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The Culture

Space Opera Sunday: Look to Windward

800 years after the Idiran War, the dying light of two suns destroyed in it will finally reach Masaq’ Orbital. For Ziller, the occasion is overshadowed by the arrival of a Chelgrian emissary on a mission to bring the composer in exile home. But Quilan has other motives for his visit, and the Idiran War is not the only one whose consequences will be felt on Masaq’.

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Space Opera Sunday: Inversions

In Haspidus, it’s unthinkable that a woman could be a doctor, much less the King’s physician. But foreigner Vosill has King Quience’s ear and more than cures in her bag of tricks. Across the mountains in Tassasen, another foreigner, DeWar, has risen to prominence to be Protector General UrLeyn’s bodyguard. But are either of them what they seem? And as tensions rise, whose loyalty can be trusted?

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Space Opera Sunday: Excession

No matter how advanced a civilisation may be, there’s always a chance it will encounter an Out of Context Problem: something so far beyond it that it may accidentally – or intentionally – destroy everything. When an impenetrable black-body sphere appears in Culture space, factions scramble to take advantage – if they can work out how to do so.

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Space Opera Sunday: The State of the Art

1970s Earth. The political situation is fraught, the music scene is humming, and out in space hangs the GCU Arbitrary and its motley crew of humans. Diziet Sma wants to make contact. Linter has gone native and is trying to escape the Arbitrary entirely. And Li wants to blow the place up…

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Space Opera Sunday: Use of Weapons

Diziet Sma needs to recruit former superstar agent Cheradenine Zakalwe for one last job to resolve a situation in a politically-unstable star system. But is Zakalwe still up to the job? And will the price he puts on his renewed service unravel him beyond repair?

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Space Opera Sunday: The Player of Games

Jernau Morat Gurgeh is bored of winning, a master of strategy and tactics who can beat anyone at almost any game. When Special Circumstances approach him to represent the Culture in the vicious Empire of Azad – home to a complex Game so revered the winner is made Emperor – he can’t say no. But to play will mean putting more than just his life at risk. Can he resist the lure of Azad?

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Space Opera Sunday: Consider Phlebas

The galaxy is at war. Horza, a shape-changing spy captured during an attempted infiltration, is rescued by his Idiran masters for a mission only he can complete: to return to a Planet of the Dead where he once served as a steward and retrieve a downed enemy AI. Now he just needs to find a ship, cross a war zone, and convinced the godlike alien who guards Schar’s World that it’s happy he’s back…

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Space Opera Sunday: revisiting the Culture

Needing something to fill the Tremontaine-shaped gap in my life, I am turning my eyes to the sky and filling my heart with stars. A couple of years ago, I began (but failed to finish) an epic reread of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. I’m going to revisit my thoughts and finally finish the journey.

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Iain M Banks – Matter

Matter didn't annoy me half as much this time as it did first time round, but it follows the trend in later Culture novels of suffering 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.

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 naivete 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 naive 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 in Use of Weapons.

I also honestly liked Oramen, which made his naivete 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.

***1/2

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