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Culture Shock

Iain M. Banks' Latest Brainy Sci-Fi Epic Probably Won't Win Him New Converts

Daniel Krall

By Adrienne Martini | Posted 4/2/2008

I have never understood why Scottish writer Iain Banks hasn't caught on in America. His straight fiction is full of complex anti-heroes of both genders who have sex and drink, usually simultaneously, which Americans appear to eat up. Banks has written about some of our favorite topics, like rock stars and religious cults and quirky families. His nationality can't be what puts us off. We love other Scots, such as Irvine Welsh and Alexander McCall Smith.

Maybe this country's distaste for his books stems from his other writing. Banks also writes science fiction under the clever nom de genre Iain M. Banks. His standard fiction is easily accessible, if unusually quirky and dark. But his SF is another beast entirely, full of the obsessive details that make a wholly created universe feel like it has weighty substance.

Banks' latest SF epic, Matter (Orbit), won't win him any new converts. Matter is dense, both in terms of weight and scope. As Banks himself said in The Guardian in May 2007, "It's so complicated that even in its complexity it's complex." To give you a sense of just how labyrinthine Matter is, a factoid: It is a nearly 600-page book with 15-plus-page glossary.

Is it worth it? If you are already familiar with Banks' science-fiction novels about the Culture, of which Matter is another chapter, then, oh, yes. If this is your introduction to the same, don't pick it up unless you are a fan of galaxy-spanning epics that take a few hundred pages full of the unfamiliar to really get moving. It's like The Lord of the Rings in terms of pace but without the stupid songs and set in space.

Matter concerns itself with a shell planet, which Banks defines better than I, called Sursamen. The king of this largely agrarian realm comes to a brutal end, and one set of plots in the book focuses on the resulting fight for power. That alone would be a good enough yarn, especially when told by Banks. Still, you'd wonder what all of the fuss was about.

It's the other set of threads about the Culture, which is Banks' science-fiction stock in trade. The Culture is a utopian galaxy-spanning society that is full of all of the technical gee-gaws, like A.I. and orbital habitats, that make a geek's heart beat fast. And within the Culture is Special Circumstances, a team of agents who are charged with keeping balance in the universe. The daughter of the late Sursamen king is an SC agent.

Like most other M. Banks books, Matter twists in completely unanticipated ways and offers up ampules of philosophy along with its plot. His characters--even the most minor--are fully drawn and fascinating. A reader can feel her mind twist around Banks' more fantastic ideas and marvel at the complicated whimsy he creates. That alone is worth the price of admission.

But what adds value are the moments when the story and Banks' facility with language and syntax mesh perfectly, like this fiendishly long sentence that describes a young girl's response to the first waterfall she saw:

"She filled her chest to the point she could feel her bones and skin straining against her tightly buttoned coat, opened her mouth as wide as it could possibly go and then shook and trembled as though shrieking for all she was worth, but making no noise, certainly no noise above that stunning clamour overwhelming the air, so that the scream was caught and stayed clenched inside her, suffusing out into her miniature being, forever buried under layer after layer of memory and knowing."

Even for a Banks lover, however, Matter's first 200 pages are a sober slog through baroquely detailed landscapes and plots. It picks up so much that by the last 50 pages you can't stop reading. When the end comes, it does so with a sleek, startling bang that is pitch-perfect but breaks some of the larger rules about how science fiction is supposed to work. A Culture neophyte who also appreciates skilled language and deft characterization might still enjoy Matter, certainly, but it might be an easier sell to get them hooked on Banks' earlier books such as Use of Weapons and Consider Phlebas.

It's hard to imagine that Matter will be the one that moves him from a special order to a domestic record breaker. Given the number of other publishers--like Bantam Spectra and Pocket Books--who have tried to bring the Banks gospel to the States and largely failed, it will be interesting to see if this new title has enough matter to gain more American traction than the previous publications have.

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