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Matter

samzenpus posted more than 6 years ago | from the space-opera dept.

232

sdedeo writes "Less known than he deserves to be among American science fiction readers is Iain M. Banks. In his native United Kingdom, Banks' work is released in hardcover at the front of bookshops; here, those seeking his science fiction work, at least, must dig down into the trade paperbacks — and often find things out of print. Those who do discover him in the States are usually pleasantly surprised to find the writing far more clever and engagingly written than the low-budget production values imply. With Orbit's release of his latest work, Matter, as well as its planned re-release of some of his earlier classics, things look to change." Read below for the rest of Simon's review.Banks is one of the leading authors of what might be called the Space Opera Renaissance. While the 1980s saw the creation of the cyberpunk genre, and the 1990s were for many the great era of "Hard SF" — science-centered masterworks such as Kim Stanley Robinson's Martian trilogy and Gregory Benford's Timescape — the 21st century seems to perhaps be an era impatient for the sometimes comical, sometimes tragic galaxy-wide sweep of writers such as John Meaney and Peter Hamilton.

The space opera is not a science-driven work. Unlike the harder stuff, quantum mechanics rarely makes more than a parenthetical and deus ex machina appearance, and relativity's time-bending constraints do not apply. Unlike the cyberpunk genre, epitomized by Neal Stephenson, it is rarely "idea driven"; McGuffins remain solidly unexplained, and society drives technology, not the other way around.

If the hero of Hard SF is a scientist, and the hero of cyberpunk is the wildcat entrepreneur, the hero of the Space Opera would be quite familiar to readers of myth and legend — the Quixotian wanderer, the deposed prince, the second son. Indeed, to the less sympathetic, the space opera can seem closer to the fantasy genre, following the usual dictum that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Which brings us to the particular flavor of opera in Matter. Over the course of nearly a dozen novels, Banks has tuned and fine-tuned his own version of the Milky Way, one crowded by a huge number of species of wildly differing technologies and abilities. In a largish corner is the Culture, a kind of humanoid amalgam of different species whose point-of-view forms the center of Banks' vision.

This far in the future, technology renders scarcity obsolete, leaving the Culture free to practice a kind of anarchistic benevolence towards less developed species. Emphasis on the anarchistic: this is no Star Trek chain-of-command, but a strange, sometimes disturbing group characterized by a near-fanatical individualism and occasional pangs of guilt. Some of Banks' most charming stories are about various offshoots of the Culture, including the strange choices made by the many sentient AIs.

Banks' prose is free-flowing and liberally dosed with a kind of cynical, post-colonial British humanism; as the Culture meddles and blunders Banks' narrators look on with a sad half-smile. The British charm appears also in his characterization of the artificially intelligent machines, who often play Jeeves to more fallible, biological, Bertie Woosters.

Meanwhile, death and suffering accumulates liberally as the usual plot drivers — competing species at the Culture's level of development, or far less advanced places that hack away with swords, guns and terribly retro fission devices, observed by grains of spy-dust that entertain or horrify the more advanced.

The wide scope of Banks' world gives him plenty of space to play out, in miniature, a number of different genre conventions. Steampunk makes something of an appearance in Matter as the central story putters along with steam engines — beneath an artificial sky created eons ago by a vastly superior race that has long-disappeared.

Matter is perhaps not Banks' best — earlier novels such as Excession or Look to Windward might be a better place for newcomers to Banks. In Matter, things drag from time to time and perhaps fifty of the five hundred pages could be cut without pain. One wishes occasionally for a North-by-Northwest cut past some of the plot development that feels a bit dutiful near the end.

But the sparkle of Banks is largely undimmed, both in the grand sweeps of plot and the dozen-page grace-notes that for a less-talented writer would be the germ of a novella. Neglected since the era of E. E. "Doc" Smith, the space opera is back. And Banks has been there all the time.

Although currently 30,000 feet over the Atlantic, Simon DeDeo is usually at home in Chicago, Illinois, where he works as an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago and moonlights as a literary critic. He last wrote for slashdot on the politics of blogging.

You can purchase Matter from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Excession and Look to Windward? (5, Informative)

Malevolent Tester (1201209) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798628)

I'd have to completely disagree with the claim that these two are the best Culture novels to start with. I've read Look to Windward 3 times and I still can't work out why they go to the airsphere, and Excession all too often bears the signs of the sad sight of a grown man left to masturbate in his own literary devices.
If you haven't read a Culture book before, do yourself a favour and grab a copy of the The Player of Games, Matter (which is probably the most straightforward novel he's done) or Consider Phlebas.

Re:Excession and Look to Windward? (2, Insightful)

john83 (923470) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798754)

I'd have to completely disagree with the claim that these two are the best Culture novels to start with. I've read Look to Windward 3 times and I still can't work out why they go to the airsphere, and Excession all too often bears the signs of the sad sight of a grown man left to masturbate in his own literary devices.
If you haven't read a Culture book before, do yourself a favour and grab a copy of the The Player of Games, Matter (which is probably the most straightforward novel he's done) or Consider Phlebas.
I would have to agree that Excession isn't a good introduction. I don't quite recall what you're referring to in Look to Windward, but it's certainly a better start than Excession. Ultimately, I think the best introduction to Banks is to start at the beginning, with Consider Phlebas.

Re:Excession and Look to Windward? (1)

MutantEnemy (545783) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798966)

I don't quite recall what you're referring to in Look to Windward

If I remember correctly, the alien bad guys were developing some kind of super-explosive, and they were doing it in this ancient artificial space habitat called the air-sphere, where huge sentient animals and other creatures lived, and there was no reason for the weapons development to be happening there.

