January 3, 2008
Matter - Iain M Banks
Matter (UK / US) is the first Culture novel for seven years, the last one was Look to Windward (and the last SF novel by Banks being The Algebraist). That's a lot of expectation, seven years. Too much for me perhaps.
The prologue to Matter is typically Culture, with a Special Circumstance agent and a drone meddling in some lower civilisation. The story then splits into a few plots. The core of the story is the Shell World Sursamen, it's a Big Dumb Object on a truly gigantic scale, Peta-Scale Engineering! A great setup then, with plenty of infodump detail on the Shell Worlds and their origins.
The first half of the story kept me entertained, although it was perhaps a little slow. The story focuses on the lower tech "worlds" of levels 8 and 9 of the shell world, and if you just read these strands you may think that you are reading a fantasy novel: there's a king, some princes, a quest and politics. (I'm being vague about plot details because I don't want to give away spoilers.)
What's new in this novel is a greater explanation of how The Culture fit into the galaxy, with descriptions of at least one other civilisation that is their equal. Before now I've always felt that The Culture were the dominant species (culture?) but Matter reveals that not to be the case. If you are after some alien civilisations, with their own weird ways and massive engineering eye-kick projects then you'll enjoy it. Personally I'd have preferred some more of the Culture and the Minds. There were a few tantalising glimpses of life in The Culture, especially a civillians reaction to a Special Circumstances agent, but a few scenes aren't enough for me. And of course it was witty, with some funny moments (usuallly involving drones and ships) that made me laugh out loud eg.
"she found their ships' names absurd, childish and ridiculous at first, then got used to them, then thought she kind of understood them, then realised there was no understanding the Mind of a ship, and went back to finding them annoying"
The second quarter of the book dragged for me. Nothing was pulling me through, the wow factor of the introduction had been lost and I was left with some seemingly random journeys and some medieval politics. It's also quite a long book at almost 600 pages (including the redundant, apart from the list of Culture ships, appendix).
The last few chapters of the book accelerate to break-neck pace and provide some of the action and Culture tech that I had been missing. However the ending left too many threads unresolved for me, the main plot seemed to slide out of the novel half way through with not a very satisfactory reason. At the BSFA meeting Banks made a comment about writing the first part of a trilogy with no follow up. There's been some discussion as to whether this referred to The Algebraist or Matter, but to me, that is what Matter feels like (I haven't read The Algebraist).
So in the end I was disappointed with Matter, it's too rooted in the lower tech worlds, too obsessed with how they deal with living as a "lower" culture, too vague about the political intentions of higher species, and there was not enough of the real Culture. I think that maybe I wanted it to be Excession. If you've never read any Culture novels, perhaps you shouldn't start with this, read The Player Of Games, Use of Weapons and Excession first.