I’ve finally finished “Matter”, the latest “Culture” novel by Iain M. Banks. It’s been three years since his last book, “The Algebraist”, about which I had very mixed feelings. Like many of Banks’ readers, I was hoping for a return to a more confident kind of story-telling, without the inconsistencies that had marred “The Algebraist”.
Overall, I enjoyed it a great deal. Structurally, it has a familiar pattern: three journeys, party in space but mostly of self-discovery, that lead up to a singular point of crisis. Sounds a bit like “Lord of the Rings”, doesn’t it? Unlike “LotR”, the protagonists are three siblings, but as in Tolkien’s work the journeys are the main point of the tale. The revelation of the true nature of the crisis, and the climactic confrontation, are compressed into the last few pages. The dÃ©nouement is crudely perfunctory; a brief epilogue that follows an appendix, and almost seems to parody the close of Tolkien’s “Return of the King”.
Although the narrative is populated with familiar elements from earlier “Culture” novels, “Matter” keeps scratching some of the itches that affected Banks in “The Algebraist”. There is a cynical undercurrent about the illusion of “progress”, together with a determined attempt to destroy any comfortable identification that we might make between ourselves and any particular part of his menagerie. Perhaps you remember the wonderful quote by Sir Martin Rees, the British astronomer:
It will not be humans who witness the demise of the Sun six billion years hence; it will be entities as different from us as we are from bacteria.
Banks confronts us with a universe whose population spans a vast spectrum of capabilities, of intentions, of possibilities. And with that variety there is inevitably going to be confusion, frustration and mutual incomprehension. As in “The Algebraist”, there are dead ends and unexplained elements. This is an important aspect of Banks’ world that needs to be conveyed, but some of the protagonists’ confusion winds up spilling over to the reader.
“Matter” feels more explicitly violent than earlier books by Banks; it’s as if he’s been reading Scalzi and other mil-sci-fi writers. This is not a criticism, just an observation. There is a deliberate “compare and contrast” between traditional warfare – think 17th century Europe with a dash of steam-punk – and conflict in a future of robotic weaponry and smart, morphing armour:
“In the unlikely event we do get involved in a serious firefight and the suits think you’re under real threat,” Djan Seriy had told the two Sarl men, “they’ll take over. High-end exchanges happen too fast for human reactions so the suits will do the aiming, firing and dodging for you.” She’d seen the expressions of dismay on their faces, and shrugged. “It’s like all war; months of utter boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. It’s just the moments are sometimes measured in milliseconds and the engagement’s often over before you’re aware it has even begun.”
Speaking of which…
So if “The Algebraist” was a three-and-a-half star book, “Matter” is a solid four-star effort, and as I think about it over the next few days I may add another half star. Definitely recommended; I hope we don’t have to wait another three years for the next one.