Re:Excession and Look to Windward? (1)

vidarh (309115) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799572)

I believe the point was simply to do it outside of the Culture's range of influence. The aliens in question knowing full well they had been significantly infiltrated by the Culture in the past. Large parts of the book is devoted to exactly how hard getting the explosive past the Culture would be, and so it happened to be somewhere they thought they could hide, nothing more.

Re:Excession and Look to Windward? (2, Insightful)

clang_jangle (975789) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799140)

I would have to agree that Excession isn't a good introduction.


That's encouraging then. Because I have very little time for fiction and so Excession is the only Banks novel I've read so far. I thought it was an absolutely killer story, and one of these days I'm going to make time to read more of him. Banks and Greg Bear are just the most amazing writers IMO. But then as I said, I have so little time to read fiction, so my opinion may not be worth much. :)

Re:Excession and Look to Windward? (1)

KagakuNinja (236659) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799310)

IMO, Consider Phlebas is the weakest of the Culture novels (unless one counts Bridge or Inversions). Start with Excession, Player of Games, or Look to Windward.

Re:Excession and Look to Windward? (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22799446)

Reading Excession is was by far the most enjoyable of banks' books. I think it is the best possible introduction. Confusing ... a little yes, but more importantly an understated, funny and absolutely fizzling and amazing read.

Excession is where I started; and ---sad to say--- is yet to be topped.

Re:Excession and Look to Windward? (1)

Gromius (677157) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799012)

Well I sort of agree. Use of Weapons is by far the best one without a shadow of a doubt, atleast for me. Just read it if you havent. I liked Look to the Windward but The Player of Games is perhaps slightly better. Both are very good. Excession, I agree is probably the worst of the lot. Dont get me wrong, I liked it and for what it is (a more traditional scifi space opera) it does the job and I though it was fun but I definately file it under very light reading and very different to the others.

Re:Excession and Look to Windward? (1)

straponego (521991) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799272)

Excession left me cold at first, because the vastly superior machine AIs dominated the story relative to the human types. Of course, humans really would be largely irrelevant in that society... I came to think of it as one of his better works.

Look to Windward did a nice job of anticipating 9/11, I thought.

One of my favorites, though, is Use of Weapons. Not because of the ideas, or the story, or even the structure (which beat Memento to the punch, BTW-- but everything that surprises people in any mainstream media has always been done decades before in SF). But Zakalwe and Skaffen-Amtiskaw are my favorite Culture characters.

I'm not finished with Matter yet, but so far I'm enjoying it more than Windward or Excession. And I think a character from Use of Weapons might have a cameo...

Re:Excession and Look to Windward? (1)

pfafrich (647460) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799610)

Excession was one of my favourites, I really liked the idea of the ships as central character, vastly more intelligent than the humans. And the Outside Context Problem [wikipedia.org] experienced by these minds really tickled me.

Re:Excession and Look to Windward? (1)

Frater 219 (1455) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799754)

Excession seems to be the lightest of the Culture novels: the hyperintelligent Minds are played as a bunch of squabbling aristocrats, and the obligatory cruel aliens are so over-the-top that they come across as caricatures of fox-hunting Brits rather than the moral horror of the Azad apices in The Player of Games or the outright threat of the Idirans. When the Culture ambassador chooses to join the Affront, it comes across as a rather goofy case of "going native" rather than a morally culpable decision to choose cruelty.

But as a result, I can't imagine it would work very well as an introduction to the setting: it's almost a self-parody of the setting.

All in all, the only Culture novel I haven't yet been willing to re-read -- because it's too disturbing -- is Use of Weapons. I don't think there's a single reference anywhere in fiction that gives me the same sense of revulsion as the word "Chairmaker".

Matter (1)

techpawn (969834) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798648)

It's a Gas... When heated past being liquid...

What happened to the days of articles having titles about the subject matter?

Re:Matter (4, Funny)

Tackhead (54550) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798668)

It's a Gas... When heated past being liquid...

What happened to the days of articles having titles about the subject matter?

How so? Are you suggesting that Matter is lacking in Gravitas?

Re:Matter (1)

techpawn (969834) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798702)

How so? Are you suggesting that Matter is lacking in Gravitas?
I'm suggesting the article title is misleading to people interested in science, not science fiction...
Though, this is slashdot. I should of expected a slightly misleading headline.

Re:Matter (3, Informative)

gEvil (beta) (945888) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798758)

I'm suggesting the article title is misleading to people interested in science, not science fiction... Though, this is slashdot. I should of expected a slightly misleading headline.

Should you of? I thought the heading of "Book Review" and first sentence of "Less known than he deserves to be among American science fiction readers is Iain M. Banks..." was a pretty good indicator that this was going to be a book review about a science fiction book titled "Matter" by an author named Iain M. Banks. But then again I might just be crazy...

Re:Matter (1)

Malevolent Tester (1201209) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798792)

Whooosh!

Re:Matter (1)

john83 (923470) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798808)

How so? Are you suggesting that Matter is lacking in Gravitas?
I'm suggesting the article title is misleading to people interested in science, not science fiction...
Though, this is slashdot. I should of expected a slightly misleading headline.

Do you really mean to say that you looked at a story called "Book Reviews: Matter" and thought, "Hey, a nice science story. I wonder if it has any string theory or zombie Feynman [xkcd.com] ?"

Re:Matter (1)

techpawn (969834) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798928)

Do you really mean to say that you looked at a story called "Book Reviews: Matter" and thought, "Hey, a nice science story. I wonder if it has any string theory or zombie Feynman?"
It didn't have "book review" tacked on it before cupcake. Glad to see the editors fixing mistakes

Re:Matter (1)

gEvil (beta) (945888) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798948)

It had Book Review tacked on it when I first went to read the article and there were 0 comments.

