a quality sf novel

Iain M Banks Matter“In a world renowned even within a galaxy full of wonders, a crime within a war. For one brother it means a desperate flight, and a search for the one – maybe two – people who could clear his name. For his brother it means a life lived under constant threat of treachery and murder. And for their sister, even without knowing the full truth, it means returning to a place she’d thought abandoned forever.”

Matter is a slow burn (plot-wise). It’s set in his familiar Culture universe, but manages to mix in medieval fantasy with the sci fi that Banks does so well. The extract publicised by Orbit is actually the whole first chapter, so will give you an idea of the pace. It takes a fair amount of back story/ scene setting before the plot really gets moving. For detail hounds like me though, it’s not really a problem and the subsequent race to the finish gets your blood moving.

Prepare yourself for some lengthly discussions of ‘Shellworlds’. I had to re-read one section a few times where Banks is describing the Sursamen Shellworld. But the artificial planet/Shellworld is fascinating and deserving of much scene setting. Worlds within a world, built by some mysterious and extinct race.

The Ship names are as hilarious as ever, my favourite being Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill. The scenes in the Culture are full of Culture gadgets, environments, Culture versions of holosuites, glanding and AI.

The feudalism of the Eighth [level] on Sursamen is a refreshing counter to the Culture ‘verse. The Sarl are a blood thirsty war race, determined to conquer nearby levels/worlds. They use gunpowder, flying beasts, horses, swords, chariots and pistols.

The dialogue, in usual Banks style, is fabulous. The Sarl are, unsurprisingly, old English in style, while The Oct, a species who are supposed to mentor The Sarl and believe they are descended from the original creators of Shellworlds, speak in a lyrical, philoshophical extreme Yoda style. Confusing, bizarre and completely alien.

I liked Steven Poole’s review in this weekend’s Guardian - cheeky and critical. I didn’t notice the links to Lord of the Rings, 2001 or Raiders of the Lost Ark. But I do agree that the ending leaves a bit to be desired and seems unbalanced compared to the first few acts.

However, Matter is well worth reading and persevering with, this is satisfyingly good sf.

Iain M Banks, Matter, Orbit, Jan 2008

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2 Responses to a quality sf novel

  1. Kate says:

    Hi

    Thanks for your review. I have just finished this book and was really disappointed so was looking for some more positive news about the novel.

    I adore all of Iain Banks earlier sci-fi and reread them regularly – he is one of the authors by whom I judge all other sci-fi.

    I just found this book overlong (I think about 3/4 quarters could be easily edited out) and erratic – lots of detail about things that didn’t matter, and precious little about anything much that did. For me, it didn’t have that edginess and darkness that was so characteristic of his earlier novels – filled with memorable characters who for one reason or another get themselves into situations from which there can be no happy return. So they go out all ‘guns blazing’ as it were. I really didn’t care about anyone after the first 100 pages or so….and that ending/s…..sheesh…

    There is always an air of poignancy to his plots and a elegant tersness to his writing that I sorely missed in this.

    Even if I pretend this was not by Iain, I would be disappointed in it…

    and we have to wait 18 months for another go?

  2. taryn says:

    Hi Kate

    I know what you mean about lengthliness of the novel, I struggled through the first part and then the rest just ran away to the ending. I do like Iain’s delving into the detail though.

    18months for another, could be longer. He tends to write one SF and then one fiction, alternating between the two.

    What’s your fave Banks SF novel? I like Feersum Enjinn.

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