by David Brookes
A new Iain Banks novel is something to look forward to like that holiday you booked late last year, or that annual bonus you were promised with your next pay cheque. Alternately releasing mainstream novels as Iain Banks, and his hugely successful science-fiction novels as Iain M. Banks, there’s always something to look foward to. His last book was set outside his usual universe, meaning that it’s been about eight years since his last novel set within the galaxies-wide civilization known as “the Culture”.
“Matter” is a faithful return to the universe that Banks has created, further developing not only the Culture, but the outlying words and civlizations that the Culture must interact (or interfere) with. There is a lot to enjoy within the 600-or so pages, including a selection of bizzare new races, the usual Special Circumstances agents who get all the interesting dirty work, and their deadly and quirky drone accomplices. Fans of the Culture novels might be disappointed that the Minds, supremely powerful AIs that control the Culture’s quirkily-named spacecraft, take a bit of a back seat here. In fact, the Culture itself is primarily something draped across the background of the story, rather than playing a huge part in it.
The novels is set mostly on a rare type of planet called a “Shellworld”, apparently-artificially-created worlds that are hollow and composed of several layers, each occupied by a different atmosphere and one or two accompanying species. The world itself is a centrepiece for a great drama that begins with the death of a king, and the resulting squabbles and battle. It’s a sound plot with several twists, played out by some well-drawn characters and sprinkled liberally with gimmicky gadgets and awesome action set pieces. More linear that most Banks novels, it can afford to get into detail without confusing the readers or making them wait for a concrete details to figure out when and where they are. There are a lot of details, with Banks taking liberties with the knowledge that publishers and readers pretty much expect it now. Thankfully there aren’t many irrelivancies, and of course the more specifics about the new species and the unfamiliar planet-type the better.
Banks seems fully aware that he will need to do a lot of satisfy fans with this one. He opens with a traditionally Culture-like scene involving action, drama, humour and sarcastic drones. He then throws us into the almost medieval style society of the Shellworld, describing its intricacies and introducing its close cast of relevant inhabitants. From there we are shown the Culture from the outside, which although providing us with a new view of the morally ambiguous civilization also serves to distance us from it. Bad move from Mr Banks, but it’s not a total loss. There’s enough of Special Circumstances and its interaction with neighbouring races to keep things familiar as we explore the Shellworld and the revelations that take place there on, in and around it.
His creations and their almost senseless banter are too fruity to be believed (although he did more than stretched believability to begin with). They all leave the reader with a mild suspicion that Banks is, to put it bluntly, taking the piss. Seeing how much he can get away with before somebody slaps him down and says, “Okay, too far.” It does get silly at times, but then that’s kind of what Banks’ sci-fi is about: yanking imagination out into big long strings like warm Blu-Tack, and then rolling them up into a confused bundle and hope that something amazing takes shape. In this case, Banks is reasonably successful. It’s not perhaps the best thing he’s written, and nothing to match “Consider Phlebas” or “Excession”, but it’s a good read and its length counterbalanced by the fine prose and well-tuned dialogue. If you like the Culture novels, or even if you just like sci-fi, you’re sure to enjoy it. And, as always, you needn’t have read any of the others to understand it, which is common practice nowadays. Give it a go, enjoy the depth of the characters, the silliness of the aliens, and the breathtaking final scenes. It’s awesome and its fun and it’s proper literature as well. Bonus!
About the Author
David Brookes is an author from Sheffield, England. His first novel “Half Discovered Wings” was published Autumn 2009. His site is Spinning Lizard