.
Iain Banks had a remarkable imagination. He produces a plethora of alien beings, each stranger than anything that I could come up with. He also creates realistic problems with interspecies communication. The Culture theoretically has a philosophy similar to Star Trek's Prime Directive—to allow less developed cultures to progress at their own pace without interference. In practice, however, they have their spy agencies, Contact and Special Circumstances.
In this novel, we follow multiple members of a royal family from a small portion of a multi-level Shell World. The girl child, of course, is devalued and leaves, eventually becoming a Special Circumstances agent. That is until her father is killed, one of her brothers flees from assassination, and SC becomes interested in what is taking place on this Shell World, where an incredibly ancient city is being revealed by a tremendous waterfall. The youngest son of the royal family ends up in charge of the recovery of artifacts from this dangerous excavation.
A small royal family of a primitive kingdom becomes the focus of interstellar intrigue. I believe I would have enjoyed it more if I had been able to read in a more leisurely fashion.
Book number 500 of my Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Project
There is an interview at the back of this book in which Banks says he was thinking of giving up writing SF but he set himself the task of creating a completely new context for a novel; The Algebraist, Banks' best novel for years resulted. With Matter Banks returns to the Culture - and that is a mistake. Every worthwhile idea relating to the Culture has been expounded multiple times already - there has been no need for a new Culture novel since Use of Weapons and the quality of them has been deteriorating ever since. (It seems likely that Use of Weapons will be the best book Banks writes in any genre, ever.) This means that when we are exposed to yet another rehearsal of the arguments for and against interventionist politics, it is just boring; Banks fans could present both sides of the argument without having to think by now. Some of the characters are also Banks cliches and all of the main characters spend considerable time merely travelling from one place to another before they can meet up for a climax that is too short and unfortunately predictable, at least in general outline. Once again the book is too long for its own story; if ruthlessly pared down to half its length it might move fast enough not to lose the interest of its readers. This affliction is so widespread amongst contemporary authors that one must suspect that the publishers/editors must find it somehow desirable. One aspect of the book, is superior to The Algebraist, at least - there is very little reliance on crude jokes to bulk up the story, which is about all that the middle part of the Algebraist consists of. Is Banks a spent force? It seems the man who shook up hard SF and made it a powerful force again may have been overtaken by newcomers to the genre.
-Trama engordada y muchas ideas metidas por todas partes.-
Género. Ciencia ficción.
Lo que nos cuenta. El libro Materia (publicación original: Matter, 20118) nos lleva hasta Sursamen, planeta en el que el rey Hausk el Conquistador es asesinado a traición por personas de su confianza durante una batalla. A su hijo Ferbin otz Aelsh-Hausk`r lo dan por muerto pero no es así, mientras a su otro hijo (y hermanastro de Ferbin), Oramen, le llega la corona pero queda a merced de los traidores, sin que nadie lo sepa, porque todavía no tiene la mayoría de edad y el regente es el principal conjurado. Muy lejos de allí, en otro mundo, se encuentra Djan Seriy Anaplian, agente de Circunstancias Especiales de La Cultura y hermana de ambos nobles. Cuando le informan de la situación, le dan la libertad de regresar a su planeta aunque sin la mayoría del equipo que usa como agente de Contacto. Pero Sursamen está en una zona muy especial, un Mundo Concha, fuera del control de La Cultura por más que sea de su interés, y también bajo el interés (y residencia) de otras razas, de manera que tanto los acontecimientos sufridos por la casa Hausk como el aparente viaje voluntario de Anaplian pueden estar marcados por planes de mayor alcance y de consecuencias impredecibles. Séptima novela de la saga La Cultura.
