NOTE: THIS POST INCLUDES SPOILERS
Matter is Iain Banks' first Culture novel since Look to Windward in 2000. So there was a great deal of eagerness - and not just by myself - when it was announced. Orbit clearly realised that Matter's publication was an event - Waterstone's has been selling the hardback at half price since a week or so before the official publication date.
There are, it has to be said, a certain number of things you expect to find in a Culture novel. And one of those things is a Big Dumb Object. In Matter, this is the Shellworld called Sursamen, which consists of a series of vast concentric spheres, each of which is in effect a planetary surface. Shellworlds were built for reasons unknown by a race which has long since vanished.
The Sarl, a human race, live on Sursamen's Eighth level. They are at war with the Deldeyn, another human race, from the Ninth level. Ferbin is heir to the throne of Hausk, a cod-mediaeval Sarl kingdom. He's more of a playboy prince than a suitable candidate for ruler, however, so when Ferbin inadvertently witnesses his father's murder after a battle, he flees for his life. He determines to seek help from Xide Hyrlis, a Culture representative who had been a friend of King Hausk many years before. He also decides to track down his sister, Djan Seriy, who left to join the Culture, and now works for Special Circumstances.
There are three main narratives in Matter, centred on the three surviving offspring of King Hausk. Ferbin and his manservant Holse escape Sursamen and track down Hyrlis. Djan Seriy returns to Sursamen to learn the truth of her father's death. And Oramen, youngest son and now prince regent, follows the invading Sarl army to the Ninth level and the Nameless City, an ancient metropolis slowly being revealed by the great Falls of Hyeng-zhar.
King Hausk's murder, the war against the Deldeyn of the Ninth level... these are all part of a conspiracy orchestrated by Hausk's trusted adviser, friend and murderer, tyl Loesp. He is working for the Oct, the alien race which control part of Sursamen. Their objective is not revealed until a good three-quarters of the way into the story, and its result is certainly not the intended one.
The Oct are mentored by the Nariscene, who are in turn mentored by the Morthanveld. Whose civilisation is equivalent in technology and advancement to the Culture. This civilisational hierarchy is important to the plot of Matter.
Iain Banks is one of the most interesting writers currently working in science fiction - but only in the sense of science fiction as a branch of literature. He's not really an ideas man. Yes, the concept of the Shellworld is pretty impressive... but it's been done before - in Colin Kapp's Cageworld quartet. In fact, if anything, Banks has a tendency to pick up current ideas and slot them into his fictions, whether they fit or not. Look to Windward introduced nanotechnology to the Culture; and Matter introduces cyberspace. Neither had been mentioned prior to their appearances in these novels, and yet they are treated as if they had always existed. Which does make their sudden inclusion seem a little odd.
In some respects, the hierarchy of civilisations mentioned above also has the feel of an add-on required for Matter's plot to function - it's not only reminiscent of David Brin's Uplift novels, but it all seems so much busier a universe than earlier Culture novels had suggested. But denying the possibility of such additions and changes does smack a little of the "clomping foot of nerdism". Fictional universes are as flexible and adaptable as required by the story.
What makes Banks really interesting is that his sf novels are not just simple action-adventures in a space opera setting. There's enough detail in there to attract those who want immersion in a made-up universe, but he's not one to slavishly follow genre story templates. Use of Weapons features two narratives running in opposite directions chronologically; Against A Dark Background has a quest plot, in which the protagonist loses every plot coupon shortly after winning it... but still manages to finish the course (but I'm not convinced that was done knowingly).
Having said that, Banks is less adventurous with the structure of Matter. It is, for much of its length, relatively traditional - something of a picaresque travelogue, albeit juxtaposed with high fantasy wargames on Sursamen's Eighth and Ninth Levels... However, Matter ends with an appendix - a completely unnecessary dramatis personae and glossary. And after that, an epilogue. Which changes the final shape of the story. The appendix is there to hide the epilogue. Now, that is an interesting choice.
Banks usually has something interesting to say, too. Matter is no different in this respect. And, if I'm reading the novel right, it's about Iraq, about whether so-called "developed" nations have the right to meddle in the affairs of other nations. The parallels are clear - should the Culture interfere in Sursamen? Unfortunately, Banks' message is muddled. Matter's prologue shows one such intervention by Special Circumstances, and that later proves mostly successful. But the Culture's refusal to interfere in the situation in Hausk - especially given how it progresses; and they are watching it, after all - leads to a situation which could destroy everything. The epilogue shows the Culture changing its policy.
This, then, is the message from the writer who chopped up his passport over the invasion of Iraq. According to Matter, he's now saying it is good to interfere - if the interference prevents slaughter and destruction. Or perhaps he means only to interfere in the interference of the Oct, which has caused slaughter and destruction? Banks has pre-built the moral high ground into his universe - the more evolved civilisations, the Involved, are more advanced and therefore more moral. That's part of evolution, after all. So it's okay for moral - or advanced; or, perhaps, "developed" - civilisations to interfere, Matter seems to be saying, but not for less evolved ones. That's not a good message. Because Banks' universal hierarchy is a cheat - morality is treated as if it were a physical law, as if a civilisation accrued some kind of wavicles of morality as it progressed and aged.
Other areas of Matter worthy of comment... It is very talky. Characters waffle a lot. They often repeat themselves. The novel also suffers from a sudden flurry of small resolutions as the end approaches. Banks' digressions are often his best bits - and some of the digressions in Matter are among the best he's done - but it does mean that his climaxes frequently feel rushed. It does here. And, there is throughout the novel odd verbings of nouns and nunation of adjectives. Banks in part explains this, having Djan Seriy say the Sarl sometimes use "words oddly" - "we guilt you", "he has been jealoused". But there are occasions where even that is no defence - the neologism is neither in dialogue, nor even in a narrative set on Sursamen or featuring a Sarl character.
Oh, and why does Matter have double quotes for dialogue throughout, when normal British practice is single quotes?
One of the reasons Banks is an excellent writer is that despite all the above I liked Matter a great deal. It's likely to be one of the most interesting sf novels published in 2008. Whether that makes it one of the best, I don't know. Depends what else I read, of course. Unlike The Algebraist, Matter did not disappoint.