Iain M. Banks’ latest SF novel Matter is a welcome return to the environs of the Culture, and a welcome return to his estimable form after the earnest, but lamentable The Algebraist. Like most of Banks’ Culture novels, there are vast, powerful alien races; immense habitats housing trillions upon trillions, including the breathtaking interlaced orbital of the Morthanveld and the scattered Shellworlds (imagine a planet that resembles a Matrioshkin stacking doll, with multiple, concentric layers illuminated by artifical, mobile sunlets, each level populated by a Who’s-Who of galactic xenoforms). And like most of Bank’s Culture novels, none of this matters all that much.
What I mean to say is that Banks is less concerned with the razzle-dazzle of space opera tropes (though he is one of the best in the field to use them) than with the brutality–the humanity–that lurks ever present beneath the skein of the Culture’s alleged utopia. While whole planets may face annihilation and sentient Ships may die in suicidal cataclysm, it is a mere human hand reaching into the chest of a rival to crush his beating heart that is the engine of Matter. It is a novel that pits servants against masters, younger benighted races against the elder alien races that observe them, and above the elders there are the god-like beings that Sublimed or went Away. Imagine the Great Chain of Being writ large.
I think Banks uses the constructed Shellworlds to provide an apt metaphor for these ever expanding concentric rings of political and xenobiological association, and I think it is important to note that in the end it is a mere servant, Choubris Holse, who rises through the levels of his world, ascends into the many bewildering layers of alien societies, plunges back to the very bowels of his planet for a climactic glimpse of his WorldGod and the story’s denouement, and then returns home–a servant still, but now to something larger.
Matter is a great addition to the Culture novels and is probably one of the more accessible books for those new to Banks’ work. I highly recommend it. You can read an excerpt here.
If you are new to the Culture, you could start with Matter, but I would recommend starting with Consider Phlebas, the first published book (It looks like Orbit is reprinting some of his books in the U.S. starting next month) . Use of Weapons is my favorite, and one of the most brutal, of the Culture books.
Paul Di Filippo has a good review up at SCI FI Weekly.