Oct 17 2008


Published by at 8:52 pm under Books

by Iain M. Banks (2008)

“Matter” is the most recently written and apparently last book in the Culture series. Since my library hadn’t yet provided “Look to Windward” which was written earlier, I’ve read this book out of order, but that shouldn’t be a problem since the books of the Culture series are only loosely tied together by the inclusion of the Culture’s representatives and technologies. The characters and settings have been entirely different in every book. “Matter” feels like the end of the series since since by it’s conclusion the augmented and mechanically assisted humans are approaching superman’s capabilities, and Banks couldn’t take them much further without the stories becoming farcical.

“Matter” contains a blend of two stories that both involve a ‘kingdom’ on an artificial planet which consists of concentric enclosed spheres. The planet was one of a large number built eons ago by a no longer existent species for unknown reasons. The king is murdered after he has nearly completed the process of unifying all the civilizations on two levels of that planet. His kingdom’s culture and environment is a mix of medieval (swords, castles) and 19th century steam driven technologies. The more modern inventions the result of ideas planted by a representative of the Culture. This aspect of the stories provides a stream of intrigue and violence minor violence. In parallel to this local story, a galaxy wide incident involving the same artificial planet is developing slowly and eventually provides a finale which is in the style of a grand space opera. Tying the two stories together is an agent of the Culture’s “Special Circumstances” organizations who was sent to the Culture by the very same king some 20 years earlier.

Some of the medieval intrigue and associated ‘color’ was a little tedious. Similarly, some of the detailed descriptions of the several very odd alien cultures that were part of the space opera aspect were skipped over lightly. If one were a fanatic one could have fun with both, but not worth my time to read carefully.

In the whole Culture series, there is never an attempt to provide a comprehensive description of the Culture. Aspects are described as needed for the stories. This story provides a bit of detail on the context in which the culture exists; a galaxy wide coexistence of many species that were differentiated by how far they’d ‘climbed the technology wall’. The more advanced monitored and sometimes influenced (manipulated) the lesser advanced. The Culture along with several others is among the most advanced. Where did I ever hear of something like that…?

A defining characteristic of this series of books is the inclusion in the Culture of very intelligent machines which have personalities and are sentient; e.g. space ships are ‘alive’ and run themselves, etc. These machines, AKA “minds”, very in intelligence based on their role. Some if not many are super smart and exceed the intelligence of the much augmented and improved humans which populate the Culture. In all the stories, humans are usually ‘in charge’ which is understandable since the author is a human, but how or why this seemingly unlikely situation occurred is never addressed.

Banks is a very good story teller and I expect to go back and finished the skipped sixth novel: “Look to Windward”.

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