To say this was a complicated book would be to undersell the very notion of complex. Not that it wasn’t comprehensible, far from it, but without the appendix provided at the back, managing the mental gymnastics of all the characters, species, ships, planets, etc. would have been excessively burdensome. It’s still a little shocking to read a piece of fiction which requires an appendix, but there it is.
Was it good? I’d say this was a very good book that could be said to suffer from some pacing issues. There were a good two hundred pages in the middle that could be summarized as “waiting for communication” and/or “traveling without incident”, but in typical Banksian fashion, I so enjoyed the way in which he wrote those two hundred pages, I almost didn’t notice the lack of plot advancement. Only when the final push kicked in did I realize that it had progressed so slowly for so long.
But what a fantastic ending it was! So clever in its interplay with the title of the book, so kinetic and action-packed. Truly exciting.
Any review of Matter would be incomplete without some effusive splatter of adjectives over Shellworlds. Consider a world artificially constructed by an elder civilization which built them as an array of enveloping spheres. Nine worlds around a core connected by impenetrable towers literally holding aloft the vault of the heavens. An elder creature called the WorldGod inhabits the core (though it’s really not a god at all but just an incomprehensible shut-in) and each layer houses an entire world. It is a remarkable concept!
Even Banks seemed as excited by his invention as I was. Consider Sursamen, the Shellworld at the center of the story:
“Sursamen collected adjectives the way ordinary planets collected moons. It was Arithmetic, it was Mottled, it was Disputed, it was Multiply Inhabited, it was Multi-million-year Safe, and it was Godded.”
While I’ve enjoyed other books in the series more (Look to Windward and The Player of Games), there was enough invention and genuine Banksian wit to make this a thoroughly enjoyable read and welcome addition to the series.
As with all of the Culture books, my only consolation with finishing this book is that there is another one in the series waiting for me.