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Matter by Iain M Banks

Those of you who follow the genres will know there are two authors for the price of one in this name. Just as those of you into English accents will understand the intrusive ‘r’ as in my native Newcastle with the southerners’ version, Newcarstle, so we have an intrusive M in Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks. He wears his M hat as an SF author. In both modes, he usually provokes us into thinking about the world we inhabit. In Matter, we are invited to consider both the nature of societies and how they resolve disputes. At one level, the disputes may be completely internal, involving subgroups within subcultures. When you move up the scale, you may reach the level of conflicts between societies as countries. In those cases, where the relationships are not codified, it may be possible to go to war with little formality and no internationally accepted causus belli. You just make bellicose threats and when, as expected, the “enemy” ignores these words and matches the megaphone power of the rhetoric, this is an invitation to begin actual fighting. Yet, when there are treaties, memoranda of understanding and deeply entrenched commercial interdependencies, it may be too expensive for our two countries to fight directly. They must therefore find different ways of competing with each other militarily. This can be through proxies with some power. For example, China and the US cannot actually fight each other, but North Korea may offer a different way for China to rattle its sabre. Or the countries can fight using minions where there’s less at stake.

Iain Banks without the M


Let’s now take a look at one of the central metaphors of Matter, that of the shellworld. No developed society is homogenous. It’s always multilayered. There are social constructs, like pillars, supporting each layer. In theory these are also towers offering mobility between the different layers. But, as most people who live in a society with a class structure understand, it’s easier to see the appearance of mobility than actually move upwards. Hence most of the visible towers have been artificially shut off and the “open” towers are carefully guarded. In the galaxy, the same stratification also applies with different races and groups each accorded their own position in the hierarchy of the Culture, and respect must always be shown. A strict policy of non-interference applies. So, just as some shellworlds can suddenly become slaughterhouses as inhabitants accidentally trigger long-hidden systems for wielding death, the Culture moves tentatively across the interspecies minefields to avoid setting off any explosions that cannot be managed.


In all this, we must remember that the elite in each strata of culture can, to a greater or lesser extent, avoid direct participation in any real conflict. Fighting through proxies most of the time enables them to preserve wealth and status. Thus, in much the same way that some will queue to watch men batter each other in a boxing ring, the alien voyeurs may become fans of fighting. They do so because they are never directly emotionally involved. It’s all vicarious. If they had to live with the consequences of destruction and death, they would quickly lose their appetite for the reality of wars.


As to the story of this book: once upon a time, there was a King. The first born was a daughter. Even though she was highly intelligent, the fact of her gender was a great disappointment and, at the earliest opportunity, she was palmed off on to a mage who managed to perform a neat trick. He armed the girl and turned her into a warrior, albeit one with a conscience. The other two children apparently had the better fortune to be boys but, since our King was always off fighting wars, their upbringing was of indifferent quality. When the older decided to join his father on a battlefield, he chose a wonderful uniform and rode a conspicuously white horse. The younger formed his character as a negative. He aimed to be everything his brother was not. This was good as far as it went, but failed to define his hopes and aspirations in positive terms. When their father was killed, this forced the three children to decide what was important. Had this been a simple mediaeval world, it would have been straightforward. Everyone would have pulled out swords and fought to the best of their abilities. But this being science fiction pitches everyone into a universe where different beings and AIs dance elegantly in ways that avoid wars except when fought in shellworlds by proxies.


The whole novel is an elaborate shell game (pun intended) in which we watch the individuals and various races slowly come together for the final showdown. It’s fairly clear from an early stage why the various parties are manoeuvring for position. Think of that as the outer husk of the shell. What only becomes clear later on is the extent of the mistake being made. Self-evidently, the interested parties think they know what the buried treasure is. As in all such cases, the reality is rather different. In this, Iain M Banks plays perfectly fair. In all the info dumps that slow down the opening third of the book, there’s more than enough information to tell you what the real problem is likely to be. All you have to do is have the patience to read through it all, paying complete attention throughout, and then apply a little Sherlockian thought.


This should give you a clue as to my final reaction to this book. It does start rather slowly and there’s rather a lot of information to digest about the history of the shellworlds and how they fit into the politics of the Culture. But, if you’re prepared to work your way through it, the pace slowly accelerates and there’s a pleasing climax in which the truth we suspected all along is confirmed. As an afterthought, we’re also given a brief glimpse into the meaning of the phrase “domestic bliss”. It’s well worth reading if you enjoy Banks but, if you have not tried his science fiction before, there are better Culture novels to open first.


Jacket art by Mario J Pulice.


For the next Culture novels, see:
Hydrogen Sonata
Surface Detail.


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