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210408: well. long, but then it seems banks' culture books are. full-on sense of wonder sff, magnitudes, numbers, inventive aliens, massive weaponry, complex politics etc, i might have wanted it briefer but it needs the length and it is not difficult reading. read in four days. comic, satirical, omniscient voice, reliable, reveals new info just when needed...
at first it seems quasi-medieval court/war intrigue but this setup simply introduces characters. next, long, involved, fascinating (to me), information dump of the usual science fiction sort. ideas of everything from ‘shellworlds’ to ‘culture’ and various points of narrative are effective. not boring. surprise that it is long, as it moves swiftly, actions human(ish), characters human(ish), but it is, even with interesting discussions on culture motivations and restraint, the shellworlds that are most fantastic...
i can see how this, aside from length, does not appeal to usual mundane readers: it is the world, the universe, that is most involving, and not the world within each mere human character. and those worlds are ‘translated’ into the simplest, most applicable human terms even as scale and/or alien nature is appreciated. that is, power, sex, drugs etc. culture is indeed an amazing, ambiguous utopia, which we twenty-first century humans would probably love to live. as is, we get banks’s long books...
Where sprawling becomes a bad kind of sprawling, like, sprawling in the street after passing out from a night on the razz, only with less sodium lights and more dragon-type creatures floating around your mind, no wait, floating around your mind in a concentric kind of world within a world complete with medieval peasant types, futuristic warrior types and fey castle kingdoms, and flying dragon type things and WAR (always WAR! Yaargh!!) - but sprawling in that needy grasping way that only that some sprawlers supine and almost contrite with their imposition upon you can sprawl, like, suffocating...a hand grabbing your trouser cuff, an old friend you try and shake off because he's not who you knew, the whole affair leaving a bit of a Bad Taste, reluctance to treat with the chap any more, but...damnit he's a mate - can't give up on him because of one little public indiscretion.
So: Matter. SPOILERS!
So: Matter. Requisite Final Fantasy 7 "ultimate boss!" fight at the end, requisite "everyone dies" at the end complete with heroic WW2-esque "I'm going in!" self-sacrifice elements complete with King Lear-ish fratricidal brothers but minus the dramatic dignity of good old Shakes, plus flying dragon things and chase elements from flying dragon type things. I think as well as dragon things, this also had aliens made from gas, insectoid aliens - maybe next Banks we'll get aliens made from aliens, aliens made from toilet paper (if it still exists in the what-the-f**-year-is-it-anyway? century The Culture is set in - the usual intelligent ships, aliens that hate each other, a smidge of espionage and "bad girl made good" too. Fun for all the family, right? No, not quite right.
See, I like old Banks. I know we can't have Consider Phlebas again, but lately Banks' has fallen prey to inflation. Not of ego, or wallet or um... spacetime (all of the above may be true) but of plot and idea. Knowing he needs to write for the fans, he chucks everything and the kitchen sink in. It's gone all Stargate SG1, where they started to have, like SG team 18 and SG Atlantis and pyramids flying round space and by the 5th series it was just nuts, and I hated it, so much so that I can't recall anything much about the later series than the big pyramid things in space, and Amanda Tapping being kind of a babe. They made 214 episodes, says Wikipedia. 214! This book reads like an episode about 198, where its like nothing the first series ever was because its so bloated and full of wanky shit, shineys to make you think "woooo! not seen that before!".
Gone are the simple geodesics, the shortest distance between drama and event. Gone are the slick and screamingly awesome passages that helped Phlebas blow apart British sci-fi in the 80s. Gone is the majestic urgent voice of a writer who deliberately tries to dazzle. Now instead of the slick legerdemain of early Banks we have an older paunchier prose, the patter of it not quite fitting the trick it tries to pull. We have little castle kingdoms, forced dramatic irony of aliens looking down on said castle kingdom world, aliens made from gas and all that, witty spaceships, The Culture looking down on the gas aliens looking down on the world looking down on the peasants and c. (Maybe the gas aliens were big water-beings. I forget. I just recall they needed environment suits or portable ecosystems.)
Here Banks grasps, convolutes, invoulutes himself into chains of story that are coiled not so much double helix, (compact, elegant, efficient, composed of elegant building blocks encoding information, building a neat, stable whole) but laid before us well, in a more spaghetti like melange: if you tug hard enough, a strand leads to a strand, but some just terminate, all loose ended, like. Matter is all detail and no substance, it tries the dazzle, tries to pass of substance by showing of simple abundance (of material.) but the misdirection misfires,the patter runs out of steam, we're left knowing the trick and the trickster too well to be taken in.
