Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Iain M. Banks - Matter

The sheer scale of Iain M Banks' Science Fiction always excites me. His ability to blend far reaching ideas with a galactic scale, without ever loosing sight of the minutae that make up society gives his fiction a real depth. His latest SF outing, Matter, doesn't disappoint, not least in the scale of the printed book. Weighing in with 550 plus pages, a glossary of characters and ship names, you know as you pick it up, that you are in for a detailed read.

At it's most basic, this is a classic story of revenge. In fact, the basic tale of a murdered King's son seeking justice as well as a route to the throne in the context of a changing Feudalistic society is one that has been done many times in the fantasy genre. What is clever about this take, is that the Fuedal society we read about in Matter is actually located on a "Shell World". Not only is it bottom of the league in terms of technological development, it is actually physically underneath many other layers of this artifical planet.

In Iain M. Banks' universe, such constructs are not unusual, though no one really knows their point. In this novel they serve as a metaphor for social and technological power. Leaving aside the technical details of how such worlds work (something the author doesn't do, I should add), as you rise through the strated societies, each alien grouping tends, in the simplest explanation, to control, or at least influence the weaker societies below.

The stage is of course set for a clever interaction of different societies and different cultural understandings. Central to this is the journey of Prince Ferbin out into the external galaxy to search for his sister. As he encounters other races, societies and cultures his own conceptions of the status quo break down. His sister has gone through a similar process. Most interesting though, is the Prince's relationship with his servant - someone whose understanding of how society really works is much more critical than his Prince would dare suspect.

With this novel, Banks' has made his imaginary universe a much more real and deep place. It isn't all good - when a more powerful society intervenes in the internal workings of a weaker one - things don't often turn out well for the majority of people in the weaker place. (You might want to think about foreign intervention in the Middle East or Africa while you read the book, as, I am sure the author would have wanted you too).

Alongside most of Iain Banks' more recent SF, this novel is one to read and re-read. Unfortunately, his recent non-SF fiction tends to be more plodding and shallow. Perhaps this is pro-SF prejudice on my part, but I think sometimes political polemic works better in a novel when its slightly below the surface, rather than thrown at the reader.

If you want to know more about the book, you might like to read the interview that Iain M. Banks gave to Socialist Review when it was first published, it gives more information on the ideas behind its development. SR's own review is here.

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