Monday, May 4, 2009


Usually, I just rip through Iain Banks's books like nobody's business. Rip-roaring from the start, filled with keen ideas and lots of action, I just can't put them down. This latest one, however, just dragged on and on for me. Granted, for a few reasons, I was limited to mostly reading only when I was about to go to bed, but that has not stopped me in the past; if it really grabs me, I'll find reasons to find other times to read, or be able to stay awake in order to read bigger chunks before bed. But nothing of the sort happened as I read Matter. I'm willing to admit the fault is all mine, but I do believe this is a weaker novel than earlier Banks works.

The premise is huge, a new kind of Big Dumb Object (at least for me; I don't think it has been used elsewhere) that has enormous amounts of potential. Imagine a manufactured world, made of concentric levels, all connected to each other and the surface by a series of towers that also act as structural supports to hold the whole thing together. At the center of this "shellworld" is either the alien that built the world or a usurper of that maker, known as the WorldGod to the inhabitants of the planet known as Sursamen. There are more than a dozen concentric shells, all with varying atmospheres from vacuum to a water planet, all with "stars", suspended nuclear reactors, embedded in their roofs to provide light and nourishment. And on the eighth and ninth levels of Sursamen, two different human races at was with one another, fighting from level to level with steampunk-level weapons.

For the first four chapters of Matter, Banks lets the natives of Sursamen speak about their home in the vernacular, using terms that are compelling (like "rollstar") and describing what life within such a structure would be like, but without actually telling the reader what the structure is. Thrown into this strange new world without any knowledge of how it is structured, the reader is forced to thumb repeatedly to the glossary at the end of the book, but without the source of the new terminologies actually being described. The glossary is comprehensive, perhaps overly so, containing information that seems to be extremely tangential to the thrust of the book itself. Does one really need a chart describing the number of years in "deciaeons"? I found that I didn't, even when the term is mentioned in the book—it's just a whopping long time. There's an interesting table describing the inhabitants of the various levels of Sursamen, but while it is an example of the breadth of Banks's world creation, since the story only ever visits about five of those levels, it really isn't that important. And then chapter five explains not only the mechanics and physics of the shellworld, it goes on to describe its place in the history of the galaxy and how it is one of thousands of similar artifacts. The chapter is exhaustive, and suddenly the terms used in the first few chapters have context and make sense.

The story begins with regicide; the king of the eighth level is murdered at the close of a pivotal battle with the ninth level. The story-telling is much like a fantasy novel, what with the opaque terms mingled with the familiar story of battle and politics. Fermin, the heir apparent to the throne witnesses the murder of his father but has been assumed dead from battle himself. Noting it would be him against a collection of soldiers and courtiers if he fought, he watches the slaying and then escapes to try to figure out what to do. Fermin recognizes that the murderer, tyl Loesp, has a vast conspiracy behind him, he decides to seek assistance from beyond his medieval-ish world, out in the far more advanced galaxy where is unwanted sister has been sent.

What follows is an interesting back and forth between the sister, Djan Seriy, who was cast off as being valueless in the medieval culture she came from but finds herself part of the most elite in the galaxy at large. The portions of the story that deal with her are travelogues of that hyper-advanced galaxy, which will be familiar to readers of Banks's Culture novels. But he doesn't go into very much depth at all in comparison to earlier stories, so a new reader would be fairly lost as high-flown concepts are tossed at him. And Banks's focus seems not to be so much on the Culture, so the ideas go by pretty quickly. Juxtaposed with Djan's story is Fermin's story as he attempts to escape Sursamen and is slowly introduced to the much larger galaxy. These pages contain an epic version of the fish out of water story since Fermin progresses from steam-driven medieval weapons to intelligent ships and thousands of alien life forms. The result is more of a primer for the newcomer to the Culture than the rest of the book. Finally, interwoven with these stories is the story of Oramen, Djan and Fermin's remaining brother on Sursamen, now Prince Regent and unwittingly caught up in the conspiracy of tyl Loesp. His is the most interesting of the stories being told, again alluding to fantasy stories as the politics rage about an adolescent young man destined to become king.

And here is where the entirety of the novel falters a bit, especially in comparison to other Banks books: these three different plotlines are kept entirely separate for more than 400 of the 570 pages. None of the three storylines are enough to really maintain my interest over long periods: I know the culture stories well, and since nothing new is introduced in Djan's story and I don't need the primer in Fermin's, there's not a lot there. Oramen's story has potential, and Banks does spend some time dealing with the physical and geographical oddities of the world of Sursamen, but never really enough to effectively use the blockbuster idea of the shellworld itself. The reader knows that eventually these folks are going to come together, but they spend most of the book separated by large quantities of light years. And then when they do come together, the plodding pace is evaporated and the reader finds himself hurtled through Sursamen—and details in the explanatory chapter suddenly have importance. And finally, in those last few pages, we begin to see the twists in plotting that have made Banks so respected and, for me, so enjoyable. But by that time, I just want to get through the last pages of the book and move on to something else.

Combined with a not-very-revealing interview at the end of the book, the result feels like an introduction to the worlds of Iain Banks and perhaps even to the genre of speculative fiction. If that is the case, clearly I am not the intended audience, which is somewhat of a disappointment. It remains a powerfully written book but that power is in service to a goal I have trouble appreciating. The last 150 pages are classic Banks, reminding me of his best work, but by the time I got there, I was tired from the first 400 pages. What's ironic is that such an introduction has never been necessary in the earlier Culture novels; Banks uses strong storytelling to introduce and then slowly surround the user with the Culture in those books, which I find to be a more evocative and interesting path to take. So, being a completist, I'm glad to have read Matter, and perhaps I'll reread those last 150 or so pages. But ultimately, I feel this book makes a great introduction to the works of Banks rather than a satisfying extension of it.

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