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Iain M. Banks
Reviewed by: Richard Gingell © 2008

Orbit Books / Hachette Book Group
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-0316005364
608 Pages; $25.99
Publication Date: 02-28-2008
Date Reviewed: 02-17-2008

Index: Science Fiction

Iain Banks (with or without the “M”) is an inventive, witty and apparently effortless writer whose words fly off the page; his books are hard to put down. “Matter” is his 8th SF novel exploring the “Culture”. For those not familiar with the Culture (and just where have you been?), the Culture is a post-scarcity society in which everything one could possibly want is free, and an apparently hedonistic society in which there are no rules (but if you upset enough people badly enough, they won’t play with you any more, so there are some self imposed rules for most “people”). The Culture consists of (mostly) human-like beings and Minds (autonomous and emancipated AIs of great power and wisdom). For all its apparent anarchy, the Culture has a diplomatic arm known as Contact, a subset of which, known as Special Circumstances, is responsible for rather robust “diplomacy”.

“ Matter” is a story of trust and betrayal, deception hidden within deception, revenge and redemption, genocide and small victories, of the insignificant becoming significant, and of good intentions gone bad; in other words, a typical Iain Banks novel.

The story has two main threads which eventually (and sometimes perhaps a little too slowly) converge.

In one thread we have Djan Seriy Anaplian, an agent for Special Circumstances together with Turminder Xuss (drone, offensive) interfering in a war. Djan comes from the 8th level of the Shellworld Sursamen (imagine a world consisting of a set of concentric spheres, or a set of Russian dolls, each level inhabited by a different species). She was sent to the Culture by her father King Hausk, ruler of Sursamen’s patriarchal 8th level, as thanks for their help but is now changed, almost beyond recognition, by the Culture’s technology and genetic manipulation.

In the other thread, several thousand light years away we have Djan’s two brothers Ferbin and Oramen together with her father the king on their home world of Sursamen; the king is killed, this thread splits with Ferbin on the lam and with Oramen unknowingly in deadly danger.

What follows is an exciting romp as we travel through the Sursamen’s various levels and across the galaxy as Ferbin, together with his man servant Choubris Holse, seeks help from his sister, Oramen learns of his danger and Djan attempts to return to Sursamen. At times, this middle section feels as if it could have done with some tighter editing but Banks on a bad day is better than most other writers on their good days.

The outcome of that return will not surprise Mr. Banks regular readers as characters learn to behave honorably and wish for a good death, and he avoids the conventional happy ending. But wait, there’s an epilog after the book’s appendix that should at least raise a smile.

So how does this book compare with Mr. Banks other Culture novels? In two words, very well; not the greatest of his output which would be either “Consider Phlebas”, a great rollicking space opera or “The Player of Games” in which an individual member of the Culture, inveigled into working for Special Circumstances, is principally responsible for bringing down an “evil empire”.

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