IN FOURTEEN WORDS: Maximalist Banks, good for a few days amusement, but by far not his best.
Got it, read it, loved it. To be true Iain M Banks' Culture novels had always already distinguished themselves by being remarkable for having a plot, a good plot, an intelligent good plot, that is not utterly unbelievable or alien (ahem, apart from being set in the far future and in outer space etc). On that score you will not be dissappointed here either. Two, three and more plot-lines seemelessly intertwine, split, multiply and ultimately coalesce once more into a grand finale. Equally the language and vocabulary will not leave you wanting: it's a well rounded and beautiful English. Those bits and pieces that are not, and are, for lack of a better term, Culture-space-speak, are explained in a glossary in the back of the book for those who are new to Culture novels and/or fail to catch on to ample intrinsic clues scatterd throught the text. Never fear, this is intelligent SF which can easily pass muster as a piece of literature. So if Sci-Fi normally is not your thing because you dread cheap excuses for questionable air-brush cover-art, don't be shy this book would be an excellent starting point for expanding your horizons. That having been said what can you expect from the story? A human low-tech civilization in the midst of war, treachery and intrigue finds itself embroiled in a past, present and future that far explode its scope. Those familiar with Culture novels may ask what is new at this point. The Culture - current apogee of human development in a highly competitive universe filled with a dazzling array of aliens at various levels of civilization and technological development - has always pursued the goal to interfere in the course of the development of lesser civilizations for what the Culture believes to be 'the good'. A well known fact from other Culture novels. What is new, however, is the ways in which the various charcaters of those intertwining plot-lines mentioned in the forgoing deal with their horizons being exploded (in some cases - to no surprise - literally). And yes, if you wish to play the philosophical perspective card, the relationship between mind and matter is at stake and while being entranced by a ripping good yarn you may suddenly find yourself contemplating the nature of freedom. Although the plot-twists may leave you ambiguous whether it is in our nature to be susceptible to nurture, and to which extent we are bound to the matter we are, the novel leaves you in no doubt as to I.M. Banks' position concerning the relationship of mind and matter. Trust a man of his background to sum things up with an expletive. Which one, and how and why you have to find out yourself.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
2/1/15-I really wanted to love this. It began in a very fascinating way, a revenge story that I was really looking forward to. By the end, it reminded me of Star Trek V, and unfortunately, not in a good way. Still, even with the flaws, Matter is an incredible book with incredible ideas. I'll write a full review at some point.
"Wisdom is silence." These Shellworlds are absolutely fascinating, especially their connection to the planets of the dead (and Consider Phlebas). Damn, am so happy to be reading another Culture Book and am just saddened I only have a few left before it's done.
When I became indoctrinated into science-fiction literature back in 2013, on reading up on Banks and discovering that his books were exactly my kind of thing, I pledged to read the entire Culture series. I tried and failed with Consider Phlebas (the world-building was too steep for me at the time), and it wasn't until 2016 that I succeeded with finishing the Player of Games. The journey had started.
Now, it's with a bittersweet feeling that I've turned the final page of my final Culture book, and my reading of the series is complete.
I could go on and on about the magnificent, galaxy-spanning world-building that covers every awesome science-fiction concept imaginable. I could ramble at length about the kaleidoscope of ideas and mind-boggling concepts, presented in a voice and style as deft as a conjurer's trick. I could describe the meta-commentary and subversion that Banks' employs when building his utopian world that utilizes some deeply un-utopian tactics to keep the galaxy safe.
Instead, I'll just say how much this series means to me and that I'm privileged to have read it. No, it wasn't all peaches and cream. Matter, for instance, had about 150+ pages describing a waterfall network in a faux-medieval fantasy world that would have been a chore to read if it wasn't wrapped up in Banks' dry and ironic voice, all the while I was itching to return to the stars and spacecraft of the greater galaxy. But when all's said and done, no one wrote space opera like Banks did and no one ever will.
