I recently finished Matter by Iain M. Banks. Nothing unusual in that — I’d read plenty of his books, with or without the M. In fact, that’s the point. I’d read all the rest. Although nowhere near the last chronologically, this was the last one left I hadn’t read.
It Started With a Signature
I started reading Iain Banks in the mid-90s, after buying Whit at a signing I’d found myself in by pure chance. It was, unfortunately, the only time I met him, meaning I couldn’t ask him anything about his books, something I’d have loved to do later. I did make a joke about the book in its bag looking like a box of chocolates, and consequently got a book signed by Iain “Cadbury’s Selection” Banks.
After that, I read his works extensively — at first mainly the mainstream novels, and later the science fiction works as well. Or, to put it another way, the books by Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks. According to a TV interview I saw, the M stood for Menzies (pronounced Mingies, to rhyme with thingies) and he’d always used the initial. However, his publisher persuaded him to drop it, so that when they insisted he had to use a different name for his SF books, he sarcastically suggested Iain M. Banks. Which they accepted.
He had a big impact on me. When I was writing my novel At An Uncertain Hour, its non-linear structure, interweaving different time periods, was largely based on what I’d learnt from how Banks used the same technique, especially in The Crow Road.
Banks quickly became one of my two favourite living authors, alongside the equally awesome Mary Gentle. A status which, unfortunately, ended in 2013.
My Last Banks
At that point, I still had a couple more books to read, including Matter, which for some reason I had in a huge doorstop of a hardback, a fact that probably influenced why it was still unread. However, for reasons I didn’t initially understand, I continued not to read it. I suspect, though, it was subconsciously that I didn’t want to have no more Iain Banks books to look forward to.
That wasn’t a good enough reason, though, and I’ve now completed my collection. Like much of his science fiction, it involves a far-future civilisation called the Culture, an example of his tendency to take traditional dystopias and twist them so that they’re not scary. Whit, for example, involves a cult which, though rather silly, is actually quite benevolent.
The Culture is a society that’s run by machines — but it all works beautifully. A post-scarcity anarchy, it offers both its organic and technological citizens the freedom to follow their desires, without the need to work for a living. What many of the more powerful AIs choose to do is keep all the systems running. It’s as simple as that.
In fact, many of the most interesting characters are AIs, especially the ships. Culture ships have strong and often quirky personalities, which is reflected in the ridiculous names they give themselves. Among the ships that feature in Matter are “Now We Try it My Way” and “You’ll Clean That Up Before You Leave”.
As in many of the Culture books, most of the action takes place away from the Culture — it’s a utopia, so not much fun as far as exciting stories go. In this case, the action centres on a Shellworld (a hollow, artificial planet consisting of concentric levels of habitats, down to the core). Focused mainly on levels 8 and 9, which is inhabited by a society with a roughly late-Victorian level of technology, the action starts with the assassination of the king.
The story thereafter follows his three children — Ferbin, the son who witnessed the assassination and has fled seeking help; Oramen, the younger son made puppet king by the assassin; and the daughter Djan Seriy, who’s grown up in the Culture and returns with all its high-tech to sort things out.
These are roughly human, but we’re also presented with a splendid array of decidedly non-human intelligent species, including one best described as like stinking, mouldy carpets. But the intrigues down in the Shellworld aren’t quite as minor as they might seem, and the book ends with a climax that shakes the galaxy.
The single most powerful impression I’m always left with from most Iain Banks books, and especially the Culture novels, is simply how much fun he seems to have had writing them. Matter is no exception. Every page explodes with ideas that range from unbelievably cool to delightfully absurd, and it’s a joy to read, from the light-hearted moments to the shock of violence and mayhem as the story proceeds.
So now I’ve no more Iain Banks books to read for the first time — but, of course, many are long overdue for a reread. I’m sure I’ll find plenty more in them next time around.