Iain M. Banks, Matter

There’s something about Iain M. Banks; I enjoy every minute of reading his stuff, but afterwards I remember almost nothing. What happened in The Player of Games or Use of Weapons? I can’t recall anything except that there was some kind of hypercomplicated Dragon-poker style gambling sequence in the first. I suspect that both books ended with a big shoot-out and most of the main characters died.

Matter is true to form. We start with a feat of mega-engineering, in this case a shell world, which is a super-sized habitat consisting of nine concentric spheres, providing nine separate environments for various wildly conceived alien species. One two of these spheres we have some basically human semi-primitive people, just entering the steam age and fighting each other with swords and blunderbusses.

Sarl, one of the two nations fighting each other, had years ago sent a princess off to the Culture, where she’s become a Special Circumstances agent, and one of our protagonists. When the heroic if brutal king of Sarl is killed in nefarious circumstances his eldest son secretly witnesses the event. A dissipated sort, and himself recognizing he’s not fit to rule, Prince Ferbin strikes out into the galaxy in search of his sister. Meanwhile the bookish youngest prince, Oramen, is left in line to the throne, but can’t actually inherit until he comes of age.

One of the few things that annoyed me about the book is the title given to Oramen, “Prince Regent”. In our world, this term means a prince who is also regent for an incapacitated king. That is, for someone whose power exceeds his inherited position. Here, its used to mean a prince who is in line to inherit but hasn’t yet; meaning someone with less power than their inheritance implies. It’s a niggle, but still distracting.

As the plot unfolds, we tour briefly through the nine shells of the shell world, visit the Culture’s neighboring galactic scale society, the Morthanveld, learn about some Senile species, and meet one of the Culture’s more eccentric Ships.

In a Banks book, its not a spoiler to tell you it all ends in a shoot-out and most of the main characters die.

Like a drug that directly stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain, every word is enjoyable. But I don’t expect to remember everything that happened when I wake up in the morning.


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