Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand

Matter Matter
by Iain M. Banks
Orbit Books

Supplied for review by Hachette New Zealand

Reviewed By: Simon Litten
Kelly Buchanan

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 Banks’s writing, then I have no immediate interest in reading his other works.

Simon Litten

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 story.

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.

Kelly Buchanan

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