Matter by Iain Banks is a science fiction novel set in the far future of the Culture Universe. It is a tome of a book, 593 pages long. The writing is easy to read and flows very nicely. I especially like the setting. It is on a "shellworld". The shellworld is a giant constructed world consisting of multiple layers of shells of an unidentifiable super material. Linking the shells are huge towers that have stood for millions of years. No one knows what exactly is at the center of the worlds. Some of the natives consider it their "worldgod."
The initial start of the book is a story of intrigue and murder. Ferbin, a prince of Hausk witnesses the murder of his father, the king of Hausk by his closest advisor. Ferbin must flee for his life with the help of his servant Holse. Ferbin sees his only hope in seeking the help of his sister, Djan Seriy Anaplin, an agent of Special Circumstances of the Culture, a galaxy spanning, decadent advanced culture.
We get to learn this small incident is part of larger happenings in the galaxy as the story unfolds. Ferbin must make the grand tour, first travelling through the many levels of his homeworld, and finally to the stars. We get to experience many different types of aliens; cumuloforms (cloud beings), insectile beings, octs, intelligent parasites, and various humanoids. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Ferbin and Holse are travelling inside the cumuloform drifting on the winds. The imagery is wonderful.
Ferbins shell level, is backward, what we might call early twentieth century. The closer to the outside of the shell, the more advanced technology becomes. He learns that he is part of a much larger pastime of the larger galactic cultures around him, a game of "diplomatic noninterference." There are many players in this game, the Culture, the Morthanveld, the Oct, and others. This is a metaphor for the "great game" which allows for adventuresome individuals to change things.
He finds his sister, or his sister finds him, after Ferbin's wanderings seeking for help. The action heats up at this point. We get a two part story. We are introduced to the other prince, Oramen who thinks Ferbin has died. There is a war going on for control of the level which Ferbin lives on. This war leads to a potential tragedy. Ferbin and his sister Djan Seriy Anaplin travel home, interacting with the various strange and decadent beings in the galaxy.
There are some things about this book which some people will not like. There is an incredible plethora of ideas in the book. Possibly, too many ideas for some people. This may make some people unhappy with the book. I rather liked it. It is very much a "grand scheme" type of book which stretches the imagination.
Also, some people might consider it rushed. I think it moves along at a very fast pace. Things can happen almost too quickly to understand. I don't mind this. Other people will. It is also very long. There are points where the book could have been shortened considerably. Because, this book is very much in the style of a grand scheme book I don't think it could be shortened without losing some of its flavor. There is something of Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men in this book in the styling of the book.
I almost think he was writing a somewhat literary style of science fiction, not so much for a general audience, but for editors and connoisseurs. Publishers Weekly gave it a Starred Review. This is not always a good thing. Starred Reviews can indicate that a book is exclusive or has a very literary style.
The book ends with a bang. I rather like it when heros sacrifice themselves. The book is quite satisfying and fun to read. It will not be for everyone. I would recommend it for people who like interesting aliens, space opera, and intrigue. The book has been on the Locus Magazine bestseller list for a few weeks. It just came out in February 2008.