Monday, February 09, 2009

Iain Banks: Matter

Iain Banks' Matter is set in his Culture universe, and it's nearly as interesting as the best of the Culture novels. The high point of Matter is seeing people (and entities) at different technological levels interacting and moving back and forth between societies. The main focus is the Sarl, an industrializing society living on level 8 of Sursamen, an immense shellworld, and their war of conquest with one of their neighbors. The Sarl are getting help from a more advanced species, and being led to believe their own abilities are behind their successes. The royal family has a daughter Djan who was taken away and adopted by Special Circumstances, which gives a reason for them to have someone on the scene, even though Sursamen is outside their sphere of influence.

I think this is the first time we have directly seen that Banks' Culture universe includes competing civilizations at the level of the Culture. Previously we'd been led to believe that the Culture was an over-arching universal civilization that enforced a live-and-let-live stable peace among all species. Now we see that there are others at the level of the Culture, and the Morthenveld are powerful enough that the Culture mostly leaves their sectors and galaxies alone. When a Special Circumstances agent wants to visit a region under Morthenveld control she has to give up most of her powerful built-in weapons, skills, and communications devices.

Amid the local politics, and while following Djan's perigrinations as she attempts to return to Sursamen to find out what happened in the wake of her father's death, we discover that a deeper plot is afoot. Vast forces gather in darkness and secrecy, and Djan has to figure out what their goal is decide whether their plans are aligned with or opposed to those of the Culture before deciding what action to take.

The story has great descriptions of vast stellar constructions, many interacting civilizations, species and people. One of the things I like about the Culture novels is that even though we get to see grand conflicts in the foreground of the stories, it's clear that they are just the front page news of far bigger civilizations with vast abilities and gazillions of citizens, who mostly interact through peaceful commerce. We see a bit of that in a visit to a Morthenveld nestworld, which is huge beyond the scale of the entire Culture civilization.

While the book was nominated for this year's Prometheus award, I don't think it'll be a strong contender. It's perfectly sympathetic to libertarian goals and tastes, but the big conflicts don't directly apply to any hot-button issues. The book is very well written and a lot of fun to read, but this year there are books with a much tighter focus on out-of-control totalitarian governments to contend with, and Banks' Matter doesn't play in that arena.

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