Sunday, 17 January 2010

Iain M. Banks: Matter (2008)

Edition: Orbit, 2009
Review number: 1394

Like several of its predecessors, Iain Banks' latest Culture novel begins on a comparatively primitive world which is not part of that galactic civilisation. There, traitorous plotters have murdered the warlord of the burgeoning empire of the Sarl, proclaimed the death of his eldest surviving son, and set their leader as regent for the younger son. The elder brother, Ferbin, is the central character of the novel, which is about his journey to seek refuge with the Culture, before attempting to gain his revenge. He chooses the Culture because his sister earlier joined them, in a move viewed by their father as the equivalent of a dynastic marriage, whereas in fact she has become an agent of Special Circumstances. an organisation which features in most of the other Culture novels. As described here, they are "practitioners of that ultimately dark art of always well meaning, sometimes risky and just occasionally catastrophic interference in the affairs of other civilisations": the ideal people for Ferbin to interest in the fate of the Sarl.

What is it about this scenario, that of an advanced race observing (and interfering in) the political manoeuvrings of a comparatively barbarous one, holds such an appeal for Banks? It is of course an enduring science fiction plot device, clich├ęd enough to appear in several episodes of the original Star Trek, hardly ground breaking even in its own day. One benefit used by Banks here and elsewhere in the Culture novels is that it enales the writer to combine ideas from the science fiction and fantasy genres (as Anne McCaffrey does in the Pern novels too, in a less literary manner). A more important general reason for its use in science fiction is that it enables ironic parallels to be drawn between the story and the way that superpowers have interfered in the affairs of other nations, from the development of European colonial empires to the present day war against terror.

The hidden interference with the Sarl and other races gives the plot of Matter several levels. The plotting of the Sarl nobility is influenced and motivated by plotting by the races which are meant to mentor the various nations on their world, while the more still more technological advanced civilisations like the culture look on from afar, with their interference limited by treaty and custom. The interwoven conspiracies make for entertaining reading, while their parallels with the activities of the real nations on Earth give a slightly uncomfortable edge to this entertainment.

 In this edition, the Appendix - a list of names and glossary - is between the last chapter and the Epilogue. So a reader who stops at the apparent last page of the narrative will most some of the tying up of loose ends. There is also another extra, a reprinted magazine interview with the author, which is worth reading for fans.

Matter is not as brutal as many of Banks' novels. It has fairly clear cut "good" and "bad" guys: the sympathies of the reader are clearly engaged by Ferbin and the Culture. This makes it one of the most conventional novels Banks has written, whether science fiction or not. Even so, there is room for plenty of invention. So not Banks' deepest novel, but I felt it was one of the most enjoyable entries in the Culture series: 8/10.

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