by Iain M. Banks

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Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: February 2008
ISBN: 0-316-00536-3
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 593

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Sursamen is an Arithmetic, Mottled, Disputed, Multiply Inhabited, Multi-million Year Safe, and Godded Shellworld. It's a constructed world with multiple inhabitable levels, each lit by thermonuclear "suns" on tracks, each level supported above the last by giant pillars. Before the recorded history of the current Involved Species, a culture called the Veil created the shellworlds with still-obscure technology for some unknown purpose, and then disappeared. Now, they're inhabited by various transplants and watched over by a hierarchy of mentor and client species. In the case of Sursamen, both the Aultridia and the Oct claim jurisdiction (hence "Disputed"), and are forced into an uneasy truce by the Nariscene, a more sophisticated species that oversees them both.

On Sursamen, on level eight to be precise, are the Sarl, a culture with an early industrial level of technology in the middle of a war of conquest to unite their level (and, they hope, the next level down). Their mentors are the Oct, who claim descendance from the mysterious Veil. The Deldeyn, the next level down, are mentored by the Aultridia, a species that evolved from a parasite on Xinthian Tensile Aranothaurs. Since a Xinthian, treated by the Sarl as a god, lives in the heart of Sursamen (hence "Godded"), tensions between the Sarl and the Aultridians run understandably high.

The ruler of the Sarl had three sons and a daughter. The oldest was killed by the people he is conquering as Matter starts. The middle son is a womanizer and a fop who, as the book opens, watches a betrayal that he's entirely unprepared to deal with. The youngest is a thoughtful, bookish youth pressed into a position that he also is not well-prepared for.

His daughter left the Sarl, and Sursamen itself, fifteen years previously. Now, she's a Special Circumstances agent for the Culture.

Matter is the eighth Culture novel, although (like most of the series) there's little need to read the books in any particular order. The introduction to the Culture here is a bit scanty, so you'll have more background and understanding if you've read the previous novels, but it doesn't matter a great deal for the story.

Sharp differences in technology levels have turned up in previous Culture novels (although the most notable example is a minor spoiler), but this is the first Culture novel I recall where those technological differences were given a structure. Usually, Culture novels have Special Circumstances meddling in, from their perspective, "inferior" cultures. But Sursamen is not in Culture space or directly the Culture's business. The Involved Species that governs Sursamen space is the Morthanveld: an aquatic species roughly on a technology level with the Culture themselves. The Nariscene are their client species; the Oct and Aultridia are, in turn, client species (well, mostly) of the Nariscene, while meddling with the Sarl and Deldeyn.

That part of this book reminded me of Brin's Uplift universe. Banks's Involved Species aren't the obnoxious tyrants of Brin's universe, and mentoring doesn't involve the slavery of the Uplift universe. But some of the politics are a bit similar. And, as with Uplift, all the characters are aware, at least vaguely, of the larger shape of galactic politics. Even the Sarl, who themselves have no more than early industrial technology. When Ferbin flees the betrayal to try to get help, he ascends out of the shellworld to try to get assistance from an Involved species, or perhaps his sister (which turns out to be the same thing). Banks spends some time here, mostly through Ferbin and his servant (who is one of the better characters in this book), trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a society that just invented railroads while being aware of interstellar powers that can do practically anything.

The plot, like the world on which it's set, proceeds on multiple levels. There is court intrigue within the Sarl, war on their level and the level below, and Ferbin's search for support and then justice. But the Sarl live in an artifact with some very mysterious places, including the best set piece in the book: an enormous waterfall that's gradually uncovering a lost city on the level below the Sarl, and an archaeological dig that proceeds under the Deldeyn and Sarl alike. Djan Seriy decides to return home when she learns of events in Sarl, originally for reasons of family loyalty and obligation, but she's a bit more in touch with the broader affairs of the galaxy, including the fact that the Oct are acting very strangely. There's something much greater at stake on Sursamen than tedious infighting between non-Involved cultures.

As always with Banks, the set pieces and world building are amazing, the scenery is jaw-dropping, and I have some trouble warming to the characters. Dramatic flights across tower-studded landscapes seeking access to forbidden world-spanning towers largely, but don't entirely, make up for not caring about most of the characters for most of the book. This did change, though: although I never particularly warmed to Ferbin, I started to like his younger brother, and I really liked his sister and his servant by the end of the book.

Unfortunately, the end of Matter is, if not awful, at least exceedingly abrupt. As is typical of Banks, we get a lot of sense of wonder but not much actual explanation, and the denouement is essentially nonexistent. (There is a coy epilogue hiding after the appendices, but it mostly annoyed me and provides only material for extrapolation about the characters.) Another SF author would have written a book about the Xinthian, the Veil, the purpose of the shellworlds, and the deep history of the galaxy. I should have known going in that Banks isn't that sort of SF author, but it was still frustrating.

Still, Banks is an excellent writer and this is a meaty, complex, enjoyable story with some amazing moments of wonder and awe. If you like Culture novels in general, you will like this. If you like set-piece-heavy SF on a grand scale, such as Alastair Reynolds or Kim Stanley Robinson, you probably like this. Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-06-14

Last modified and spun 2016-06-22