Iain M. Banks' New Novel Kicks Ass on a Galactic Scale

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Iain M. Banks is the master of narrative zoom and pan: one minute he'll bring you in very close to a tiny moment in one person's life as she mourns the death of a brother, and the next you'll be spinning in deep space staring at a supermassive artificial world created by liquid-breathing aliens, millions of miles long, made of enormous braided tubes. Which of these minutes matters more? In Banks' new novel Matter, both do — and both are also tragicomically inconsequential. What always pleases about Banks' science fiction novels, many of which are set against the backdrop of a pan-galactic, A.I.-centric, socialist-libertarian society called The Culture, is that Banks always delivers substance and spectacle. You'll get the ethical questions, the sorrowful depictions of war, and the meditations on social evolution. But you'll also get world-shattering explosions, weird-ass aliens, and ancient technologies that are purely there to be fucking cool.

The novel centers on three siblings, Anaplian, Ferbin, and Oramen, the children of a king who rules one of the levels in a Shellworld — an ancient alien artifact that is essentially a set of nested spheres where various creatures have set up shop by pumping in the atmospheres, hanging artificial "stars" on runners in the ceilings of each level, and going about their business. The siblings are part of a group called the Sarl, whose technological sophistication has reached that of ninteenth century Europe. While Ferbin and Oramen, the boys, are groomed for positions of political power among the Sarl, Anaplian has nothing to look forward to but marriage. So she's not entirely unhappy when her father gives her away to a group of aliens from the Culture, who take her far from home, educate her, give her cool bio-upgrades, and train her as a member of Special Circumstances, the Culture's equivalent of the secret service.


But when the king is assassinated by a former trusted adviser, and both Ferbin and Oramen's lives are threatened, Anaplian decides to return to her backwater Shellworld home and set things to rights. She's accompanied only by a super-intelligent weapon and an A.I. spaceship with mysterious loyalties, and her mission is an off-the-record assignment from Special Circumstances to figure out why a minor space-faring civilization known as the Oct has become so deeply interested in an artifact buried deep within on of the Sarlian levels of the Shellworld.

The novel is as complicated and perfectly-structured as a Shellworld itself. There are wars within wars, and intrigues among the low-tech Sarl have reverberations that could be felt halfway across the galaxy among so-called Optimae civilizations who control vast volumes of space. Matter is ultimately about what happens when developing civilizations clash with developed ones over possessions neither one understands. Told with Banks' usual nihilistic humor and flair for outlandish description, this is a novel that will grab you by the shorthairs, scream at you about realpolitik, and then smack you on the head with a laser blast. And of course, you'll love every minute of it.


Matter is already available in the UK, and though its official release date in the US is February 27, it's already out in most US bookstores. Or you can order now.