Unlike many science fiction series which tend to work linearly, continuing the story lines of favorite characters book after book, Iain Banks’ Culture series has the benefit of being open to any variety of new characters, settings, and plots. Like pieces of a pie, with each new Culture offering, more of the Banks’ universe is set before the reader. Fresh tech, new AI personalities, and whole, previously unexplored corners of his galaxy are exposed in detail. After six books and an eight year hiatus from the series, Banks returns in 2008 with Matter, proving there is still plenty more pie to be eaten.
Matter is the story of the three Hausk siblings: the oldest Anaplian, the middle Ferbin, and the youngest, Oramen. Born and raised on the middle level of an artificial planet structured like an onion (called Sursamen), life is not always easy. Their quality of life existing at a state circa the US Civil War, steam power, rifles, and the telegraph are beginning to take shape, but battles are still largely fought with horse and sword. After witnessing the murder of their father the king, Ferbin runs into exile and attempts to escape to the surface of Sursamen and ask their sponsor species for help in revenge. Believing his father to have been killed in battle, Oramen, too young to take power, willingly allows the rebel tyl Loesp regency but soon finds himself evading assassination.Cast out of the family at a very young age due to being a girl, the third child, Anaplian, was offloaded from the planet and raised by the Culture as a Special Circumstances agent. But upon hearing of her father’s death, she decides to return to pay her respects after fifteen years away. The situation she encounters upon her return more than possible to imagine, life on Sursamen has never been so culturally and technically complex.
While the story described above may seem like a typical fantasy/steampunk novel, rest assured there is far more to Matter. Events within the shell-world occupying only a portion of the narrative, there are larger schemes at work in the galaxy. Like the physical levels of Sursamen, layer upon layer of sponsor species hold an interest in the planet’s fate. The Octs are the Hausk’s sponsors and play a role operating the towers and elevators that provide both structure and transportation through the artificial planet. The Aultridia are the sponsor group of the humans who live on the level below the Hausks and are not at all friendly with the Octs. On the surface, the insect-like Nariscene claim control of the planet and galactic region, all political and military events needing their clearance, including even the Culture. And there are several other species playing a hand in the story. From the long-gone Veil, who may have created the shell-worlds, to the Iln who once sought to destroy them, a galaxy of species play a meta-role to the events centered around the Hausk family. As Banks says simply, the galaxy is “like a madman let loose in a paint factory”.
Matter is built along a small but strong number of thematic lines. The first is an idea in common with Inversions: cultural intrusion, e.g. when to participate or remain passive in a society’s evolution, is examined. And like Excession, at one point in the novel the idea of a truly alien unknown takes hold and informs the storyline. Further themes include the motivations for war, particularly the idea of hating the Other and the false footing such ideology rests on. Largely, however, the novel is about whether or not to take action in the face of adversity. Ferbin, soundly affected by his father’s death, entreats all he encounters to help him get revenge against the loathed tyl Loepl. Oramen, a book worm of a youth, is the opposite, and chooses to protect his own interests rather than attempt to eradicate any risks at hand—a far more passive approach. Anaplian represents the middle ground. With physical, mental, chemical, and all other manner of enhancements available to her through the Culture, she is more thoughtful and chooses carefully how and when to apply herself when things turn ugly, saving which side of the coin she lies on for the very last scene.
And what a scene it is. Those who were disappointed by the subtle ending of Look to Windward will be thoroughly satisfied by the conclusion of Matter. Tension built effectively to proportions truly grand in scope, it’s a colossally satisfying climax. Containing everything that makes sci-fi great—the weapons, the gear, the urgency, the fun--Banks seems to say, hey, I’m back, and there’s still some in the tank.
In the end, Matter is another superb offering in the Culture series and proof Banks is still among the top writers of science fiction today. Following the pattern set by the last three novels, events and characters remain numerous and spread, the series taking on all the more color for non-linear plotting and multiple viewpoints, not to mention depth and complexity of story. Following Bank’s style in general, affective characterization and vivid scene setting remain the focus (the Hyeng-zhar waterfall is a fantastic set piece). True, Ferbin, Oramen, and tyl Loepl come across a bit too varied to be realistic, however, Anaplian and several of the side characters, particularly Liveware Problem the Culture Mindship, are described in wonderful fashion and are… entities the reader can relate to. Sursamen seeming a logical expansion of the Ringworld idea (orbiting-ribbon to shell-world not so strange), fans of Niven’s creation will enjoy the detail and thought Banks invested in the 16 levels of his onion planet. Continuing to imbue sci-fi with fresh material, Matter is recommended for anyone looking for more than typical space opera fare.