After eight years The Culture is back, and so is, after four, its creator Iain (M.) Banks. The last book Banks published in his SF incarnation was non-Culture novel The Algebraist in 2004.
As said, Matter is set in the universe of The Culture - the 'mongrel humanoid civilization' with its Special Circumstances, its Minds and Drones with their endearing dry wit and its endless array of (post)human biological inhabitants of thoughts and forms most eccentric. Those of you who have not read any of the other Culture novels fear not - although Banks uses the universe built through his other books, he also gives a new reader more than enough information to navigate his way through the terminology. Do not misunderstand, that does not mean that the experienced readers will get bored with deja-vu. Banks has lost none of his skill. You'll get a lot of excited "that's right" moments, but you'll not get bored.
Then again, the focus of the story is not on The Culture or the complexity of the space in which it exists. The story is focused on the shellworld Sursamen and believe me, it is no less complex as the sprawling Culture universe. Banks uses the three surviving children of King Hausk to tell the story from three different points of wiew:
- Djan Seiry Anaplians on her semi-official SC mission tells the 'macro view' – how the Involed species, the self-proclaimed benevolent guardians, see the events and their possible consequences.
- Ferins tale is the 'overview' story through which we learn the dynamics and politics of the shellworlds. Of each sphere modified to hold a specific habitat, populated by either space faring species or by species brought here for various reasons, of creatures big and small - cumuloform, insectile, aquatic or humanoid, each with different level of science, culture and sentience and of several different space fairing species that watch over these spheres and cultures. Bound by an agreement not to involve themselves into developing shell inhabiting cultures. These watchers are in turn supervised by another species, which is their mentor and so forth. Above them all there are the "Involed species", the great 'powers that be', who in turn very intently watch each other.
- Oramnes story represents the 'micro-view', the view of the Sarl, the civilization from which all three siblings come. Through the tale of rather naïve prince we learn of the culture the Sarls built and of the court intrigue.
Masterfully intertwining the tales, Banks creates a beautiful mosaic which culminates in all to abrupt ending.
What are the downsides of the book? Well, truth be told the ending does leave something to be desired, but overall - there are none! Even the cover art is great. "Why only four out of five then?" you're probably wondering. For three reasons:
- Not nearly enough Culture!!! I know, I know… I would be just as disappointed if I'd get more of the 'same old, same old' we usually get from the genre authors. But… I… Want… More…
- I wouldn't recommend Matter to anyone as the first book to read among the genre novels Banks wrote. I can't point out exacty what is missing, but there IS something missing something that would make this book really… lovable.
- Because it's not THE novel I expect/hope Banks to write. He is the man who has brought the wit, vastness and complexity back into space opera, not to mention the quality of writing. I've probably read most (if not all) of his genre books and I simply cannot accept him writing below current standard. It's a great standard, miles ahead of most of the other authors… but I believe he CAN do even better.
You can also read an interesting interview with Ian M. Banks here: link
~ BlindMan ~