Matter is the eight book in Iain M. Bank’s popular CULTURE series about a utopian society run by a beneficent artificial intelligence organization called The Culture. I haven’t read any of the previous CULTURE novels which, I think, gives me a unique take on Matter. Reading through some of the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, I see that many CULTURE fans felt like the 620-page Matter was a drastic change in pace and tone. I can’t say if that’s true, but I can say that I loved Matter and can’t wait to read the rest of the CULTURE series. In short, the setting was fascinating, the characters were interesting and fully developed, and the scope of the story was epic.
Most of the plot of Matter takes place on a backward Shellworld called Sursamen. Actually, it’s more correct to say that the story takes place in (not on) the Shellworld, for Shellworlds are artificial planets containing several underground levels stacked up on top of each other like floors in a skyscraper. The levels are held up by huge towers which allow a few people important people to travel between levels. Each level has its own atmosphere, stars, land masses, oceans, races, societies, languages, etc. The lowest level contains the world-god who is worshiped by people of the Shellworld.
When the story starts, war has broken out between the eighth and ninth levels of Sursamen. The king of the Sarl (eighth level) is about to claim victory over the ninth level when betrayal, treason, and a cover-up occurs. The king’s three children are now in great danger. Prince Ferbin has been accused of a crime and is on the run with his politely outspoken servant. Prince Oramen, heir to the throne, doesn’t realize that someone plans to murder him. Their sister, Princess Djan Seriy Anaplian, left many years ago to join the Culture. A sophisticated and powerful agent, she has no desire to return to her backward male-dominated home world, but she wants to pay her respects to her father. Can the siblings reunite and save their family’s heritage?
I would have thought so, but that’s because I’d never read Iain M. Banks before. This novel surprised me in so many ways. The first surprise was the grandness of the world-building. I’m sure CULTURE fans are used to this, though I do believe this is the first time that Banks has used these cool Shellworlds. I particularly like the way that, because the Culture doesn’t interfere with the natural development of a planet’s technology, Banks is able to meld far-future science fiction with medieval-style fantasy on Sursamen. (This reminds me of Kage Baker’s COMPANY novels. And Dr Who.). After reading Matter, I can’t wait to explore more of the CULTURE universe.
I was also surprised at the complexity, unpredictability and expansiveness of the plot. At first the story seems narrowly focused on the plight of the king’s children, but there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye — things that even the villain doesn’t realize — and this is gradually uncovered (figuratively and literally) throughout the novel. Banks masterfully unfolds the mystery along with the exploration of the Shellworld, giving the whole thing a sense of epicness that I found irresistible. I was surprised by the end of the story but, again, that’s probably because of my lack of experience with Banks.
The characterization is careful and elaborate — somewhat along the lines of how Guy Gavriel Kay treats his characters, though with a little less introspection. Each of the siblings, and some of their companions, have distinct well-formed personalities and none was one of those stock characters so often seen in speculative fiction. I enjoyed their insights, conversations, wit and humor (Matter is quite funny in places).
Admittedly, Matter could be quite a bit shorter without detracting from any of its excellent qualities which, I suppose, is what some fans have complained of. My tendency to overlook this possible flaw is probably due to my excitement about discovering a new (to me) science fiction series that I know I’m going to love. I’m feeling quite forgiving right now.
As you can see, it’s not necessary to have read any of the previous CULTURE novels to enjoy Matter. I had no trouble understanding the background. I listened to the audio version which was recently produced by Hachette Audio and read by Toby Longworth. I thought Longworth was perfect and I loved his interpretation of Banks’ characters and their humor. If you decide to read Matter in audio format, please be aware that there is an abridged version which I wouldn’t recommend. Make sure you’ve got the new unabridged (18 hours long) version.
The print version of Matter has an appendix/glossary in the back. I didn’t feel that I needed this (I didn’t even know it existed until I started writing this review). As far as I know, it is not available with the audio version. Even though I didn’t need it, it would still be nice to have the option to download it. Perhaps this feature will be available in the future.