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Iain M. Banks
Orbit, 593 pages

Iain M. Banks
Iain M. Banks was born in Dunfermline in 1954 and lived in North Queensferry, Fife. He was educated at Stirling University (1972-1975) getting a degree in English. He worked as a non-destructive testing technician for British Steel and later for IBM. He settled in Faversham, Kent, in 1984 and later moved to Edinburgh in 1988. Iain M. Banks (as opposed to Iain Banks, his name for non-SF fiction) is the popular author of the Culture novels, including Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games.

Iain M. Banks Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Algebraist
SF Site Review: Look To Windward
SF Site Review: Excession

A review by Greg L. Johnson

Here we go again. With Matter, Iain M. Banks returns to the Culture, that galaxy-spanning, post-scarcity civilization he last visited in 2000's Look To Windward. It may have taken eight years, but readers will find that Banks has lost none of his touch for mixing politics, human sacrifice, humor, and horror, all in the trappings of glorious, wide-open space opera. It's great to be back.

At the heart of Matter is the story of three siblings, two sons and the daughter of the King of Sarl. Sarl is a low-tech civilization, steam power is just recently being put to use, situated on a Shellworld. The Shellworlds are artificial constructs, planet-sized habitats made up of a series of concentric shells, built long ago by a civilization that has since vanished from the galaxy. They are now inhabited by many different species, low-tech societies like the Sarl are watched over by other species to prevent interference in their development.

From that quick description, you might expect Matter to resemble an earlier Culture novel, Inversions, which was set in a similar civilization with almost no contact with the rest of the galaxy. Matter follows a different pattern. Sarl is aware that the Culture and other high-tech civilizations exist, they are simply prevented from having contact with them, although there are occasional exceptions.

One of those exceptions is Djan Seriy Anaplian, the King's daughter. Anaplian was sent, while still young, to live in the Culture. By the time the story starts, she has become acculturated enough to be an agent of Special Circumstances, the somewhat secretive organization charged with the dirty task of dealing with the Culture's not-so-pretty meddling in other societies. She is just completing her training when news arrives that back at home, her father and her brother Ferbin have been killed in battle. Her younger brother Oramen is too young to be King, and Sarl is in the hands of a Regent.

It's only partially true. Ferbin is alive, a witness to his father's death, and in great danger because of it. Anaplian decides to journey home, Ferbin sets off to find help, while Oramen is left alone to slowly discover the dangers of life in a court full of intrigue.

The first half of the novel proceeds at a fairly leisurely pace. We learn more of the Culture and its relationships with several other civilizations, both from Anaplian's perspective and from Ferbin's journey to find justice. Don't be deceived, though, the historical discussions and social interludes are all a means of setting up the eventual action, and from the time Anaplian and Ferbin finally meet, the story takes off in a rush of action and excitement, combining the gritty reality of nineteenth century warfare with the advanced weaponry of the Minds and agents of the Culture.

All in all, it makes for a highly satisfactory romp through a setting that still has new delights to offer. There's plenty here for readers already familiar with the basics of life in the Culture, and even more for someone discovering Iain M. Banks' favorite playground for the first time. From the smart-alecky artificial intelligences known as Minds to the down-to-earth reality of life in a near-medieval society that knows that somewhere out there, there are beings with abilities that can only be thought of as god-like, Matter is a novel that gives us a wonderful view of life in one of the grandest settings in modern science fiction.

One final note, don't make the mistake of stopping when you get to the glossary and appendix. There's still one more chapter to follow, and it concludes the story in a way that Ferbin, and the reader, might never have expected.

Copyright © 2008 by Greg L. Johnson

As always, one of the delights of a Culture novel are the names the various ships give themselves, reviewer Greg L Johnson is particularly fond of the You'll Clean That Up Before You Leave. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction. And, for something different, Greg blogs about news and politics relating to outdoors issues and the environment at Thinking Outside.

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