Review: Iain Banks Matter

Posted on | February 28, 2009

After two long weeks of reading in fits and starts, I have finally finished Iain M. Banks’ latest SF novel, The Culture Novel Matter. And although it was unquestionably an excellent space opera novel with all the glorious wordplay, unbelievably vast and imaginative settings, and inevitable tightening of the plot screws that are the hallmarks of an Iain M. Banks novel, I will say that Matter is only a space opera, and that’s all it is. There is no Crowning Moment of Awesome, once a feature guaranteed and definitively present in such books as Feersum Endjinn, Use of Weapons, and The Wasp Factory. If not the crowning moment, then his other signature, the droll “funny ol’ world, ain’t it?” moment.

And that’s what disappoints me most about Matter. It feels phoned-in. A phoned-in Iain M. Banks novel is still infinite worlds better than 90% of the dross on the shelves, but when you pay for a Banks novel, you kinda expect… more. Matter feels like a mortgage payment.

The plotline is a bit meandering. There are two basic threads: the first involves a complex and long-abandoned-by-its-owners vast artificial world, to which an aggressive quasi-medieval civilizations was brought some centuries before by the Culture or one of its agents, in the hopes that the enormous distances between civilizations would give each a chance to grow and mature peacefully. This doesn’t really work; the Sarl, as these medievalists are known, immediately make deals with their overseer aliens (whom they’re aware exist), who are themselves client species of a more advanced species, and there’s another species above them, all working in stifling bureaucratic layers to keep the peace. The Sarl’s deal with the Oct allows them to invade a far distant land of the artificial world where an ancient enemy hides, and the end result is war. In the midst of war, a treason emerges, a king is murdered, and a prince flees for his life.

Meanwhile, in another part of the galaxy, a young woman is undergoing Special Circumstances training. SC is the part of the Culture assigned to deal with unusual first contact situations, often those involving the use of force. She is also a princess, a daughter of the murdered king, traded away in some obscure political deal, and has long ago become a creature of the Culture. She learns that her father was killed, presumably in battle according to all accounts, and heads home for his funeral. These two threads: the prince fleeing his world, and the princess heading back, converge. Banks attempts a moment of awesome, but it falls flat: anyone who’s ever read an X-Men comic knows what’s coming next, and sadly it’s a “It’s the Culture, you poor humans can’t possibly understand how it works” Marvel comics handwave that strides into the final, rather ordinary battle scene.

If you love Iain M. Banks’s work (and I do), you’ll pay your money anyway. He really is a master of the vast, creative settings into which to toss his characters. And often his characters are interesting in themselves. But Matter is a long way from the heady, glory days when we fans were all learning about the culture, and nowadays something about it all seems forced. Iain ought to write in other universes, and leave the Culture to whirl on, remembered for its greatness, and not reduced to a petty background setting for Spaceways-like fantasies.

After all, that’s what the Pendorverse is for.

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