Space Opera Sunday: Matter

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Book cover: Matter by Iain M BanksInside a world of worlds within worlds, a wonder of the galaxy, evolved civilisations play out their conflicts through the bloody wars of lesser societies. When a warring king is murdered and his heir framed, the prince strikes out into space in search of his long-lost sister, a ward of the Culture. But will they intervene?

The problem with Matter is that it was the first Culture novel in eight years. We’d been starved, convinced it was over; a new Culture novel was water to a parched throat. It was also, inevitably, subject to expectation. And – for me at least – it simply didn’t live up to it.

Revisiting it all these years later, Matter didn’t annoy me half as much as it did first time round, but there’s no escaping the fact that it suffers from uneven pacing. A rapid start is followed by sloooow journeys across space and perception before it all picks up with a bang and hurries to a messy climax. On the other hand (and I missed this first time around), it’s absolutely hilarious in places, taking itself less seriously than anything since the exuberant spy capers of Use of Weapons.

Sursamen is a Shell-world, an enormous constructed world of concentric levels built by a long-dormant race and latterly inhabited by less evolved species. The Sarl of the Eighth level are a low-tech war-faring race determined to conquer their longtime adversaries and distant cousins the Deldeyn of the Ninth.

When the Sarlian King is secretly murdered by his right-hand man Mertis tyl Loesp, his children are scattered: his heir Ferbin (incorrectly) described as dead and his reputation rapidly traduced, and his youngest son Oramen proclaimed the ward of his murderer. His daughter Djan Seriy – long-since claimed by the Culture and trained by Special Circumstances – hears the news and heads home to try and understand what’s going on.

Meanwhile Ferbin and his down-to-earth manservant flee Sursamen in search of external aid from a galactic power, and Oramen proceeds to enjoy his late teens with a deliberate naïveté that becomes increasingly unbelievable given the number of not-even-veiled warnings that he is in danger he receives.

In Matter we glimpse the pecking order of civilisational evolution. The Sarl are mentored by the Oct (a space-faring race of almost incomprehensible mumblings), in turn mentored by the Nariscene (low-level Involved who have turned their back on a history of warfare just enough to stop going to war – but still enjoy it as a spectator sport), who are mentored by the Morthanveld (high-level Involved equivalent to the Culture, but who believe in maintaining a leash over their AI, which seems to be the only real reason the Minds have to be wary of them).

The interplay of cascading civilisations is more than a little Cold War, especially the conflict between the Aultridia and the Oct as played out between the Deldeyn and the Sarl. As with the Cold War, there are voices quick to defend the use of proxies (or Matter) – and the spilling of proxy blood – as the only way to settle affairs. This seems pretty indefensible in an age of virtual experiences indistinguishable from the real thing, but perhaps I’m as naïve as Oramen.

It still comes down to Matter in the end because there are greater forces at work, which cut through all the inter-civilisational byplay and play out purely in meatspace. The (literal) deus ex machina climax is an obvious narrative pay-off in spite of Banks’ masterful distraction techniques, although I found myself less dis-satisfied with it all on my reread than on first contact as I enjoyed the journey more. Still, there’s a lot of character herding here with little character development or freedom – the authorial hand is hard to ignore – and nobody should be surprised that the book doesn’t so much conclude as crash-stop in its hurried final act.

That said, I delighted in having a fully SC POV in the person of Djan Seriy – fangs and all – and enjoyed her oscillation between competence porn and Culture-class hedonism (also: a female protagonist in the Culture! Yay!). Being non-Culture by birth, she is far more relatable and dynamic than the Culture protagonists of Excession and is thankfully less demon-ridden than Cheradinine Zakalwe.

I also honestly liked Oramen, which made his naïveté all the more frustrating. I would have liked a bit more of a drone/Mind presence, but this is probably a sign of just how little enjoyment I derived from the Ferbin / Holse narrative, nominally the backbone of the novel, which I would have happily skipped.

Overall, I’d say Matter is an entertaining exercise (special mention goes to the Sarl court’s Shakespearean tendencies) that suffers from poor pacing and inconsistencies and is perhaps too taken with its central conceit of cascading civilisations and concealed motives.