And that's what makes these books so damn special.
Demasiada construcción de universo. Excesivo*. Claro que hay especies vivas inteligentes líquidas, gaseosas; civilizaciones extrañas, olvidadas y extintas de las que solo quedan fósiles pero no registros de porqué, cómo y para qué hacían las cosas. Y mundos concha de tamaños descomunales donde se explican las distintas capas y funcionamiento. Pero se pierde en los detalles. Las partes buenas me gustan mucho, y las malas al principio están bien pero se acaban haciendo cansinas.
Además hay toda una parte que no entiendo muy bien. La del regente y todo lo relacionado con las intrigas de palacio. Es el desencadenante inicial y descubrimiento de lo oculto pero toda la parte intermedia y política no veo para que sirve.
Y luego el final va demasiado rápido. La acción se precipita pero casi no hay poso. Demasiado fría y quirúrgica, le falta algo de epicidad y el sinsentido que le encuentro a la parte anterior.
*Extracto de tres párrafos casi seguidos cuando se juntan a charlar dos personajes. Describe a ambos (sus nombres, rangos), luego sus especies y donde se reúnen: Los nariscenos eran insectiles. El zamerín tenía seis miembros y el cuerpo cubierto de queratina. Este, oscuro y dividido en cinco segmentos, de algo menos de metro y medio de longitud (sin contar los pedúnculos y con las mandíbulas retraídas) estaba tachonado de joyas injertadas, venas de metales preciosos incrustadas, aparatos sensoriales adicionales, numerosos holoproyectores diminutos que exhibían las muchas medallas, honores, distinciones y condecoraciones.
Los morthanveld eran criaturas acuáticas espiniformes. La directora general era una esfera de aspecto lechoso de un metro aproximadamente de diámetro, rodeada de cientos de protuberancias espinosas de varios grosores en un amplio espectro de colores pastel. Las púas estaban en su mayoría enrolladas o aplastadas contra el cuerpo en ese momento, lo que le daba un aspecto compacto y aerodinámico. Portaba su entorno con ella en un rebozo reluciente de color azul plateado cuyas membranas y campos contenían su propia pequeña muestra de fluidos oceánicos. Lucía unas cuantas torques en las púas así como pulseras y anillos
El centro de tránsito era un entorno de microgravedad ligeramente presurizado con una suave mezcla tibia de oxígeno y nitrógeno; las redes de hebras de soporte vital que lo infestaban estaban codificadas por color, aroma, textura y varios marcadores más que convertían su presencia en obvia para aquellos que pudieran necesitar su uso. Identificabas la hebra adecuada en la red y te conectabas a ella para recibir lo que necesitaras para sobrevivir: oxígeno, cloro, agua salada o lo que fuera. El sistema no podía acomodar a todas las formas de vida conocidas sin pedirles que se protegieran con un traje o una máscara, pero representaba el mejor compromiso que los constructores nariscenos habían estado dispuestos a aceptar.
Esto es de las partes que me gusta. Es irrelevante de cara a la trama, podrían ser dos humanos, pero la riqueza que proporciona es inmensa. Luego hay otras que se me hacen bola describiendo otra cosas. Como siempre también hay las dudas sobre la relación entre civilizaciones en diferentes estadios de evolución. Y claro: Estar cayendo hacia el Dios del Mundo con unos alienígenas locos para encontrarse con una nave espacial excéntrica que hablaba y que podía saltar entre las estrellas como un hombre saltaba entre las piedras de un río para ir en busca de un iln todavía más perturbado que quería reventar en mil pedazos o derribar el mundo entero, ese era el tipo de cosas con las que ni siquiera soñaba.
Pero es que, ¡joder!, las partes cansinas se hacen eternas. No puedo ponerle tres.
