Strange as it may seem, Iain M. Banks wasn’t always a giant of UK SF. In 1987, when Consider Phlebas appeared, cyberpunk reigned, its proponents having taken on the mantle of the great writers of the New Wave, and sharing some of their ethos. Even those who couldn’t get on with Gibson, Sterling, Cadigan & co. were convinced that real science fiction had to engage with the real world, real issues, the foreseeable future (wide open, and buzzing with bizarre sfnal possibility). Consider Phlebas was a space opera: one of those massive, florid skiffy tomes full of aliens, spaceships and big explosions, functionally indistinguishable from those other massive, florid fantasy tomes filled with dragons, wizards and cod-mediaeval battles between Good and Evil. Fun if you like that sort of thing, but critical acclaim? Get out of here. Mr Banks with the middle initial proved to be very approachable, an ornament to any convention, but his mainstream books, without the initial, were surely his real work. The sci-fi ones were not to be taken seriously.
Then along came the British Boom, the internet explosion that put the reputation of SF works in the hands of the fans themselves, and the New Space Opera (not necessarily in that order). It took a decade, but the Culture novels finally matched the fashion on the mean streets of genre. Nowadays they’re recognised for what they always were: big, hearty chunks cut from the original, populist, core material. The game of if I ruled the world played out with despotic, maniacal glee: featuring weird aliens, ginormous spaceships, spectacular casualty figures, staggering space-time vistas, and a fair amount of Wellsian pontification. Maybe not the literature of ideas, but most definitely in the top class of bestselling science fiction.
Matter, the long-awaited seventh Culture novel, is another big book set in that other reality, in which the galaxy is so mysteriously populated with people just like humans, and which is so mysteriously similar to the fictional futures projected for this world by the SF pulps of long ago. The human—or humanoid—subjects of the Culture enjoy eternal life (should they so desire), untramelled liberty and fabulous wealth. AI Minds, embodied in great spaceships or sometimes in bio-forms, are the benign, absolute rulers of this galactic superpower. Recalcitrant aliens have been known to force the Minds into total war but usually, as here, it’s the Developing Nations—so to speak—who provide the essential element of trouble in paradise. In Matter we meet a suite of new, spacefaring aliens—including the female-ordered Morthanveld, who rival the Culture in power and in diplomacy—but we are chiefly concerned with a human Developing Nation called the Sarl/Deldeyn. These two warring sects inhabit the eighth and ninth levels of a Shellworld, and are the clients of a minor galactic power called the Oct. The Oct are up to something. Whatever it is, it has something to do with a humunguous great waterfall on the ninth level; and with the unspeakably ancient city that is slowly being revealed beneath it.
None of the galaxy’s major powers has been paying attention. Shellworlds—staggeringly huge steampunk contraptions left behind by an elder race, some of them with huge, placid aliens called Xinthians inhabiting their cores—are generally considered harmless. However, a Sarl princess was talent-spotted by the Culture as a teenager. Djan Seriy Anaplian—one of Iain M. Banks’s trademark “perfect girlfriend”  tough females—is now a Special Circumstances agent (Special Circumstances amounts to the Culture’s CIA). When she hears of the death of her father the king—supposedly in battle, really murdered by his treacherous Vizier, who is in the pay of the Oct, but not in their confidence—she relinquishes most of her far-distant-future James Bond gadgets and heads home accompanied by another stock character, the Intelligent Drone Turminder Xuss, lightly disguised as a knife-missile. Ostensibly she’s going to pay her respects: on the side, she’ll quietly assess the Oct situation. Meanwhile her brother, prince Ferbin, having witnessed his father’s death, flees in the opposite direction with a faithful servant, bent on enlisting his sister’s support in a mission of feudal revenge. Another brother, Oramen—a dreamy youth, just blossoming into the proper, princely life of drinking and whoring in low taverns—is left at the Vizier’s mercy, unaware of the deadly danger he is in.
