Review by John for Matter (book #8 in the Culture series) ~ by Iain M. Banks (2008)
A grand galaxy-spanning science fiction tale of ambition, murder, interstellar war, politics and tragedy. Hugely ambitious in scope and concepts.
About: Sursamen is a Shellworld – a vast, ancient, artificial planet with 15 separate levels and a WorldGod at its core. Humans inhabit two of the levels, and those two kingdoms are at war with each other. When one of the Kings is viciously murdered, the treachery is witnessed by one of his sons, Ferbin, who goes on a quest to seek justice.
Sursamen, and indeed much of the galaxy, is overseen by a hierarchy of increasingly advanced and powerful species, each of which “mentors” the species beneath them; and the humans on Sursamen are low down on the pecking order. Ferbin pleads for justice and help from those higher species, but his pleas fall on deaf ears, as there are strict rules about not interfering too much with the lives and interests of societies lower down the hierarchy. It may be that Ferbin’s sister is the only person in the Galaxy who can help.
His sister, Djan Seriy, left Sursamen many years previously and has changed almost beyond recognition. She is now part of The Culture, an advanced mongrel humanoid civilization, where she has become an agent of their Special Circumstances section - charged with very selective high level interference in civilizations throughout the galaxy. As a member of The Culture’s Special Circumstances section, she has been taught or acquired some very special powers.
But officially Djan Seriy cannot intervene in Sursamen. Drawn by her father’s murder and her brothers pleas, she has no choice but to temporarily leave The Culture and to investigate Sursamen on her own. With no official powers and no official support it soon becomes apparent to her that the human kingdoms on the planet are merely pawns in a much larger and very dangerous game.
John’s thoughts: In many ways this is a pretty stunning book. It is packed with an amazing array of species, societies, technologies, worlds and concepts – all of which become neatly interconnected into a complex saga. Banks has a quite fabulous imagination, and some great story-telling skills.
While this is a work of science fiction with lots of interesting ideas about how societies and cultures might develop, the science and technology doesn’t get in the way and at its heart it’s a very human story about people and what drives them. Actually the main story could almost have come from a Greek tragedy, with humans going on a quest to seek justice for a treacherous act, and seeking help from “Gods” who have questionable motives and goals.
I do have to say, however, that the book was really tough to get into. For the first 80 pages or so I was a little overwhelmed with names, details and information. To give you an idea – the appendices to the book includes a three-page cast of characters, a two-page list of species, and a ten-page glossary of general terms used. At some point the problem becomes a strength and I really enjoyed the sheer scope and complexity of the story, but I can’t help wondering how many readers won’t make it that far. Having kept at it, for me the reward was well worth the effort.
Other than that, if I was going to be picky I’d say that the ending of the story seemed a little rushed somehow, especially given that the build up to the climax took well over 500 pages. As I neared the end I kept on thinking that a lot of stuff still had to happen and there weren’t many pages left to read! But it was a proper ending and you weren’t left dangling, thinking that you had to read another installment to make sense of it all. (I did also think that the little epilogue was a smidgeon silly and out of character with the rest of the book, but now I’m being super-picky).
All in all, a great read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’d rate it 4 stars and I will seek out more of his books. I’d strongly recommend it to any sci-fi geeks and especially those who like grand scale galaxy-spanning stories (think “Dune-ish” in terms of scale, density and intrigue). I’d also recommend it to anyone who likes a meaty saga that they can sink their teeth into.
We picked the copy of Matter at a small local library in England while we were visiting; all part of our “keep the baggage weight low” strategy. We did not realize it is the 8th in the series; but it’s very self-contained so don’t be put off by thinking you need to read the other seven first.
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Thanks for reading.