This book is a fractal -- no matter how you zoom in or out, the basic structure remains the same. It starts incredibly zoomed in on the three (maybe four) main characters, then proceeds to zoom out. . . and out. . . and out. . . until the story encompasses issues as large as the destruction of a world and the resurrection of a long-thought-dead alien society. But, (I think purposefully) to emphasize its fractal nature, the climax comes in an instant and then the whole story comes crashing back down to the very zoomed-in. I think this novel will work or not for you based on how well you adapt to that sudden drop. It didn't, particularly, for me, as I was left feeling distanced from the people I had cared about since the beginning, but intellectually I have a great deal of admiration for the skill the novel showed.
Matter, like most of the Culture novels I have read, contains within it the most powerful usage of raw imagination that I have been presented with in any format, written or otherwise. The sheer scope and scale of the story being told and the creativity used to flesh out the space in which it is performed is unparalleled.
Matter is book number 8 in the Culture series. Each book in the series can be read separately from each other and in almost any order, there only being very minor overlaps of presumed knowledge or references of far distant events. That being said however, I would NOT suggest starting with this book, however highly I rate and praise it. But also know that whatever I write below won't spoil anything, should you choose to pick up any of the books.
"The stage is small but the audience is great."
This story primarily takes part on a "Shellworld" called Sursamen. A Shellworld is a planet consisting of multiple layers. In the case of Sursamen specifically; sixteen, including the core. Some of these layers are simply vacuum, but these are still capable of housing beings suited to living in that state. Others are gaseous, contain methane oceans or are 99% full of water from top to bottom, and contain their own largely independent civilisations. The Eighth and Ninth are the only land layers contained within the Shellworld, and that is where the majority of the story takes place, but more on that in a moment. Each layer is held up and separated from each other by towers. Towers are also the means by which these layers are travelled between; suitable and adaptable for any form of life that has the relevant paperwork or clearance to move between the floors of the planet. The previously mentioned core is supposedly home to the creature/being that created the Shellworld in the first place, although different societies believe different things. Access to the core is generally forbidden, so whoever/whatever may be there has become subject to myth, legend OR, as in the case of the Eighth layer - a Godhead.
The key characters that we experience this story through all belong the the Royal Family of the Eighth layer of Sursamen;
• Ferbin; the eldest Prince (who is already reluctant to take the throne) together with his servant Holse, flee for their lives having witnessed Ferbin's father, the King, being brutally murdered by one that he and his family trusted. • Oramen; the not-yet-of-age Prince is next in line for the throne once Ferbin has fled and is presumed and believed dead. He is left mourning the loss of his father and brother, not aware that those around him have sinister and hard to predict motives. • Djan Seriy; the princess and the eldest of the three siblings, was sent off-world 15 years before our story starts, to join the Culture - the space-faring, utopic civilisation that makes up and represents a large portion of pan-human lifeforms within the known galaxy. Djan joins a group known as Special Circumstances who assigns itself the task of managing unusual, tricky, secret, or otherwise "special" situations found throughout the galaxy. When Djan hears about the turmoil on her old home back on the Eighth, she has to decide whether to give up a rewarding job that she enjoys, her high level (and potentially dangerous) body mods and built-in tools, as well as a lifestyle that she has gotten very used to since her family sent her away.
"She wanted to tell him that it was all okay, that there was nothing really to worry about, that the universe was a terrible, utterly uncaring place and then people came along and added suffering and injustice to the mix as well and it was all so much worse than he could imagine and she knew because she had studied it and lived it, even if just a little. You could make it better but it was a messy process and then you just had to try - you were obliged, duty-bound to try - to be sure that you did the right thing."
The literal and figurative world-building Banks employs within and around Sursamen (and throughout all his other SF works) is amazingly full and detailed. The Eighth is a wonderful blend of fantasy and science fiction, with a behind the times and somewhat barabaric society - still ruled by a male dominated monarchy and a religion that the rest of the galaxy has already largely debunked, but one that is also drip-fed technology and knowledge belonging to those that have long since lived amongst the stars. It creates a wonderful juxtaposition and invites comparison and reflection between our own societal differences. The way the landscape and scenery of Ninth layer is described to us (via a few different perspectives) is some of the most provocative and picturesque imagery I've had conjured for me by SFF in a long while. All of this, as well as the very "Banksian" philosophies, political and social stances, explorations of things like simulation theory, with space opera scale distances, witty drones, a great use of technology and the AI controlled mind ships, that act as smaller and unique habitats and worlds in and of themselves, creates a very well rounded and whole picture in my mind and I have never read or heard of anything quite like it outside of this series.