Space Opera is no longer out of fashion, but what about the other problem, the moral issue? There’s no denying that this sub-genre glorifies war. Worse, it tends to position the reader back at the chateau with the generals, being pragmatic about those casualty figures. Megadeath is acceptable, it doesn’t matter, in the galactic scheme of things. Interventions go horribly wrong, but they’re still worthwhile; statistically, in the long run. Doctoring the evidence is always for the best, as the masses can’t handle the truth. A few individuals must suffer grisly torture, and right-minded people find this acceptable: that’s just the way the universe works ... Many of the Culture’s fans may be unconcerned, but Banks is certainly aware of the difficulty, and always runs damage limitation alongside the joyous mayhem. This is the difference between Old Space Opera and New Space Opera, after all. It’s about having fun in permanent warfare world, without supporting the Military Industrial Complex in real life: about having liberal, enlightened values and enjoying the odd Death Star Demolition Derby.
It’s been a long time in real-world politics since the last Culture novel. As I followed the adventures of the princess, and her brothers, I wondered what new corrective the story would deliver, so as not to give comfort to the war-mongers of the twenty-first century. On the face of it, rather surprisingly, there seems to be no change. The new aliens are pulpy as ever, if not more so. The Peace Faction are bleeding-heart losers. The Sarl/Deldeyn conflict, though instigated by a bunch of utter lunatics, leads to a patriotic, fast-paced, furious and emotional finale; and everything turns out fine. The hegemony of an allegedly benign superpower will continue, the Sarl will get their promotion to the next tier in Cultural Development. We can shake our heads over the cruel cost, but the Powers that Be are always right, and the unquestioned benefits of “anarchist-utopia” (did someone mutter democracy?) shall always prevail.
And yet, and yet: there’s something funny going on in this novel. It begins with the Sarl, who enjoy a parodic fantasy lifestyle, and express themselves in the most peculiar jargon, somewhere between Hobbiton and Shakespeare. They’re deploying WWI military technology, thanks to a Special Circumstances agent (who may or may not have been acting on his own), but are so dumb they still go to war in plate armour; some old knights from the shires favour chain mail. Then there’s soft-headed prince Ferbin and his servant Choubris Holse, whose resemblance to Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee gets beyond parody—I mean, gets beyond anything but parody—long before we hit the no-kidding straight-steal of the Epilogue. Not to mention the ridiculous Appendix.
And then there’s the former agent, Xide Hyrlis. In a lengthy episode that has no bearing on the plot, Hyrlis, who seems to be Iain Banks in Wellsian mode, brings Ferbin and Holse up to speed on elements of twenty-first century human cosmology that could be of passing interest to Culture fans: such as the multiverse hypothesis; and the notion that our whole perceived universe could be a computer simulation, run by a mischevious God. He also informs them that these petty wars on the margins of the Culture—the whole matter of Matter in fact—aren’t real conflicts at all. They’re purely manufactured by twisted souls like Hyrlis, for the benefit of heartless beings, greatly his inferior, who observe the proceedings from a safe distance and draw vicarious satisfaction from them...
Enough of this frivolity. Iain M. Banks is a tricksy writer, always playing games. If the entire Sarlian episode is a practical joke, aimed at those readers who lap up this kind of sub-Tolkien with spaceships nonsense,it wouldn’t be totally out of character. On the other hand, I could be completely wrong: imagining secret messages where they don’t exist, to while away the long, slow journey to the heart of Sursamen. Let the last word be with the honest masses, on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk: who will tell you that the Culture novels are terrific, but not for everyone. The pace is always deliberate, replete with authorial rumination; the splendid action is always rationed. Relax, take nothing too seriously, enjoy the nifty weapons, the skilful writing and the stupendous scenery. Matter is good value, though it may not be the master’s best work.
 I’m indebted to Ian Sales for this neat term.
Gwyneth Jones is the author of more than twenty novels for teenagers, mostly using the name Ann Halam, and several highly regarded SF novels for adults, which have won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the James Tiptree Jr. Award. She lives in Brighton, UK.