Matter: An excellent introduction to The Culture

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMatter by Iain M. Banks science fiction book reviewsMatter by Iain M. Banks

Matter is the seventh 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.

Publisher: n a world renowned even within a galaxy full of wonders, a crime within a war. For one man 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. Only the sister is not what she once was; Djan Seriy Anaplian has changed almost beyond recognition to become an agent of the Culture’s Special Circumstances section, charged with high-level interference in civilizations throughout the greater galaxy. Concealing her new identity – and her particular set of abilities – might be a dangerous strategy, however. In the world to which Anaplian returns, nothing is quite as it seems; and determining the appropriate level of interference in someone else’s war is never a simple matter. MATTER is a novel of dazzling wit and serious purpose. An extraordinary feat of storytelling and breathtaking invention on a grand scale, it is a tour de force from a writer who has turned science fiction on its head.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. I’ve heard so many amazing things about the Culture series for so many years and from people who’s tastes I really trust – but it always seems like such an enormous undertaking!

    I imagine this might be a good place to start and if nothing else get a feel for the universe and Banks’ style. I like his more contemporary works like “Wasp Factory”, so I imagine I will.

    Thanks for a great review!
    Camilla @ The Girl Who Loved To Read

  2. Hi Camilla,
    I read Matter first because it just came out on audio last month and the publisher offered a review copy. If I were you, I’d start with the first book, Consider Phlebas. Although Ryan doesn’t care for it too much, I think he’d agree (Ryan, please correct me if I’m wrong). It might be nice to get that introduction to The Culture in the first book.

    Certainly you can read Matter and be fine, but if you’re going to read the series, why not start at the beginning? That’s what I plan to do next.

  3. I think you’d be better off starting with the second book the Player of Games because it’s a less dense, and a ‘straight forward’ plot and then pick up Consider Phlebas.

  4. I don’t get the sense that it matters much (perhaps not at all) whether you read these novels in strict order of publication, Camilla. The characters rarely overlap and the central premise of every novel requires an understanding of the Culture rather than the plot of a previous novel.

    Player of Games is my favorite of the three Culture novels I’ve read. I think Consider Phlebas is the only one that follows someone who rebels against the Culture, which makes it more curiosity than entry point.

    Based on Kat’s review, I’d be tempted to start with Matter. I think it’s the next Culture novel I’ll read.

    All the best.

  5. Thanks so much for all your replies! It’s much appreciated :)

    I also heard from my friend who is a huge Culture fan that “Player of Games” is one of the best in the series and that you can start with that…

    I think the trick for me at this point is just to get started somewhere! :)

    Thanks again!


  1. Sunday Status Update: March 30, 2014 | Fantasy Literature: Fantasy and Science Fiction Book and Audiobook Reviews - […] the kids back to school. I finished up Iain M. Bank’s eighth CULTURE novel, Matter, which I’ve already reviewed. Then I read Isaac Asimov’s The Gods…

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