Re:Matter (1)

techpawn (969834) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798972)

t had Book Review tacked on it when I first went to read the article
Well then, I didn't see it and I iz a moron.

Re:Matter (3, Interesting)

Andy_R (114137) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798868)

The reference to Gravitas was an in-joke. The superintelligent AI-run spaceships of the Culture are rather more playful than one might expect in a traditional space opera. Names the ships have chosend for themselves include "Zero Gravitas", "Very Little Gravitas Indeed" and in "Matter", "Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall".

Re:Matter (1)

clang_jangle (975789) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799210)

...should of...


AAACK my neuroses!!

Re:Matter (1)

stoolpigeon (454276) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798686)

book reviews are always titled with the title of the book. been that way for as long as I can remember.

Re:Matter (2, Funny)

explosivejared (1186049) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798694)

I see the title as being a blatant hole left open for a sequel to fill:

Anti-Matter- the sequel to the smash hit, Matter. Taken together, they are quite an explosive read...

A good series (3, Interesting)

MLCT (1148749) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798654)

I have read two of the culture books, The player of games, and Consider Phlebas. Both were impressive and I would like to get caught up with the rest (two more bought but on the long term reading list). His work is very enjoyable to read, and paints pictures that are more than escapist SF. There is a lot of nuance in the political structure and its implications.

I am glad that he is still writing on the series, the review for Matter suggests an enjoyable read.

Re:A good series (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22799070)

You really owe it to yourself to read Use of Weapons then, easily the best of the lot. If you liked those two, you'll love this one.

Re:A good series (1)

TheRaven64 (641858) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799232)

Player of Games and Use of Weapons are my two favourites. I took Use of Weapons on my German exchange. I was staying with an incredibly dull family who didn't organise any events and I must have read it at least four or five times in the week, and I still re-read it occasionally.

Re:A good series (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22799556)

Iain Banks Culture series is amazing in many ways. It is one of the very few visions of the future that has mankind living side by side with super-intelligent AI's without having been enslaved by them. The AI's and people live in an open and free society where all have rights and all participate in the decisions of the society in spite of the huge advantage the AI's have in terms of raw brain power.

This is a lesson that we should study closely because we'll soon be facing these issues in the real world.

Hamilton (1)

stoolpigeon (454276) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798658)

Hamilton I dig. Gonna have to check this out. Sounds like there may be some decent similarities in content if not style.

Re:Hamilton (3, Insightful)

Goaway (82658) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798788)

Hamilton writes what is essentially quite juvenile pulp fiction. That's not to say it's not enjoyable, but it's essentially silly trash. Banks is much more of the high-literature variety. Comparing the two is almost impossible.

Re:Hamilton (1)

stoolpigeon (454276) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798898)

If you have the time and willingness I'd love to hear more on what you think differentiates the two. I'm not sure why you would say Hamilton is juvenile. I've thought some of his ideas about a society impacted by the removal of death and his imagination in regards to nanotech are quite impressive. I'll definitely read Banks to compare myself, but I'd never really thought so lowly of Hamilton and would love to hear what you think.

Re:Hamilton (3, Interesting)

fastest fascist (1086001) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799112)

Hamilton reads like a Hollywood blockbuster - gratuitous sex aplenty, big explosions, fast action. Banks has those too, but generally is more skillful and balanced in his writing. Also Hamilton seems to have issues with endings. Everything I've read from him either ends in a deus ex machina or comes damn close. "Ok, so the universe is going to shit if we don't find this supercomputer-übermind-whatever and get it to help us. Let's go do that! Hey here it is! Hello please help us? Woo, everything was fixed!" - If it's not that bad, then at least you can see the ending coming about a thousand pages away because Hamilton's idea of a plot is to have the characters come up with a plan and then execute it to the letter. Seriously, once you've read what the characters intend to do, you know what's going to happen at the end: Exactly what they say they're going to do.

That said, I do enjoy his works in the way I enjoy bubblegum, but damnit, writing huge trilogies with endings as unclimactic as Hamilton's is just sadistic.

Re:Hamilton (1)

stoolpigeon (454276) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799204)

The endings have been rough. Though I think of it like a roller-coaster. I'll end up right back where I got on, but I know I'm gonna laugh like crazy on the trip around. I thought the Pandora's star books ended better than the others. I'll definitely be reading Banks to compare. It sounds like they handle some very similar themes, at least the way the reviewer describes things.
 
I thought that while Fallen Dragon also had a weak ending, there were some decent twists and turns. I didn't see it all too far out. But maybe I'm just slow that way. His films would translate well to film I think - and that may work out well for Hamilton in the end. Though they'd have to ratchet back on plot lines and characters.

Re:Hamilton (2, Insightful)

cruachan (113813) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799802)

I'd have to agree, I love Banks, and Ken MacLeod (who incidentally were at school together), and Alastair Reynold and have devoured everything they're written. Hamilton however just cannot write. Generally I find his first couple of chapters pull you in with an intriguing idea or two, but thereafter they lack characterization and read like *very* long, increasingly tedious, teenage comic books. I've waded through the start of several now and sooner or later he completely jumps the shark and I find I've better things to do with my life.

Re:Hamilton (3, Insightful)

ObjetDart (700355) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798794)

I'm a Hamilton fan too, although I'm kinda struggling with his latest, Dreaming The Void. Hopefully it will pick up... his biggest flaw I think is that his novels have too many characters and spend too long setting them all up and laying out all the complicated politics of the time. Only a minor gripe.

