PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 March, 2008, 12:00am


by Iain M. Banks

Orbit, HK$231

Iain Banks is, quite simply, a prodigy. Forget J.K. Rowling for a moment. The Fife-based writer has been wowing the literary world since his first novel, 1984's The Wasp Factory, stunned audiences with its shocking tale of a young girl-turned-murderer on a lonely Scottish island.

Voted as one of the 50 greatest British writers since the war by The Times newspaper, his 'Iain Banks' works have gone on to acclaim and been adapted for plays and television. Moreover, his visionary Culture novels (written as 'Iain M. Banks') have also gained widespread acceptance among science fiction fans worldwide. Banks balances on a unique division between 'normal' and highly futuristic work.

So far in the future - or past - it doesn't really matter, the Culture is a smug, faintly benevolent futuristic human society, which sees as its right the chance to meddle and assist in the development of other species' affairs ... all for the best anthropological reasons, of course. Life is so settled inside the Culture's ranks that the only 'action', so to speak, is when they're poking their noses in somewhere else.

It's a galaxies-wide society in which no one is ugly (unless they choose to be), you can have any body shape you wish, even gaseous or metallic forms (or change sex back and forth), people can secrete special combat or pain-relief (or pleasure-inducing) drugs from within adapted glands, and you can choose to live for thousands of years, or have yourself 'backed up' before you volunteer for death - and then reawaken hundreds of years later.

Not only this, but the humans of the Culture share a symbiotic relationship with the 'Minds' - the super-advanced, self-supporting artificial intelligences that support rather than take over society.

There exist scores of other highly developed alien species and worlds in Banks' universe too, some of which - like Sursamen within Matter - are artificially created and hollow, with their own stars and primitive peoples locked in ancient conflicts.

As ever with a Culture novel, the action in Matter is locked within hundreds of pages of richly, astonishingly detailed landscapes, peoples, wars, rivalries, spaceships and aliens lording it over one another.

The heroine, Djan, is a Special Circumstances agent for Contact, the section of the Culture that interacts with more primitive species. Yet Djan is also a former princess and heir apparent to a noble household of 'pan'-humans living inside one of the levels of the huge world of Sursamen.

When her father is murdered and her brother is forced to go on the run from his killers, Djan vows to return and investigate.

Much of the action initially takes place within this shell world and its feudal politics.

It is a fascinating concept in its own right: an abandoned, near-indestructible, multi-layered, gigantic sphere, in which humans, vacuum-living sail-forms and even a god now dwell. But as ever with Banks, the 'space opera' is much larger than mere lords duking it out in medieval fury.

The action is really tied to grander galactic scales, as one after another alien species takes a hand in the cosmic direction.

In it all, Banks mixes not only his techno-vision of galactic empires and civilisations, but also examines human and alien motivation: feudal conquerors are marshalled and encouraged by mentor species, who in turn are watched and monitored as they crawl up the galactic chain towards elder status. He even delivers a wry observation about species which have ascended towards godhood, that everyone privately agrees means they've also gone senile.

Matter is grand, stirring stuff. The vision is tremendous and this is a more than welcome return of the master of sci-fi.