The problem with Matter

Review originally published on LiveJournal in March 2008.

I found myself unaccountably excited at stumbling over the new M. Banks in Waterstones. I eventually succumbed to its siren song while waiting for my flight to France a few weeks ago. Looking back, I have to blame this on the ridiculous excellence of the first few Culture novels. I can’t claim to like the pure Banks novels, although I admire and read them; I love the early Culture work (unlikeable though it can be). I remembered my lukewarm reception of Excession and tried to curb my excitement, but I enjoyed Look to Windward, so I was hoping for a return to form a la Player of Games (another Use of Weapons would have been too much to ask for). So it was I got Matter.

Matter has the standard Culture framework of being nominally a Culture book, being set outside the Culture, but largely from the perspectives of non-Culture citizens. Mr Banks loves to toy with us, and he’s right: the mainstream Culture is entirely too laidback, smug and pampered to hold the reader’s attention (or arguably for us to even understand).

The story is divided fairly equally between the three surviving children of a murdered King as one son struggles to survive his adolescence under the rule of the usurping “regent”; his elder brother flees to find support; and his elder sister – now an SC agent – heads home to find out what, exactly, is going on.

The story builds slowly, gathering pace as refugee Ferbin is passed off from one disinterested galactic power to another in his search for assistance, and younger brother Oramen begins to realise that his life is in danger. There is no real tension, however (was I just in the wrong frame of mind?) and I couldn’t help but wish they’d get on with it.

When they finally did, I realised that the whole book was an exercise in showing how little we understand of things outside our current ken – and how great events go unperceived/unforeseen by lesser peoples. This had the unfortunate effect of derailing (indeed curtailing) the interesting Oramen storyline and while it (thankfully) brought Ferbin and his sister’s road-movie to an end, it was an abrupt and far from satisfying conclusion. All in all, it felt like the plot went nowhere for a very long time, then took off at a ninety degree angle and ended in haste.

The other problem – for me – was the preponderance of adjectives. I don’t remember noticing this before (although I know it’s a criticism often levelled at M. Banks), but almost every noun had its descriptor, and page after page was given over to wanking over describing the landscapes of the admittedly mind-boggling Shellworld. However, unlike Consider Phlebas, the setting did not always enhance or even affect the plot – and so felt like padding.

There are redeeming features, such as the character of Choubris Holse (Ferbin’s manservant) – blunt, common and full of common sense, I would have much preferred a story that played to his strengths, rather than one that used him as light relief and moral compass. I do wonder whether a book that cross-cut the current Matter with What Holse Did Next would be more entertaining… and tell us far more about the Culture.