Home > Literature, Reviews > Review of Matter by Iain M Banks

Review of Matter by Iain M Banks

The slightly strange thing about Matter is that it almost seems more like an Iain Banks book rather than an Iain M Banks book. For a start, the three main characters are all siblings – Djan Seriy, Ferbin and Oramen are the surviving children of the king of the Eighth. (Iain Banks is an only child, although, if I remember rightly (and much like Philip K Dick), he had a twin sister who died in infancy. Perhaps this is why families seem to fascinate him so much.) Also, it has that very typical Banksian technique of setting up a scenario, letting the characters go about their business for most of the novel, then quickly wrapping up the story in the last few chapters.

Some years ago, I read an interview with Banks (in PCFormat) where he described a scene that he hoped to make the prologue of a novel, but he had no idea what that novel could be. Well, this is that novel.

The Eighth is the eighth level down of a Shellworld, an artificial planet-sized artefact of incredible antiquity and unknown purpose. The race that built them has long since disappeared, so these days they’re used as habitats, their levels filled with land, ocean, gas, vacuum, depending on what sort of being inhabits them – and despite the fact that they have a tendency to kill all their inhabitants every now and then.

The people of the Eighth are at a level of development equivalent to the 19th century on Earth. However, they are aware of the nature of their world and that the galaxy beyond is populated with various space-going species and groups – one such being the Culture, the setting and context of many of M Banks’s sf novels.

Matter is a little weaker than his previous two sf works – The Algebraist and Look to Windward, mainly because the three protagonists are a little dull. Of those three, Ferbin, the heir apparent, seems to be the one most focused on; his emotional journey takes him from a state of decadent hedonism to the point where he starts to become more responsible. Well, OK, but it doesn’t seem terribly original.

The writing, in places, seems a little relaxed, falling into modes that are quite familiar from the many fantasy novels I’ve read. The ending, while perfectly logical, is brought about abruptly and leaves you wondering, Is that it? It isn’t: after the appendices there is an epilogue … and this didn’t quite ring true – it came across as very smug and redundant.

A decent read, but not quite up to the standard of his best.

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