I'm not sure if you can go straight from Hamilton to Banks and expect a similar ride. The Banks Culture novels are *very* different. Actually, my favorite Banks space opera is not a Culture novel: The Alchemist. Great save the galaxy stuff, giant fleets of warships travelling at relativistic velocities and blowing each other up, exotic aliens and weaponry...yum.

In the mean time, if you like Hamilton, check out Neal Asher's "Polity" novels, very much in a similar vein and style.

Re:Hamilton (1)

stoolpigeon (454276) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798826)

cool. thanks for the recommendations.

Re:Hamilton (1)

ObjetDart (700355) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798884)

Sorry, whoops! Not "The Alchemist", it's "The Algebraist". Getting all my sci-fi novels mixed up.

Re:Hamilton (1)

Den_onda_kotten (616799) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799516)

I assume you ment "The Algebraist", Banks hasn't written any book called "The Alchemist" AFAIK. But I agree that it's an amazing book, especially the ending that totally blew my mind.

Re:Hamilton (1)

/ASCII (86998) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799602)

I'm guessing you mean algebraist, not alchemist.

Re:Hamilton (2, Informative)

bughunter (10093) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798954)

I'll have to second this. Peter F. Hamilton's space operas [wikipedia.org] are more accessible, equally engrossing, and after finishing them, more rewarding.

Some may disagree, as the epic Night's Dawn trilogy ended with something of a deus ex machina, but I hold that this sort of device was foreshadowed throughout the trilogy. And regardless, it was a heck of a ride getting there; it's a kick-ass space opera, and Hamilton leaves you wanting more. The Confederation milieu is one of the best in SF, on par with those of Brin, Niven, Asimov and (dare I say) Herbert.

I recently finished the Commonwealth sagas, and while the first 500 pages took some patience for me, others may enjoy the rich character development. And by the time I finished the following 1500 pages, I was grateful I slogged thru the first bit. Hamilton ties together all of his storylines, leaving few (if any) loose ends. And he's following it up with another pair [peterfhamilton.co.uk] of novels in the same milieu, "The Dreaming Void" and "The Temporal Void"

I'm now reading Fallen Dragon, and it has the same slow start as Pandora's Star... I'm hoping it develops well.

I don't recommend his Greg Mandel novels... unless you like fast, predictable reads.

Not to disrespect Iain M. Banks, those of his novels that I have read, I enjoyed and would recommend. But the Culture novels can be obtuse and difficult reads. Hamilton's novels do not suffer from this.

Re:Hamilton (1)

stoolpigeon (454276) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799108)

I was disappointed with the end of the Night's Dawn books - but as you say, a great ride. I thought Fallen Dragon had the same problem. I've read the Pandora's star novels and thought that they were his best work yet - just as great a ride but a much more satisfactory conclusion.
 
The reviewer brought up the comparison between Banks and Hamilton and what he mentions about abundance and interesting AI developments seems to echo themes in all the Hamilton that I've read.
 
I don't know if I'd rank Hamilton with Herbert or not. But I need to process that further. I read Dune at least once a year and it is one of my favorite books of all time. I really enjoy Hamilton but I don't know if it has that same impact. The problem is many of my favorites, like Dune are tied tightly to my childhood and it is very difficult to be objective when making comparisons.

Re:Hamilton (1)

UnxMully (805504) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799184)

I'll have to second this. Peter F. Hamilton's space operas are more accessible, equally engrossing, and after finishing them, more rewarding.

Although he does suffer Stephenson's disease - he really has a hard time finishing a story. But having said that, I've enjoyed pretty much every book he's written.

Alastair Reynolds has fast become one of my favourites. The Redemption Arc series are good value, improving as they go on, and Century Rain and Pushing Ice are absolutely brilliant.

And the Takeshi Kovacs series by Richard Morgan are worth a look - the first one, Altered Carbon has been picked up, possibly to be filmed for some time in 2009.

Re:Hamilton (1)

nogginthenog (582552) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799642)

I'm 2/3rds of the way through The Naked God (no spoilers please!). Gotta say it's an engrossing trilogy. And boy these are serious *books* at 1200+ pages a piece (paperback). That's what I call a book! Normally I stuff my book for the commute to work in my coat pocket (it's winter here) but I've no chance with any of the Night's Dawn trilogy :-)

Other authors with a similar genre are Ken Mcleod and Alastair Reynolds.

I gotta say, British sci-fi is going through a great phase. Space Opera - I love it! I'm eagerly awaiting Bank's book to be published in paperback. I don't do hardback, my bookcase is crammed enough as it is.

Re:Hamilton (2, Interesting)

jollyreaper (513215) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799506)

Peter F. Hamilton is the Stephen King of scifi. The world-building and storytelling is unbelievably good but the endings are pulled out of his ass. The end of Night's Dawn was the biggest Deus Ex Machina since the Stand.

Which Iain Banks? (2, Interesting)

gEvil (beta) (945888) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798682)

I have to admit that I've only read one Iain M. Banks novel (Look to Windward, because for some reason my local library has a copy), but I've had Consider Phlebas and Player of Games on order with Amazon waiting for their US (re)issues for the past few months. However, I've read nearly every Iain Banks novel and have absolutely loved almost every word he's written. Actually, I'll be finishing up The Wasp Factory in the next day or so. If you aren't familiar with him, I strongly suggest you pick up something right away (most of his fiction is fairly readily available in the States; his scifi is a bit harder to come by until those reissues come out over the next few months). Absolutely amazing author.

Either you're being funny... (1)

PCM2 (4486) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798764)

...or you really don't realize that Iain M. Banks, the science fiction author, and Iain Banks, the "literary" fiction author, are one and the same. I'm posting this for the benefit of those who are really confused.

