Iain M. Banks' latest novel of the Culture, Matter, is a deceiving book. It, like many of the other Culture novels, finds much of its power in the dichotomy between the world of the Culture itself and the existences of those either outside it or, even more stark, those who protect it while not being of it.
There is much here in the way of elements that is familiar. The Culture itself. Contact and its red-headed stepchild Special Circumstances. Minds, drones and ships with names like Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill, Transient Atmospheric Phenomenon and Experiencing a Significant Gravitas Shortfall all populate the book (I have long been a mad fan of Banks' Ships and the Mind humor with which they name themselves and each other). Along the way, events local to a world will sweep us in and, eventually, ripple outwards into the Culture itself. So far, so familiar.
Sursamen is a Shellworld, an artificial planet built in concentric layers. Within this world, species and civilizations live, fight and die, thriving or huddling in its aeons-old fourteen-hundred-kilometer high levels. One of these civilizations is at war, with early steam technology; we are caught up in a story concerning the succession to this kingdom's throne, with all that that might entail, at the very beginning of the book. There are deceit, and murder, and chases, and escapes, and betrayal and loyalty. A scion of the royal house, on the run from would-be regicide, swears vengeance and goes in search of those who might help him in his cause. One of those is his long-gone sister, taken away by near-mythical beings years before. She was to have married a prince; she ended up emigrating and taking a job.
Her home is the Culture.
Her job is agent, for the Department of Special Circumstances.
Her homecoming will change the world forever, but not in the way you might think.
Seriously; I thought I'd figured out the plot archetype a few times during the course of the book. The first two-thirds is somewhat dry, consisting of a great deal of background and setup. One of the handicaps of writing space opera on the scale of the Culture is that no matter how much you've explained already, there are infinite examples of new wonders to explore and make critical to your plot - and Banks' imagination is no slouch. From a world whose spaces are littered with kilometers-high, aeons-dead machinery that now forms the basis of local geology, meteorology and hydrology, to the familiar and fun snark of Minds and drones at war and play, he leads the reader through a travelogue of wonders to reach an end that did not disappoint me. I suppose the actual plot of the ending isn't new; nothing is. But it is brought about with deft turnings and evasion, executed with crisp skill and left me holding a closed book, almost disconcerted that I'd finished. I hadn't expected that. Banks gave me all the information necessary to have deduced the story, but without even deliberately misdirecting me nevertheless ensured my surprise.
There are lots, and happily there's an appendix with notes, because lots of them have truly alien names and all of those names tend to blend. Despite being tolerably familiar with Banks' panoply of characters, I was still engaged quite handily by those in the book. They are examples of archetypes of which he has made use in the past, sometimes often; but I never felt them to be anything short of individual and knowable.
Writing about intelligences that are manifestly orders of magnitude greater than our own is a daunting challenge. In some of the books of the Culture (Excession, for example) it can be difficult to follow what the Minds are up to - but even there, at the end, Banks brings it all into sense. Here, the focus is not so much on the Minds themselves but on the vast scope of races that make up this galaxy. The pecking order, if you will; barbarians, their protectors, those protectors' mentors', their mentors, and so on. The fascinating thing is how alike people from all those races manage to be despite clear differences in their knowledge, their upbringing, their technology, and their motives. Essentially, I'd hazard a guess that the point here is that everybody's human (for meta values of human) and we are shown that in such a manner as to give it the feeling of an axiom.
What is real? This question is touched upon as a manner of exploring the up- and downward play of civilizations and scope, from the galactic to the small group. If the Culture is (as some have argued, including some of Banks' characters) the End of anything interesting, what then is there to do? When the inhabitants of the Culture can have anything, what will they? Who will walk the walls, and why?
I liked this book. A lot. It doesn't resonate as one of 'the greats' for me simply because the issues explored within it are not new nor are they even explored in a particularly powerful manner. However, the scale of the worlds which Banks writes about, and the unbreaking skill with which his story holds despite changes in scope that are dizzying to contemplate, make it something I'm sorry to have finished.
Written by Iain M. Banks
Hachette Book Group (USA) / Orbit (UK) February, 2008 (Hardcover)