EPS Review #175 - Matter

Matter, by Iain M Banks, Orbit 2008, 593pp.

Nothing is quite as satisfying as buying a fat Science Fiction book that you know will be good, and then flying across the Atlantic (on Silverjet -- not bad). I did not even watch a movie.

We are back in the Culture, with Special Circumstances. The main artefacts are the shellworlds, nearly indestructible onion-like worlds with various races in their layers, including the medium-technology kingdom of the protagonists, and with billion-year-old silent godlike creatures at their heart. In addition we have a strong en-Culturated princess, a weak prince and a young one, an earthy page, and various charming drones and sentient ships.

The plot is linear and single-threaded, and I missed the comic ebullience last seen in the Dwellers. Nor did I find any parts so gratifying that I had to reread them right away. And the ending was a little predictable. But I still enjoyed it.

Ewan wrote:

A return to a very mainstream culture novel but weaving in Banks' other obsession which are that atavistic battle/war trope. Guns, cannons, swords, guts, shit, dirt and battle mixed in with hyper intelligent machines and anti matter weapons.

Like the algebraicist, the whole thing is set on a fantastic (in the true sense of the word) stage. Don't want to spoil it because it takes at least 100 pages to work out what the hell is going on and how Surasamen works. There are the wild flights of fancy, huge imaginative leaps in terms of the fauna and enough mega technology to satisfy the most die hard fan of Use of Weapons.

As always the main protagonists are very sympathetically drawn and, as is so often the case with Banks, they are not all they seem. Your sympathy flip flops as well which is beautifully done.

The ending is sudden and unsatisfying. You turn the page and there is the Dramatis Personae. Ugh. But keep reading because there's a 2 page epilogue which makes it all right in the end.

Better than Excession? Yes. Better than the Algebraicist? Probably.

Ed wrote:

Erich, I just read a couple of books I wanted to recommend to you.

Channel Crossing, by Sebastian Smith, about sailing a dinghy in the English Channel

Measuring the World: A Novel (Vintage), by Daniel Kehlmann, about Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt in eighteenth century Germany. This was a German bestseller for a while and the translation is great. The book is actually very funny.

Ewan replied:

I'm not sure that the plot was so single threaded. The two princes threads intertwined as did the off-world princess coming back thread. Time was pretty much linear though.

Jon wrote:

Just finished it! I thought it was quite good, maybe not his best, but I appreciate a novel that can weave the phrase "steaming ball bucket" seamlessly into the narrative. With the length of the appendix & epilogue, the ending kinda popped up, a bit like Hofstadter did in one of the stories in GEB: wonder if that was deliberate?

[ I asked: ] What do you mean by "popped up"?

Well, you know how when you're reading a novel, you unconsciously gauge how close you are to the finish by how much paper you're holding in your right hand? And then it ends, with still 30 pages to go?

Iain M Banks at Latitude (on left) I got to sit right up close to see Mr Banks at Latitude (19Jul08). When asked for some of his favorite fiction, he said Cloud Atlas. He was actually a bit nervous/silly and also an unregenerate commie ("piss on Thatcher's grave"). But it was one of the few enjoyable moments at the festival, which otherwise was unbearably crowded. I wanted to see Bill Bailey's act, but had to settle for being munged in the crowd that spilled out all around the large tent, closing my left ear to bass thumping of the music arena.

Jon wrote:

Yeah, he's a real pinko, isn't he? Did you read The Steep Approach to Garbadale? Very down on a) capitalism and b) Americans, without being particularly insightful about either. Might stick to the Culture novels (although I did enjoy his concept of Great Wee Roads in the whisky book...).