Re:Either you're being funny... (1)

gEvil (beta) (945888) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798804)

Yeah, right after I hit submit I realized I probably should've put that explanation in there somewhere. A moment after that I thought "Hey, this is slashdot. Someone else will come along and point out that they are in fact one and the same."

Re:Which Iain Banks? (3, Informative)

Andy_R (114137) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798776)

Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks are actually the same person. He uses the M. when he's writing SciFi, and omits it when writing less futuristic fiction.

Re:Which Iain Banks? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22798810)

Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks are actually the same person. He uses the M. when he's writing SciFi, and omits it when writing less futuristic fiction.

Besides, the "M." gives the name way more... you know what.

Re:Which Iain Banks? (1)

gunne (14408) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799240)

I actually think his not so futuristic fiction is better than the pure scifi...

I recommend The Business and Espedair street, great books both of them.

Excession is better (1)

Front Line Assembly (255726) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798692)

I have to completely agree. Especially excession and eg. player of games, use of weapons are much better books.
This book just seemed long winded and boring in places, and the ending was a bit sudden and boring as well.
I mean come on, I didn't buy a Banks book to read about some feudal kingdoms fighting.
And all the characters are a bit annoying as well, and the fun drone/ship stuff is quite absent.

Re:Excession is better (1)

mike260 (224212) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798774)

Too right. For a Culture book there wasn't nearly enough of The Culture in it.

Re:Excession is better (1)

john83 (923470) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798852)

Too right. For a Culture book there wasn't nearly enough of The Culture in it.
Yes, not in any way like Use of Weapons or Inversions.

Re:Excession is better (1)

mike260 (224212) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799024)

Your point being?

Re:Excession is better (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22799592)

His point being that this is a perfectly normal thing in a Culture novel.

Good timing! (1)

peacefinder (469349) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798720)

I needed something to read to keep me out of trouble in Vegas next week.

Not a review of Matter (1)

WrongMonkey (1027334) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798724)

This is broad description of Banks's Culture novels, not a review of Matter. There not even any hint that the reviewer has read Matter, anyone familiar with the previous novels could have written this.

grouchy day on /. (1)

sdedeo (683762) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799118)

Well, I did try to give a sense of Banks' larger project. Since I considered Matter not his best, I tilted more towards that than plot summary (which is a pretty lazy way to write a book review after grade school.) If you are looking for hints that I've actually read the book, you can try paras eight and nine, or just take my word for it.

Re:grouchy day on /. (2, Insightful)

WrongMonkey (1027334) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799508)

I'm not asking for a plot summary. But explaining the genre is an even lazier form of review. Especially since your audience is probably already familiar with the general conventions of various sci-fi sub-genres and perhaps even the previous works of the specific author. If someone has read even one previous Culture book, they would get absolutely no new information from reading your so-called review.

Its not enough to say you don't think its his best, you're supposed to tell WHY you think it wasn't his best! Was it not as creative? Were the characters unbelievable? Was the plot well paced? Was there not enough action? Too much action? It wouldn't even kill you to quote some passages that support your opinion.

I'm offering some criticism so you can write better reviews in the future and you accuse me of being grouchy, dismiss my complaints and tell me to take your word for it. Typical blogger hack.

from a blogger hack to a comment troll (2, Insightful)

sdedeo (683762) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799616)

I provide what I think is a relatively interesting historiography of sci-fi subgenres and try to suggest that space opera, after years of taking a sideline to other projects, might be ready to capture the attention of the average geek. I try to put things in a larger context because my guess is that most /. readers haven't read Banks, and generally consider space opera to be a bit beneath their paygrade.

In response, you demand a totally different product, a review of the book for someone who already has read Banks' culture novels. That's fine, but that's not the review I wanted to write. Then you as much as accuse me of deception -- that I never actually read the book -- and when I bite back, you get huffy and claim that you were simply providing kind guidance and that if I don't listen to you I will be doomed to write crappy reviews.

I, blogger hack, salute you, friend and comrade comment troll!

The Culture is Communistic, not Anarchistic (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22798750)

Iain Banks has himself said in interviews that the Culture is a form of futuristic Communism, not "anarchism" or anything resembling an American version of individualistic libertarianism. The Culture is a post-scarcity civilization, but its actions are (all too often) not benevolent -- when other cultures don't agree to its influence (and rebel or go to war), it simply overwhelms them or destroys them. (The irony of this outright fascistic/imperialistic behavior is NOT lost on Banks, BTW.)

Regardless, Banks has said that he'd love to live in the Culture environment. As for me... I'd find myself on the side of the rebels.

how banks sees the culture (4, Insightful)

sdedeo (683762) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799200)

Post-scarcity, I don't see how you'd have anything that resembled "Communism" in the standard sense, but the Guardian described the Culture as "anarcho-communism", which seems reasonable. I can't find the interview, but the one think Banks did say was that he was very irritated by those who saw the Culture as a metaphor for a kind of "future America." Banks is indeed very critical of what he sees as the kind of anarcho-capitalism tooth-and-claw of the States and my guess is that back in the real world he's a socialist.

I do agree that Banks is pretty sophisticated about his relationship to the Culture, and is tuned-in to the sort of "cultural imperialism" that the Culture's unrestrained hedonism and vaguely-Enlightenment extrapolations practice. But would you really join the Iridians?

Other Banks books (4, Informative)

smellsofbikes (890263) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798752)

"The Wasp Factory" is very close to the most messed-up, disturbing book I've ever read. I personally think it's his best work.
However, if you can find it, "Raw Spirit" is a non-fiction book about him touring Scotch factories and talking about how Scotch is made and why it taste like bog and how, despite that, people keep buying every bit the little distilleries can produce. It's a good book.

