And so we reach the last Culture book I remember enjoying unreservedly the first time I read it. I don’t think that’s just a result of me becoming a more discerning/ picky/pretentious reader in the years since –it’s not too controversial to claim that the forthcoming Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata are among the less strong entries in the series – but coming at this for a second time it’s apparent that the warning signs were definitely peeking through.
Matter is, at least in terms of setting, a complementary work to Inversions, but where the earlier work showed us the Culture’s influence on a late-mediaeval society entirely from within it, Matter gives us the Culture’s intervention in an early-industrial age society from both outside and in. The twist here being that the low-tech Sarl inhabit a level of the aforementioned Shellworld – a structure which is both a phenomenal feat of SFnal imagination and a tidy bit of literary metaphor construction (layers within layers, you see) – and are fully cognizant of their lowly position within the grander scheme of things. The king is murdered, one heir flees, one remains behind in the precarious care of a treacherous Regent, and the final journeys back having been headhunted by Contact half a lifetime before. These three strands wrap around each other and give full range for Banks to explore his familiar should we/shouldn’t we interventionist dialogues, which given their sheer number still more often than not manage to avoid outright preachyness, or more surprisingly repetitiveness (Djan’s encounter with the peace faction member is a noticeable failure in this regard). To be continually rehashing the same arguments and still finding new angles is no mean feat, and it’s a mark of Bank’s wit and skill that in reading through the series I’ve very rarely had the sensation of experiencing the same thing twice.
However, one less flattering trend that’s becoming apparent on this reread is Banks’ skill with antagonists, which sadly exhibits a very noticeable depreciation. In Consider Phlebas the antagonists are, arguably, the Culture themselves, though if that doesn’t work for you then we can at least agree that the Idirans are a fully fleshed out and conceived society with eminently justifiable motivations and morality. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the baddies have been on a downward curve from there on in (though the final reveals in both Use of Weapons and Excession did at least manage to pleasingly muddy the moral waters). Matter’s Tyl Loesp, the eeeevil, eeeeeeevil Regent, is as one note as they come (and yet from memory is still more complex than Veppers in Surface Detail) and the Oct are simply dumb as a bag of spanners. For both you do wonder how they’ve actually managed to attain and maintain their positions, as their competence is all reported; when they’re shown making actual decisions they appear to be of questionable effectiveness, at best.
This is a novel of scale, however, so to focus on a single weakly-drawn character is perhaps to miss the point. In fact, focusing on any of the characters as individuals is secondary; Ferbin (the fleeing prince) eventually develops something of a backbone and Oramen (the imperiled heir apparent) belatedly wises up to the threats around him, but otherwise no one really changes that much at all. Except Holse, Ferbin’s man-servant whose eyes are opened to a brave new world through his contact with the many layers of his homeworld and galactic civilization as a whole (there’s that metaphor, see?), and as such he represents the most clearly defined personal journey in the book. That it so closely mirrors the political and ethical messages contained therein is, of course, no accident. For all that some cracks were starting to show, Banks definitely knew what he was doing; 600 pages and I still read it in a weekend. Eight down, two to go.