Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Iain M. Banks - Matter (Book Review)

On the Eight level of Sursamen, one of twelve hundred surviving shellworlds, there is war. An almost sphere-wide human state, created by the king Hausk is invaded by the humans of the level below. The king, as is his habit, is on the front with his men. Of his four children only the eldest, now long dead, was a warrior. The middle son, Ferbin, next in the line for the throne, was groomed to be a diplomat. A calling he likes, especially since it takes him to every vice he can think of. But what madness took him to view the fighting in the capital he does not know. Trying to figure it out he crouches in darkness with his trousers soiled, hoping to hide from the terrible noise that the battle, the shells and the dying of men makes. A darker purpose brings to the abandoned factory in which Ferbin hides another group. Commanded by his fathers most trusted companion they carry in the wounded king. Hidden by the darkness, Ferbin holds his peace. Some for shame and some because of newly found caution. But soon he is too stunned for words. When Tyl Loesp proclaims him dead, laughs at his father sadness and then plunges his hand into Hausk chest and twists kings heart still, all he can do is stare. Officially only the youngest of brothers - Oramen now remains alive, too young to rule. Tyl Loesp intends to become a regent… for a while at least, and when Oramen conveniently dies, a king. The only hope Ferbin sees for surviving and even correcting the injustice are the aliens, with their advanced technology and hopefully some sympathy for the king's death and his own plight. Perhaps some can be found among those that watch over the shells, or perhaps among the so called Involved species. Especially since Xide Hyrilis, a man from The Culture was a friend and advisor of his father. If not Xide, then perhaps Ferbins own sister, Djan Seiry Anaplian, might help. Taken to The Culture as a kind of payment for services rendered, she is now a part of Cultures Special Circumstances section.

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:

  1. 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…
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

(four out of five, but don't forget, we're talking Bank's standard here!)


You can also read an interesting interview with Ian M. Banks here: link

~ BlindMan ~


argon said...

yeeeeeeeees, it's on my wish list for the next year! (paperback)
Not enough Culture in it? Oh, no! I want my 'Advanced Case Of Chronic Patheticism' back! hehe.

Anyway, very nice review. I was just confused by too many fonts styles.

ThRiNiDiR said...

This is a mistake from my side...I have browser/blogspot.com problems. Neither Opera or Explorer interact with the webpage as they should. I'll guess I'll have to switch to Firefox or smth. :)

@BlinMan: Great review! But little heavy on the terminology for those unacquainted with The Culture and Ian M. Banks...I'll guess I'll have to fix this by borrowing some of your books ;)

George said...

Well, I guess you are rigt. Matter was my first forage into The Culture and it turned out to be pretty self-contained, even though it is a part of a larger series. Good book.


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