Re:Other Banks books (3, Informative)

gEvil (beta) (945888) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798894)

"The Wasp Factory" is very close to the most messed-up, disturbing book I've ever read. I personally think it's his best work.

It is a very very twisted book, and it was an excellent way for a new author to get himself noticed (what exactly is wrong with flame-throwering a bunch of little bunnies?). I read the Steep Approach to Garbadale a few months ago and thought it was a pretty good read. Nothing like world-domination board games, incest, and family politics to get a story going...And although many don't like Song of Stone, for some reason I go back to it and reread it every few years. It has a weird darkness that just resonates with me. *shrug*

Re:Other Banks books (1)

StrawberryFrog (67065) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799032)

"Song of Stone" reminds me so much of J.M Coetzee's "Waiting for the barbarians [wikipedia.org] ". Similar tone and use of generic setting.

Re:Other Banks books (1)

gEvil (beta) (945888) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799102)

Hmm. I've seen the name of that book a few times before, but know nothing about it. Thanks, I'll check that out.

Re:Other Banks books (1)

Pope (17780) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799018)

"Raw Spirit" was an interesting book, as long as he was talking about the whisky. When he goes on his anti-Bush rants about the Gulf War 2, I lose interest quickly.

Re:Other Banks books (1)

ruin20 (1242396) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799154)

Silly, we buy every little bit the distilleries put out cause bogs don't taste that bad!

What is matter? (1)

GargamelSpaceman (992546) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798780)

What is mind? No matter.
What is matter? Never mind.

argh why do people just make up stuff on slashdot? (1)

nomadic (141991) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798840)

Less known than he deserves to be among American science fiction readers is Iain M. Banks

What are you talking about? Banks is extremely prominent in US science fiction circles. Or is this that typical slashdot thing where you can't have a book review without the reviewer trying to spin it so he looks ahead of the curve?

In his native United Kingdom, Banks' work is released in hardcover at the front of bookshops; here, those seeking his science fiction work, at least, must dig down into the trade paperbacks -- and often find things out of print.

"Dig down" into the trade paperbacks? In the US trade paperbacks have apparently become the most prominent format, which I certainly don't mind. They're more portable than a hardcover and have better typeface and printing than a paperback, and last longer too. Banks' works are on the science fiction shelves, generally. Under "B." No digging required.

And he has plenty of books in print, far more than most SF authors. And some of those are in hardcover as well.

really, i didn't make it up (4, Informative)

sdedeo (683762) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799052)

Not really, he's not -- not compared to the killer-Bs, for example, or Neal, or the "older" generations. "Extremely prominent" is a difficult thing to quantify (just as "less known than he deserves to be"), but here's one metric: Myopic Books, a used book store in Chicago with an excellent sci-fi section, currently has no Banks on the shelves -- but plenty of the more usual suspects from America.

As for relative availability in the US versus the UK: I've already covered the extent to which his sci-fi is far more celebrated in blighty, but to elaborate: it is tough (but getting easier now) to get a hold of Banks' books. Booksellers tend to class them with the usual muck and laser-slash-grunge and don't really consider him (as they should) an essential writer to stock. And, yes, there is digging required: Inversions and Look to Windward are, for example, not available on amazon (Look to Windward is "temporarily out of stock", and Inversions appears to be out of print and only available used.) This is changing now that Orbit is re-releasing the books, as you can see from a cursory glance at release dates.

In conclusion: you are wrong, and also a bit mean.

Re:really, i didn't make it up (1)

gEvil (beta) (945888) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799128)

I'll back this up. Like I said in an earlier post, finding his regular fiction is fairly easy, but his scifi is fairly hard to come by. Mostly because the stuff that has been published in the US seems to get one printing and then it goes out of print. The only store I've ever found that had any of his scifi books in abundance was Small World Books in Venice, CA, and that's because they were importing the British editions.

Re:really, i didn't make it up (1)

sdedeo (683762) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799228)

Another place to find Banks in the British editions (which are also quite a bit prettier in binding and cover, if you are shallow like me) is Borderlands Books in the Mission district of San Francisco (which itself sometimes feels like an outpost of the Culture where the A.I.s take the form of fixed-gear bicycles): http://www.sfstation.com/borderlands-books-a1423 [sfstation.com]

Re:really, i didn't make it up (1)

huckamania (533052) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799738)

If the cost of getting a used paperback is any metric, Banks is much more regarded then Card, Brin, Simmons and Tepper. I just recently bought some used books from Amazon and the Banks books were much higher priced. Some were above $30. None of the ones I bought were more then $4 with shipping.

rarity, not regard (1)

sdedeo (683762) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799872)

I think is the reason for the high prices! A copy of Paradise Lost is pretty cheap...

Re:really, i didn't make it up (1)

blueg3 (192743) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799756)

"Myopic Books, a used book store in Chicago..."

What do they know? They're shortsighted.

I can't agree enough... (3, Interesting)

Stochastism (1040102) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798844)

that Iain M. Banks is one of the most underrated Sci-Fi authors out there. He does "large scale" on an unprecedented... err.. scale. From the description of worlds, to the intelligence of the minds, to the battles they fight across the galaxy.

His descriptions of Lazy Guns is one of the funniest things I've ever read (Use of Weapons or Against a Dark Backround, I can't remember now).

But his contemporary Iain "no M" Banks stuff is not nearly as good (not bad though). What is it about Sci-Fi that lets otherwise average authors become great? Is is the chance to suspend disbelief?

Or am I just biased towards Sci-Fi?