"To do nothing is always easy." Ferbin did not try to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "To do nothing when you are so tempted to do something and entirely have the means to do so is harder. It grows easier only when you know you do nothing for the active betterment of others."
At 565 pages and despite the great conclusion, I wish Matter could have gone on for longer, because I was enjoying my time with it that much. I have been rationing out the last few Iain M. Banks novels, only taking them with me whilst travelling and reading them far slower than I did the first few. Knowing that there won't be any more entries into the Culture universe makes me incredibly sad, and knowing we have lost the mind that was capable of telling these marvellous stories is devastating. But, I remind myself, these stories will always always be here. These stories have been my, if somewhat irregularly spaced, escapism for almost a decade and it's always an event to be reading one.
Thoroughly enjoyable and addictive. A fantastic entry into a science fiction series that has yet to be matched. _____________________________________
Thank you for reading my review! Feel free to follow me or add me as a friend for more Science Fiction and Fantasy reviews, including (eventually) the last two remaining Iain M. Banks novels, Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata.
I hope you all have a wonderful 2020 and read some more amazing books this year!
After eight years of waiting for Banks to write a new Culture novel, I’m sure fans were ecstatic when Matter came out and it was so weighty, the longest ever Culture novel to that point (I believe Surface Detail, the next one, is a little longer). As a fan of Stephen King you’d think I’d be comfortable with door-stoppers, but as I’ve become older, wiser and increasingly impatient, any book that exceeds 80,000 words makes my heart sink a little.
Matter is 180,000 words.
Of course, if the length were justified I wouldn’t give a shit, but the plot that Banks serves up is taken straight from the epic fantasy handbook. Prince Ferbin of Sarl, egotist and philanderer, witnesses the murder of his father, the King, at the hands of his right-hand man, Mertis tyl Loesp. Ferbin does a runner and is presumed dead. His younger brother, Oramen, is too young to take the crown and so Loesp becomes Regent until Oramen comes of age. Of course, the evil, conniving Loesp has no intention of that happening.
Yes, I know what you die-hard Culture fans are going to say, the story is more complicated than that. For one, the pre-industrial kingdom of Sarl is located on the eighth level of a Shellworld named Sursamen (you might remember Shellworlds from Consider Phlebas). These are planets that were built, Magrathean-style, by an ancient civilisation (now deceased). They are layered like an onion, with multiple levels that are accessed via towers that bisect the planet. The Sarls *know* they live on a Shellworld. They also know that they are monitored by aliens such as the Oct and the Aultridia (who detest each other). It’s fascinating stuff, avoiding the annoying Prime Directive cliche where low-tech humans aren’t aware of the aliens among them.
Second off, Ferbin and Oramen’s sister, Djan Seriy Anaplian, was - a decade previously - handed over to the Culture as payment for services rendered by a Culture agent. In the years that follow Anaplian becomes a member of Special Circumstances - the covert arm of the Culture. When she hears about the death of her father and brother she decides to head back to Sursamen. Anaplian is a great character, that rare occasion where Banks gives a meaty role to a woman, one who is confident, empowered and smart.
Third, and finally, an archeological dig on the ninth level of Sursamen has uncovered an artefact that has the Oct in a tizzy. They believe this might be a relic left behind by the creators of the Shellworld, beings they idolise.
