|In his SF-mode Iain Banks is known for his
"Culture" series. Matter sits within that canon, sort
of. Matter is not an easy book to describe. It has space travel
and aliens; it has the Culture, with its accoutrements and extremes; yet the majority of
the action and characters occur in a non-Culture shellworld (a vast globe with an
onion-layering of habitats inside) milieu that has progressed to about the level of
technology of 18th century Europe.
I found the book Proustian in its style,
with the sweep and motion of the story broken up with recollections by the characters of
half-remembered incidents from years gone by. The book was Proustian too in the way it
dawdled to its conclusion at which point, two chapters from the end, the author
opened a new prescription and changed style dramatically, and dramatically changed style.
Old villains and heroes were cast into the furnace and new ones generated.
For me this was less than a satisfying read. The story drifted from one incident to
another and would suddenly lurch in a new direction to suit the whim of the author. These
inexplicable shifts in story focal point meant that my engagement with the story was not
as high as it could have been and I rewarded myself with other books upon reaching
significant break points in the book (like at the end of the first two of the three parts
the book was broken into).
If this book was a measure of Mr Bankss writing, then I have no immediate
interest in reading his other works.
This wasn't quite the book I was expecting. A rather misleading cover blurb implied
that a significant part of the story would involve how a recruit to the Culture's Special
Circumstances division deals with returning to her old life after experiencing an
infinitely more advanced civilization. This doesn't happen at all.
The bulk of the book actually deals with travels to and from a Shellworld, one of the
galaxy's more impressive feats of engineering and home to the three siblings who are the
story's protagonists. The alien worlds, societies, and entities encountered along the way
are quite imaginative and fun to read about, but while the characters' journeys make for
entertaining reading, it did leave me wondering when it was going to get on to the actual
The other third of the book, relating events back in the primitive kingdom of Sarl
within the Shellworld, is more compelling, though it ends up going in unexpected
directions. It reads a lot like fantasy, with the low gravity allowing for flying steeds
and the more advanced alien neighbours standing in for creatures of magic.
The novel feels rather lightweight by Banks' standards; it's certainly no Use
of Weapons. The tone mostly tends towards gently humorous, particularly with
the adventures of the foppish Prince Ferbin, though there are still plenty of grim
moments. But even as a lesser Banks work, it's still well worth reading.