Re:I can't agree enough... (1)

Good Little Drone (706328) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799044)

His descriptions of Lazy Guns is one of the funniest things I've ever read (Use of Weapons or Against a Dark Backround, I can't remember now).
That was Against a Dark Background. Great book although my favorite is Player of Games with Use of Weapons second.

New Science (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22798846)

What I really want to know is how is Simon DeDeo hovering at 30,000ft? Otherwise, this was one of the dumbest book reviews...I think ever posted to Slashdot. But then again who has time to read books...when we are about to win the war against Islamic Extremists ;-)

Re:New Science (1)

Malevolent Tester (1201209) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798864)

What I really want to know is how is Simon DeDeo hovering at 30,000ft?

Perhaps he's lacking necessary gravity.

Re:New Science (1)

teh kurisu (701097) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799668)

Or perhaps a little gravitas [wikipedia.org] ...

News for nerds. (-1, Redundant)

puusism (136657) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798910)

Stuff that Matters.

The State of the Art (1)

MutantEnemy (545783) | more than 6 years ago | (#22798924)

I've read all of Banks' Culture novels and still find the novella The State of the Art to be the most enjoyable; a both funny and serious look at Earth from an alien perspective. As for Matter, my enjoyment of it followed a sort of U-shaped curve. It just seemed a bit slow in the middle. I'd still recommend it, mostly because I find descriptions of ultra-high-tech societies inherently fascinating, and Matter contains quite a bit of that, mixed in with the low-tech Feudalist bits.

This FP fo8 GNJAA (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22799096)

The failure of give Other people

Against a Dark Background (2, Interesting)

Ground0 (63349) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799124)

I've read almost all of his books, including "The Business", "The Bridge" and other non-science fiction works. "Matter" is one of his best but I have to say "Against a Dark Background" [wikipedia.org] has to be his best work. Nothing beats a lazy gun [wikipedia.org] !

intriguing "timelessness" (1)

suck_burners_rice (1258684) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799142)

While I haven't read any of Banks' works yet, being that I'm in the U.S. and therefore must dig to find them, I think this idea of Space Opera is intriguing because it could give the story a "timeless" sort of air. In the other types of SciFi, where a special effort is made to describe the technology, there is the problem that many of these ideas depend on areas of physics or chemistry that are conjured up by the author in an attempt to explain away impossibilities. For example, the impossibility of traveling quickly to the other side of the galaxy is answered by "inventing" technology that can do warp speed, hyperspace, or one of many other explanations. This is not what I call "timeless" because future developments in physics could later diminish a story's appeal, since it would no longer seem plausible. However, Space Opera appears to base itself on human (or humanoid) interactions, which is one area that will never change, no matter what kind of technology there happens to be. Interactions between people in, say, the 1700's might have been limited for the most part to their own town, and interactions today are limited to our planet. In some futuristic setting, these interactions might span a much larger area, such as the galaxy, but although the scale will have changed, the basic elements will not. This "timelessness" is what I find intriguing by this description. It will be nice to go digging someplace to find one of these books.

i agree (1)

sdedeo (683762) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799462)

This is probably the advantage of the space-opera. It's also a failing, because sci-fi's appeal does rest on the notion of constraint -- either by physical law, or by alterno-universe physical law -- and a lazy space opera writer can just go off the deep end, continually modifying physics whenever the plot gets too tangled (viz., all of Star Trek.) If I had to stick to only one sub-genre, it might be the Neal Stephenson niche, where physics takes a backseat to sociology, but the constraints are still strongly in place and one still has that "parlor game" feel at the right moments.

Against a Dark Background (1)

Ground0 (63349) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799172)

I've read almost all of his books, including "The Business", "The Bridge" and other non-science fiction works. "Matter" is one of his best but I have to say "Against a Dark Background" has to be his best work. Nothing beats a lazy gun!

Banks is not a good author (1)

Stevecrox (962208) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799328)

Banks does not get front place in UK bookshops, well, not in any WH Smith or Waterstones in the south west. He generally gets his own shelf and you'll only see people who've never read him pick up one of his books and its rare to see them make the same mistake twice.

His books fail to give any real backstory or context, which can be ok however characters will make decisions based on things you don't know about and aren't told. He takes little effort to bring the reader into the universe he's writing on and once I had the misfortune of picking up a book in the middle of a series and he made no attempt to explain anything, even after making the attempt to pick up the first book in the series things made little sense.

You want a good British author read Terry Pratchett or Philip Pullman, Banks can look inviting because everyone of his books has words like "Times best seller" and "Winner of Award xyz" don't fall for it.

possibly an oxbridge thing (2, Interesting)

sdedeo (683762) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799416)

I've seen his releases get front-alcove treatment in the Waterstones in Oxford, and Heffers' in Cambridge, but perhaps that's because they know their nerds. I do agree, in lesser doses, that the problems you describe are the failure modes of Banks' sci-fi -- but I disagree that it happens as often as you suggest.

Re:Banks is not a good author (1)

gnarlyhotep (872433) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799476)

His books fail to give any real backstory or context


This is the biggest problem, in my estimation. I'd love to read his Culture books (have heard fantastic things about them) but have no idea where to start. I did pick up one (forget the title offhand) and got about halfway through before I had to put it down. Brilliantly written, incredible scifi, but completely out of my depth and unable to parse it due to a lack of background. Much as I revile the numbered series fad that sweeps scifi and fantasy, in this case it would be incredibly helpful to have something of a starting point. The books just don't seem well suited to picking up whatever one hits your fancy.

