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Den of inanity
The Ivory Tower  (Topics: 304 - Posts: 1,820)
Page  1
Iain M. Banks: Matter
Posted by Igelkotten Sep 6, 2009, 07:45
So, at long last, Iain Banks with an M has written a new Culture novel, complete with eccentric Minds, shifty SC agents and mega-huge conspiracies.

The plots starts in the "Shellworld" of Sursamen, an artificially built world, designed with layers upon layers of internal levels, all home to various civilizations of various degrees of galactic involvment. The civilization who once built this (and 4000 more like it) shellworld are now long gone, and nobody really knows why they built these artifacts -perhaps to create someosrt of vast shield around part of the galaxy.

In one of these levels of the shellworld, a barbarian kingdom is at war with another, much like it. A prince of the reals witnesses how his father, the king, is murdered by his own most trusted advisor, tyl Loesp, and then discovers that he has also been proclaimed dead, with a bit of character assasination thrown in. Accompanied only by his trusty, if somewhat truculent, manservant, he starts on a journey to the surface of the shellworld to meet with one of the spacefaring Involveds who acts as a sort of guardians for Sursamen, and persuade them to let him contact his younger sister, who has left the shellworld some years ago and now works for something called "The Culture", in something called "Contact". (Banks readers of course realize what that means...).

Meanwhile, the youngest prince has to come to terms with the fact that not only has his father and brother died in the war, he has also become the inheritor of the throne, and placed under the guardianship of his father's former advisor, tyl Loesp. Struggling to find out what really happened, and trying to come to terms both with his coming of age and coming into regency, he also discovers that something is not quite right -perhaps someone even has designs on his life!

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, an even deeper plot is going on beteween the various Involved species that acts as the guardians of the shellworld, with the barbarians as pawns -but pawns that start no behave in a manner not anticipated by the conspirators. And then the game is on, eventually leading up to a suitably impressive and cataclysmic grand finale.

This is very much classic M. Banks -complicated intrigues, ancient and mysterious artifacts, sarcastic drones, eccentric minds and ships with silly names. And, of course, some absolutely hilarious one-liners and dialogues, wild ideas and cool scenery.

Still, I couldn't help but to feel a bit disappointed after reading the book. While it is by no means bad -Banks is probably one of those writers, like Terry Pratchett, who can make book readable and passable just by sheer effort and craftsmanship, it does lack that certain something. The book does feel a bit like someone has gone through the checklist of contents suitable for a smashing Culture space-opera, and ticked them all off, but forgotten the over-arching idea. It does not have the sense of wonder or desperation of "Consider Phlebas", nor the black humour and philosophy of "The Player of Games". The end of "Matter" does work, with a big climactic final battle scene, but it also feels a bit like Banks having built this mega-huge ancient cosmic conspiracy and then discovering that he only had about 80 pages to go, so instead of more careful unraveling of the plot, he decided to blow things up instead.

So: By no means a bad book, but not one of his classics either. Readable, entertaining, and unfortunately very little that sticks in your mind afterwards. If you buy it, buy the cheap pocket version instead of the hardbound one.

Now, I have also read China Mieville's latest book, and will review that one shortly. That book was a stunner...

Posted by access.denied Sep 7, 2009, 20:43
I rather liked it, and while it was not anywhere near the top of my Culture reading list, I liked it much more than either "Inversions" or "The Use of Weapons" (which, I understand, is many a person's favourite Culture novel). Still, I liked the Algebraist better, as far as his recent output is concerned.

Speaking of SF recent-ish Space Operas: I found Charles Stross' "Saturn's Children" disappointingly mediocre. It had quite a few interesting ideas (human-formed robot society chugging along after humans just sort of died out), had an interesting feature of harvesting a plethora of internet memes for vibrant language and, I suppose, overall hip-ness... but failed to provide any particularly interesting protagonists (or antagonists, for that matter) or a particularly interesting or coherent plot. Which was a disappointment, as I quite liked Stross' "Singularity Sky" and "Iron Sunrise" (and wasn't overly happy that he moved to writing satirical thrillers or somesuch lately, so I was quite excited about Saturn's Children.

And another one (this one isn't all that new, I guess): Alastair Reynolds' "House of Suns" is a nice read, though I prefer his novels set in the "Revelation Space" universe. This one takes place in a standalone universe, in a strongly post-human galaxy-scale environment (where immortal clones of Earth's industrial aristocracy travel the galaxy as itinerant, well, aristocracy, mostly for lulz and giggles) and, much like most of Reynolds oeuvre, is more of an enjoyable action-read than a thought-provoking treatise. Still, it's fine as such go.

Posted by Egil Sep 8, 2009, 12:54
I haven't yet read Matter, but I do feel compelled to defend Use of Weapons. While not as good as Excession or the Player of Games, I feel it's much better than Inversions (which was a resounding meh for me), and about on par with the Algebraist.

Amazon and Deutsche Post willing, I'll chime in on Matter next week. ;)

As for China MiƩville, I keep getting the feeling I ought to like his writing - all the right levers for me, personally, are there - and keep finding it dull as a butte knife (not a knife made for spreading butter, but a knife made out of butter). The odd thing is, I've found his non-fiction articles quite entertaining, and would definitely buy a China MiƩville RPG.

Posted by Igelkotten Sep 9, 2009, 05:30
Interesting that you both like "The Algebraist". I found it a bit cumbersome, and Carduus couldn't even finish it. Though the merry gas-giant yachting clubs with their old battlecruisers did make me laugh... What is it that you both like about it?

While I do like "Use of Weapons", I wouldn't go so far as to declare it the best Culture novel ever. For me, that would probably be a toss of the coin between "Consider Phlebas" and "The Player of Games"

Posted by Egil Sep 9, 2009, 12:50
It must be the Player of Games, then, because I'd consider it a toss between that novel and Excession.

Posted by access.denied Sep 10, 2009, 09:34
It's "Player of Games" and "Excession" for me as well.
As for "The Algebraist," I have the book in the UK (where I won't be back until January), and so can't take a look to jostle my memory. I remember liking it, but apart from that it's just a bunch of unconnected images: slowdown trance for communicating with wierd but sagely aliens, needleships hurtling through space, a gleam of the villain's uncanny diamond teeth...

Posted by Egil Nov 17, 2009, 18:23
I like the Algebraist because it portrays a very different sorta-anarchist society from the Culture - a much less idyllic one, but also quite entertaining. That and the wholly non-anthropocentric focus; in the Culture, humans and their machines are at least one of the galaxy's major civilizations.

And I've read Matter, and eh. There are some brilliant moments, and none of it outright sucks, but definitely a work of craft rather than art. And the ending is both predictable and far too rushed. Overall, while I wouldn't go so far as saying I dislike it, it is my least favourite Iain M. Banks work.

A ranking

Player of games
Consider Phlebas
Use of Weapons

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