So, yes, it’s more than just a ho-hum tale about a King betrayed on a paper-thin secondary world. The problem is that too much of the plot centres on the political machinations of Loesp, whose ambition and moustache twirling plans I couldn’t give a toss about. Oramen’s ability to avoid assassination attempts, mostly through luck, rather than skill, is also irritating. But what kills the novel’s momentum dead is Ferbin’s trip, with his Baldrick inspired dogsbody Holse, across the galaxy to seek assistance from the Culture agent that visited Sursamen a decade previously. Not only does their quest seem to last for an eternity, once Ferbin reaches his destination and meets the now ex- Culture agent he receives no help at all and instead is “gifted” a patronising, albeit vaguely interesting, Philosophy 101 conversation about epistemology and war.
It’s not until the final third of the novel - which I won’t spoil - that the plodding, stodgy plot slips into turbo mode. I zipped through the last 130 or so pages, the ending as cinematic as anything Banks has written - at least in terms of The Culture books. I even liked the abrupt ending. But fuck me, I had to eat a shitload of broccoli to get there.
This novel is a wild ride. It starts off chiefly explaining the Sarl people who live in a society that reminded me of the wild west, complete with cattle rustling (weird space cattle), saloon fights, and the omnipresent question of who's gonna run the ranch (or be the king). It is one of Banks's "Culture" novels and it does quite a lot to explain more about The Culture, for a princess of the royal family of the Sarl was given to The Culture, that conglomerate of "mongrel-utopians", to act in their "Special Circumstances" department. Though she begins this novel by returning to her homeworld, her presence does a lot to explain the way The Culture works.
Like all the "Culture" novels "Matter" is not so much about the Culture as it is about one of the worlds on the periphery of the Culture. And what a world Sursamen is! -- an artificial "Shellworld" composed of levels each with its own type of atmosphere and environment; the Sarl live on Level 8, one of the 2 "land" levels. These Shellworlds were built by a race of beings who are now eons dead. There are thousands of them that compose a circle around the galaxy. Most of them are dead, but about 4 thousand remain active. We get to know Sursamen through the royal family of the Sarl.
Ferbin, a prince of the royal family, is chased offworld, but returns for a "showdown" with the villains of the story. But the last 100 pages are nothing like what I expected them to be. The story goes from its wild west format into a wild journey full of cataclysmic events and long dead artifacts returning to life that kept me on the edge of my seat through what was a really exciting whirlwind adventure. The characters are asked to question their place, not only among the Sarl, but among this magnificent universe in its totality.
This is my all time favourite Banks story. I absolutely love the interplay of Culture and other almost god like Involved species, and then a slew of lower and lower tech species all the way down the ladder, all interacting and living out their interwoven lives. The mix of SCiFi and almost Fantasy is great. And the Falls are just amazing.
I really want to give this five stars, but the book was about 95% build-up and 5% closure, plus I put it down and really had to force myself to pick it up again at times.
The book's abrupt ending only helps with the kind of nihilistic/solipsistic philosophical thread woven throughout the story. There are many carefully crafted and complicated characters in this book who sometimes don't even serve much of a plot purpose (e.g. Xide Hyrlis) but whose intriguing lives and intricately described traits and motivations add to a rich tapestry of a universe distant in time that is both mind bogglingly massive and comprehensibly petty and small.
The metaphor of the shellworld as a microcosm of the many political strata of the future universe is an absolutely fantastic visual that Banks reveals a little at a time, so that by the time you've really understood what he's built up, the fairly obvious plot has completely passed you by (giant bad alien biding time to kill giant good alien). Plus you really feel that all the different empires mentioned (Morthanveld, Iln, WorldGod, Oct, Nariscene etc) and even some aliens on different levels of Sursamen are given enough page space to develop as their own entities and not just passing tropes in a more important whodunnit.
And as if all that wasn't enough, the book serves to further develop some of the niggling plot points of the wider Culture idea from many books, such as the nature of control, of choice, of intervention and of Special Circumstances, all told from the perspective of Djan Seriy who is an outsider turned insider - plus a total female badass which always goes down well with me.
Even though this book felt slow at points I'm just in awe of Bank's storytelling mastery, he takes many huge concepts and makes a mighty tale out of them.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.