Fearful Symmetry

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Matter by Iain M. Banks

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Mind over matter

Mind over matter

Matter is big; big on length, big on scope, big on plot and, for the most part, the action takes place on really big Big Dumb Objects. Heavily anticipated, it was the first Culture novel for a long while. If you are previously unaware of Banks’ work, he alternates between science-fiction and non-sf fiction as Iain M. and just Iain, and within his science-fiction work he just about alternates Culture novels – set in a the same post-scarcity/anarchic society – and other novels with different backgrounds. The Culture is a utopia and narrative conflict is provided where it rubs up against other less or just differently-enlightened societies.

Although definitely science-fiction, Matter’s plot begins in a setting with many fantasy tropes. A standard-model fantasy king is killed during battle. Only prince Ferbin sees that his father has in fact been murdered and he flees for his life with only a loyal servant for company, whilst his brother Oramen is set up as a puppet ruler by his father’s murderers.

However these events do not take place on a faux fantasy alternate Earth but are in fact happening on just a single layer of a very much science-fictional ‘Shell world’, Sursamen – a vast mega-structure consisting of world’s nested within worlds, like a Russian doll of planets. Naturally there’s a sleeping god at the very center.

In fact if you want to sum up the novel in one word it would be ‘multi-layered’. Along with the multi-layered nature of the plot, with several different view-point characters, we also see the layers of the galactic society – with various races dominating or paying patronage to others – that Ferbin flees into as he goes in search of his sister. Years before she joined The Culture’s Special Circumstances – the dirty tricks department of Contact, the part of the Culture that interacts with other societies. And then there are the layers of history of the shellworld (and by extension, the whole galaxy) made literal by an ancient buried city being revealed by the erosion of a vast waterfall.

As well as the usual Culture paraphernalia – the Drones, the Ships, the knife missles and all the other cool tech we have seen in previous novels, Banks also expands on his established creation to show more of the top-of-the-tree Optimae Races races the Culture shares the galaxy with, giving him an opportunity to causally toss in more mega-structures, like a truly gigantic braided ring-world belonging to the aquatic Morthanveld; not so much wide-screen baroque as Imax baroque.

Matter starts at a fairly leisurely pace as Banks shows us his gob-smacking creations and a tension is built – will the sister return to save the day? What is buried under the city beneath the waterfall? – but in the final section there is an almost auditory crunching of the gears as an ancient evil is unleashed and the book races towards its explosive conclusion (before the novel finally goes full circle back to its fantasy roots in the epilogue). Although the change in pace is a little heavy handed the continuous shifting from fantasy tropes to sf throughout the novel is well-handled and creates interesting juxtapositions.

One final point to note is that although Banks is notorious for avoiding research, the scientific and technical consequences of the shellworld’s construction, such has working out how the geological cycle works (the detritus washed away by the rivers has to be replaced some other way, if there are no plate tectonics) and in particular, how its lower gravity changes things – for instance we can have flying beasts replacing horses in the ‘fantasy’ society.

Whilst Banks is writing less frequently that he used to, and his non-sf output can be variable, his sf continues to some of the best stuff out there. In the end, even with all the gosh-wow tech what really matters is the people, no matter how alien they at first may seem.

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Written by Fearful Symmetry

July 13, 2009 at 11:11 am

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