Matter – Iain M. Banks

And another Culture novel. This one is possibly simultaneously possibly my most and least favourite of these, simply because it feels the least like a Banks novel and most like… well, any other adventurey, spacey SF novel.

Early on, I found myself getting really sucked into it because of the characters. Holse particularly, but also Ferbin and Djan Seriy (respectively the cunning servant, daft prince and badass Special Circumstances ex-princess), were all just really captivating, in a way I don’t think Banks always manages. And Holse and Ferbin are funny. I’m definitely not used to finding that in my Culture novels. Even away from the characters I like, it’s a strongly character driven novel, with some solid political intrigue and a proper baddie, who politics and plots and does properly evil things… well… evilly. He has actual schemes. It’s beautiful.

But it also sort of undermines what Banks seems to do in the rest of his novels. Because it’s all sort of a cliché. And I enjoyed it at first because it was so unexpected… and that made it funny. But now I’ve come to the end I’m sort of wondering if it wasn’t a bit… cheap. While it was cool for Banks to have done something that deviated a bit from what I’m starting to think of as the standard Culture novel, I’m not sure what he chose was the best one to do it with. Partially, I suspect this is because the setting he chose was a pseudo-medieval world in which to have all his politicking, and it’s not like there’s a shortage of those around nowadays. And I just checked the publication date, and it’s pretty recent, so he doesn’t even have the excuse of massively predating GRRM et. al. to use to get out of it (I think?). Not that GRRM has a monopoly on pseudo-medieval political fantasy, but it’s definitely been on the upswing since. Perhaps it’s partially me reading this when I am; I’m coming to it from the wrong context. But it does also jarr quite strongly with the Culture as a setting.

To some extent, I think that disjoint is deliberate, and I think there are several things he’s trying to achieve with the contrast. I’m just not sure the extent to which they work, at least for me.

That being said, I do see the value of the person from the pseudo-medieval world going on to become a Culture agent in Special Circumstances. I’ve talked before about how Banks likes to do the perspective of Culture-outsider looking in, and this is one of the most intimate ways he could do that. Djan Seriy was born to her pseudo-medieval world but grew up in the Culture, so she’s about as well versed in both as it is possible to be. So getting inside her head is incredibly interesting, and absolutely not what I’d have expected. She’s very cold, very detached and very untrusting, and he manages to tie this into her character quite subtly but quite neatly. Her context just… works. And so it makes her very interesting to read.

Likewise, I get and rather enjoy seeing a pre-Industrial civilisation who have knowledge of and some access to cultures with Culture-level tech. This is the fuck-the-Prime-Directive approach (and spoilers, I am pretty sure the events of Matter justify the Prime Directive, but that could just be my biases talking). It’s done in a way that isn’t quite so heavy handed as we often see (yes, including in Trek episodes) and so the badness of it is also more subtle at the start. Admittedly less so later on. It builds up neatly, so you can see all the “oh maybe that isn’t so bad” right up until the “oh wow… that’s a really stupid thing to do”. The laddering of civilisations is neat too, the Sarl and their pre-Industrial tech having access to the Oct, who are less tech-advanced than the Nariscene who are less advanced than the Morthanveld… I’d liked to have seen more interactions between the Oct/Nariscene/Morthanveld, as we only really got glimpses of how that work. Maybe I’ve just read the wrong things, but big space SF where advanced civilisations share in big chains like this… it’s just fundamentally cool and I want to see how that affects their societies. Because clearly it would, and you can tell Banks acknowledges this right from the start. But I want to know more.

So yeah, it’s not a completely failed setting, and I enjoyed a lot of it… but there is definitely something about it that sits wrong, and I couldn’t get over it, even as I enjoyed some of the thinking it led it.

And there was one big thing that let this novel down for me, though it’s slightly spoilery: the ending really just snaps off into basically nothing. You build up and up into this whole action sequence – and it really is quite fighty, more than I was really expecting – and then suddenly that’s it. Also, even more spoilery, he really doesn’t have any sentimentality about his characters; he is quite happy to kill off so many of the ones you’ve got used to being in the heads of, all in a sudden rush. It just feels too much, and you’re left bereft, to an epilogue with the one character left behind, who suddenly doesn’t read anything like he did before.

Until the ending, I was happy with enjoying this. Maybe not my favourite Banks, but high up there and definitely interesting. But the ending was just…no, too sudden, too harsh, and not meaningfully so, I thought? Definitely sometimes excessive character death can have a purpose and work, however painful. But this just felt needlessly cruel. As the review on the front cover of the copy I have says “unexpectedly savage”. Only I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Oh, one other plus. We do get a bit more of the different Involved civilisations and their politicking, which is also cool. How the Culture interacts with other scarily advanced races is always fun, especially when viewed through the weird Culture lens of bias, and I’m probably not going to stop enjoying that at any point.

But all in all, not the best Culture novel, though probably not the worst either? I will still continue to read, and I’m definitely ok with him trying to do funny, since it definitely worked.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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