Matter

Issue section: 
(322)

Iain M. Banks, Orbit, £18.99

A king is murdered; his son seeks vengeance; his brother is threatened with assassination; and vast galaxy-spanning societies of insects, blobs and genetically modified humans watch the seemingly inconsequential imperialist rivalries taking place on two of the 16 internal levels of the planet Sursamen.

It can only be another Culture novel from Iain Banks. The story of feudal warlords intertwined with the advanced societies of the far future is compelling enough, but Banks is often at his best in describing ideological debates (is it "culturally imperialist" for the Culture to intervene in other societies' technological and social development?), or weird alien cultures (a society of intelligent clouds; species that evolve to a state beyond matter; and a senile god living at the centre of a planet all feature).

With multiple, but converging, storylines, 88 characters, 42 species and 18 pages of glossary, this isn't the most straightforward of novels, but Banks has the ability to describe the near indescribable. It can be no mean feat to describe, for example, the Culture agent who has genetically transformed into a bush, in a way that seems perfectly normal.

While some of the earlier Culture novels run at a slightly faster pace, this is a meaty book with strong characters - and a strong female protagonist, which can be all too absent in science fiction.

Patrick Ward


Read our interview with Iain Banks here.