I’ve been reading science fiction since I knew how to read. I’ve immersed myself in utopias, dystopias, parallel universes, and alien mating rituals. I’ve stood on the shores of an inland sea on Mars, plunged into the swirling depths of gas giants, and hacked the operating system of reality. And after thirty years in this genre, I’ve come to one conclusion: I want to live in the Culture. Fuck the Foundation, fuck the Metaverse, fuck Mars, fuck the Federation, and certainly fuck the Sprawl.
The Culture is a post-scarcity, post-human, post-Singularity civilization that’s been around for a few tens of thousands of years (a drop in the bucket in this part of the galaxy), described by a citizen as a “galaxy-spanning anarchist utopia of stupefying full-spectrum civilizational power,” with all the cool weapons and diversions and pleasures and megastructures that such a statement implies. The whole thing is made possible by AIs called Minds whose speed of and capacity for thought exceed ours by some orders of magnitude. Though no one makes a big deal out of it, Minds essentially rule the Culture. Benignly, most of the time. While snarky AIs don’t play as large a role here as in other Culture books, their occasional contributions to the story are always welcome. I’ve read and seen a lot of variations on AI, and Banks gives his such eccentric personalities and fantastic senses of humor that they certainly seem like they’re having more fun than, say, Skynet or Wintermute.
But the Culture are only one of a number of Involved societies. The galaxy of Banks’ imagination is populated with all manner of species with every conceivable level of technology at their disposal. And it turns out that people who live on actual bog-standard planets are very much the exception, as their contemporaries spend their days on enormous Ringwirld-type constructions, inside vast spaceships housing a quarter-billion people, or even in vast Shellworlds, one of the latter being the main setting of Matter.
The Shellworld itself is a staggering construction, a hollow tiered planet (much like a 3-D map of a target),where one level might house premodern humans, another intelligent cumuliform clouds, another a hatchery for galaxy-travelling vacuum-breathers, another something far stranger. Billions of years old, poorly understood, and harboring unfathomable secrets, the Shellworld is of a piece with Banks’ entire worldbuilding ethos: boy howdy, am I going to show you some cool shit.
All the Culture novels I’ve read thus far have been structurally quite similar: there’s a personal story and a widescreen story, the two influence each other in various ways, and one is always subordinate to the other. At its heart, Matter is primarily a story about two brothers and a sister. The older brother, Ferbin, is a wastrel, a cad, and the first in line to the throne of an industrial-age civilization occupying the eighth level of a Shellworld. His younger brother Oramen is of a scholarly bent, still rather naive and trusting. Their sister Djan, more or less exiled by their father fifteen years before, has become a member of Special Circumstances, the Culture’s direct action unit (which combines the ethos of the starship Enterprise with the skullduggery of the CIA). A horrifying betrayal sends Ferbin, accompanied by his long-suffering valet, fleeing to the stars in search of Djan, while Oramen remains at home, surrounded by danger of which he is only dimly aware. The widescreen story which underlines the personal story involves tension between the Culture and a rival equivalent-tech aquatic civilization, the scheming of various societies lower on the tech tree, ancient alien artifacts, and the nature of the Shellworld itself. More than that I’m disinclined to discuss, as one of the book’s true pleasures is Banks’ brisk pace in revealing the layers of the story.
Until Matter, I was about 50-50 with Culture novels. Player of Games and Excession are so goddamn good that I’m already relishing the chance to read them again, whereas Consider Phelbas and Use of Weapons are enjoyable if not nearly of the same caliber. Matter falls squarely on the better side of the ledger, though it never quite reaches the heights of the best of Banks’ work. But it comes awful close at times. I recall a moment fairly late in the book, where the characters were about to do something preposterous to get back inside the Shellworld, and all I could do was smile and stay up waaaaay past my bedtime to find out how it all came out. Matter is a book I was willing to lose sleep over. If that’s not the gold standard for the printed word, I don’t know what is.