And so Mr. Banks has passed on, leaving us behind to ponder the greatness of his work. And it is great. And he was also satisfyingly prolific, apparently capable of writing a novel in three months. And he was a witty and cultured guy (pardon the pun). That’s a lot of ands. When I bought Matter from a second-hand bookstore in Bunbury nearly two years ago I never imagined that by the time I got around to picking it up again Banks would be diagnosed with incurable liver cancer and would die as I was reading it. And it made me sad.
Matter is the seventh Culture novel of nine and at the time it came after seven years of no new Culture novels. Will there be more? Does Banks have any almost complete Culture novels tucked away for posthumous release? Whatever may happen Banks’ stature as one of the great science fiction writers of the last few decades is assured. Matter is not the greatest Culture novel, but it is certainly excellent.
The premise and plot of Matter is typically complex and is not summarized easily. The novel contains one of Banks’ great inventions – a Shellworld called Sursaman. Shellwords were built by a long departed alien race called the Veil and it is one of four thousand that were initially created, with half of them destroyed by another alien race called the Iln, who are also extinct. Different alien races live on the habitable levels inside the Shellworld and each level is gigantic, with its own geography, atmosphere and astonishing wonders.
Such a premise allows Banks to indulge himself and he certainly does, but with sometimes mixed results. Matter allows Banks to bring a complete medieval humanoid civilization to life called the Sarl. There are epic battles, courtly duplicity and manipulations of the Sarl by their mentoring alien species the Oct. Prince Ferbin, Heir to the throne, flees his home level and much of the narrative follows his fortunes as he tries to avenge his father’s wrongful death. Enter Djan Seriy, his sister who long ago became part of the Culture’s covert organisation Special Circumstances. Special Circumstances appears in most of the Culture novels and as usual there is great entertainment to be had with the amazing technology possessed by the Culture, not to mention the moral ambiguities that come with such power.
With most of the usual Culture tropes in place a wild imaginative ride is guaranteed, however Matter is unevenly paced. There is a long preamble that sets up the main players and plot arcs, but does so with slightly less panache than you’d expect from Banks. It takes a while but once things get going Matter does resolve into an absorbing read. One of the many highlights comes when Djan visits an Oct space habitat, which allows Banks to let his brilliant imagination to run wild. Djan is accompanied by her sentient combat drone that is operating covertly and is therefore cunningly disguised as a dildo, revealing that Banks’ usual sly humour is fully present.
The endgame of Matter is slightly rushed and if you were taking notice of the clues earlier in the novel it is also perhaps a bit predictable. This is a minor criticism because Banks is such a quality writer that he makes up for any shortcomings with his erudite style, incredible imagination and his ability to create believable characters, even when they are machines or are totally alien. Apparently after his untimely death sniffy critics mostly talked about the literature he wrote as Iain Banks, rather than the brilliant science fiction he wrote with the added M. between his first and second name. That’s a shame because Banks is one of the greatest science fiction writers of any era and his unique sensibility has become highly influential. Only last week I was watching a rerun of the second episode of the first series of the Dr. Who reboot and during the scenes where the last human appears on the viewing platform to witness the final hours of planet Earth I realized that what I was watching was pure Iain M. Banks. And that made me smile.