Saturday, August 09, 2008

08.14 Matter by Iain M. Banks

Matter (2008) by Iain M. Banks
Hardcover, Orbit, 448 p.

I haven't read them all yet but for many reasons a new Culture novel by Banks is a big event for me. There are very few contemporary sf writers these days actually making a go of it and putting out entertaining and readable science fiction. There is a ton of sf coming out but it's no less ghettoized than it was 10 or 25 years ago.

The Culture novels exist in a universe where there is a kind of high-level, Star Trek-like utopian oversight by powerful AIs. Banks has written many of his sf novels in this society. The majority of Matter takes place on something called a Shellworld. These are planetoids that were built by a powerful, long-lost race possibly for the purpose of creating a galaxy wide force field. The Shellworlds are structured like a Russian doll with consecutive layers supported by vast kilometers high pillars. Each layer is now occupied by a different species adapted to that layers specific environment - cloud world, aquatic, terrestrial.

Matter is based mainly in the 8th layer (Land - oxygen) of the Shellworld Sursamen where a human culture called the Sarl live. The Sarl are essentially a medieval society technologically and for the most part culturally although they are aware of other species. This is because most species exist in a client/mentor situation. The Sarl are the client species to the Oct, a crab-like species, described as a lower-level involved society, meaning that they are mentored by higher societies, though they in their specific case also mentor a non-involved society on the planet of Sursamen.

The King of Sarl is embroiled in a wary with the 9th level. One of his three children, the eldest prince, witnesses a horrific betrayal of the king during a battle and as a consequence has to flee the planet in order to find help. His sister, who long ago left, has become an agent of Special Circumstances, a deadly investigative arm of the Culture. When she hears of the betrayal, she decides to head back to her home. The book tracks their journeys as well as that of the third prince.

I remain vague on the plot because I think that, as with most of Banks' novels, the story is never the driving force for the reader. Not to say that he is a bad writer but his ideas are so amazing that you always want to see where they go. I really enjoyed this book and I think it is his most accessible especially to the non sf reader. Well...maybe, after all it is well over 200,000 words long and the last 20 or so pages are appendices and glossaries. Still, by making the protagonists from a low tech society and moving them through a wide range of other cultures he allows a level of explanation that is often lacking in his other novels.


Buzby said...

This sounds really involved and detailed. Was it difficult to follow along all the details?

Lantzvillager said...

I'd say for the first few chapters it requires some concentration for sure. I would occasionally refer to the glossary mostly because you are dealing with some wacky names (Djan Seriy Anaplian, tyl Loesp) and many species. Plus figuring out how the planet functions is not simple. Eventually everything clicks and it all becomes worthwhile.

Olman Feelyus said...

So is Feersum Endjinn also set on a Shellworld?

I know it sounds kind of complex, but Banks is awesome. As Lantzvillager says, his writing is so great and the set-up so cool, that you really get into it. I do find his stories compelling. The plots usually involve compelling characters and societies and put a lot at stake. There is the real risk of really terrible stuff happening to people you like. This'll be on my list.

Lantzvillager said...

I don't think so. As far as I know this was his first use of the Shellworld concept. I haven't read Feersum Endjinn though.