A great science fiction read

Eloise Hayes 6 March 2008

Iain Banks

Matter

FOUR STARS OUT OF FIVE

For the uninitiated, the fact that Matter is billed as “The New Culture Novel” could be either confusing or a really clever play on words; the “Culture” of the novel is an alien organisation that influences and even interferes with the developments of the worlds and races of a “a galaxy full of wonders”. This is not just sci-fi, this is the product of a man whose incredible creative imagination is obvious even in his “mainstream” fiction (which is “branded” under the very slightly different pen name: Iain Banks).

The plot synopsis on the dust jacket–given with the Banks interview in this paper a couple of weeks ago–is deliberately sensational and, arguably, a bit misleading. Banks’ style is packed full of considered, interesting detail which ranges from the details of the Hausk court, which links the otherwise separated siblings who are the main characters, to the history of the galaxy’s “Shellworlds”. Indeed, so much detail is given that you can’t read this book for plot alone; not only are the details often lengthy and exact, they also carry philosophical implications for the questions that perhaps drove writers to the sci-fi genre in the first place such as: how far can and should artificial intelligence go? This profusion of detail–often dissociated from the main plot–is a disadvantage for some established fans of Banks, as is the added complication that there are three relatively disparate plot lines. However, I find the level of detail intriguing and a refreshing contrast to the otherwise fairly easy-to-follow overall plot.

Another criticism levelled at Matter by fans is that it has too much fantasy to it, and I can understand why they say this. The names of the three siblings (Ferbin, Djan and Oramen) and the semi-medieval elements of their world on the Eighth level of the Shellworld Sursamen all point towards fantasy. However, the other side of the coin is that this still is sci-fi: it has aliens, it has space travel, it has technology and all of these things have implications for the reader’s own situation–the “neural lace” Djan Seriy Anaplian has to the mind-boggling “dataverse”, not entirely unlike the Internet, and the petty bureaucracy that governs galactic politics are all pointed comments on modern Western society. If you can retain an open mind and have the stamina to continue, these fantasy elements do actually serve their purpose in contrasting Anaplian’s origins and the Culture’s Special Circumstances agent she has become.

The one thing I would agree with the critics on is the length, as Matter–at 593 pages–does take some time to really get going. However, this is a small point and, if not too set in their ways, readers will be rewarded with a varied and engrossing read. Essentially, this is not “normal” sci-fi but is the better for it and I challenge anyone to define a “normal” Banks novel.

Eloise Hayes