For stand alone books, however, I found Feersum Endjin to be incredible.

anyone who thinks there hasn't been space opera (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22799350)

...hasn't been paying the fuck attention. I guess Heinlein never existed? Bujold? Hiroyuki Morioka? The Dune books? Hell, Star Trek, Dr. Who, Firefly, even Farscape -- TV is rife with space opera. If you're going to make a sci-fi proclamation on a nerd site, you'd better check your shit, asshole. Even if you're desperately trying to tie a whining post-singularity masturbator onto the coattails of a real sci fi author.

an error of mine (1)

sdedeo (683762) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799370)

Hello all -- thanks for writing in with comments on the review; I'll try to respond to those I think I should.

One error I made in this review was to say that Benford's Timescape was published in the 1990s. This is incorrect: it was actually published in 1980 (I believe my mistake stemmed from my having read it in the 1990s in a new edition at the time.) Trying to fit sci-fi (or anything else) into neat decades is pretty tricky even if it does provide a satisfactory narrative device. One interesting note is that steampunk, which I think most of us think of as a Gibson/Sterling 1990s thing, actually had its birth wayyy back in the 1960s, with Pavane: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pavane_(novel) [wikipedia.org] -- a really fantastic read that doesn't "date" at all despite its release during the Summer of Love.

something I had trouble with (1)

jollyreaper (513215) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799484)

Maybe the books are showing their age but the prevalence of Star Trek aliens really confused me. With all the talk of "humans," I assumed that the Culture was supposed to be our far-off future, and all of the Trek aliens were just diverged humans, all tracing ancestry back to Earth. Nope! These are true Star Trek aliens, all evolving on distant worlds to look like us with some bumpy foreheads. There's mention made of non-hominid lifeforms but the ones that look like each other tend to congregate together in the Culture, thus we end up seeing all the humies.

I can excuse this sort of thing in televised scifi because shit, true alien costs money! Bumpy foreheads are much cheaper. I just am less tolerant when there's no need for sticking with Trek aliens and yet they do (Mass Effect). Ok, maybe we can pretend it would cost them more money to do something truly alien. But in prose? Shit, there's no reason not to!

I find the Culture novels somewhat frustrating, a mix of good and bad ideas. I really enjoy the premise, though. Use of Weapons was strange but the Chairmaker's ultimate weapon was suitably creepy.

Re:something I had trouble with (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22799698)

I can excuse this sort of thing in televised scifi because shit, true alien costs money! Bumpy foreheads are much cheaper. I just am less tolerant when there's no need for sticking with Trek aliens and yet they do (Mass Effect). Ok, maybe we can pretend it would cost them more money to do something truly alien. But in prose? Shit, there's no reason not to!

Or it might be due to the reasoning that many scientists have that other sufficiently civilized lifeforms out there may have evolved along the same paths. That is, the same advantages that humans had over other lifeforms on Earth (opposable digits, upright posture, etc) were the same advantages that other alien species had over their competition.

What about his grandmother Rosie? (1)

Pvt_Waldo (459439) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799598)

Who could forget, "Only a Factory Girl" or "By Honor Bound"? She may have been only a factory worker, but she had the pride of the Ormskirks!

amazon.co.uk (1)

sunderland56 (621843) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799660)

In his native United Kingdom, Banks' work is released in hardcover at the front of bookshops; here, those seeking his science fiction work, at least, must dig down into the trade paperbacks -- and often find things out of print.

Consider just ordering the UK edition from amazon.co.uk. I've found most titles arrive in less than a week, and prices are extremely comparable to buying in a bookshop in the USA.

Banks -- Not for everyone. (1)

Remus Shepherd (32833) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799680)

From the summary: "The space opera is not a science-driven work."

This is an understatement, and should be underlined and in bold when discussing Iain M. Banks. Those expecting science fiction in the mode of Heinlein, Asimov, or Clarke will not enjoy Iain Banks' work.

Banks' novels are best described as fantasy stories set in space, with characters that may have alien appearances but who act like humans in rubber suits. He makes no attempt to suspend the readers' disbelief or justify his worldbuilding. And he often writes scenes or entire novels that are blatantly experimental, which may be mind-expanding for some readers but those with more literary experience find these amateurish excursions rather tedious.

In short, you either love or hate Iain M. Banks novels. He is not for everyone.

Banks has shown us the bottom of his bag of tricks (1)

OnanTheBarbarian (245959) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799718)

Iain M. Banks used to be one of my favorite authors, and I still really like the earlier SF (Consider Phlebas, Player of Games, Use of Weapons, Against a Dark Background). But there's been a terrible feeling of sameness and lack of inspiration about the recent books. I can't say I really enjoy the parts which seem to be Banks trying to be Greg Bear (the tedious hard-SF of Excession and much of Matter spring to mind). But it's his obsession with recycling the same plot elements that really grates.

There's only so many times that the 'collision between the Culture and some ridiculously primitive society that it could wipe out in a millisecond' story needs to be told. OK, we get it, we get it, the Culture's interventions need to be super-subtle because that's the right way to bring along backwards civilizations (a rather ahistorical idea, but hey, it's his universe to play with).
Take a ultra-cool Special Circumstances agent with some gnarly personal skeletons in the closet, give them a magical 'knife missile', and send them to some backwater to alternately fret about how they shouldn't intervene and eventually decide do to so (usually lots of lovingly described payback for equally lovingly described horrible torture and the like; this seems to be a rather ugly fixation of Banks that Richard Morgan appears to have decided to follow in full). We've read it before, really.

I am not sure whether this repeated motif is a clumsy metaphor for something about the real world (e.g. the collision between a possible near future super-enlightened 1st world - or at least, the West on one of its better days - and, well, everywhere else). If it is, it's pretty bloody silly. If it's not, it's a pretty strange motif to keep returning to.

Perhaps if we all chipped in, we could send Iain down to Africa and hire someone to kidnap a serial human rights abuser that he could beat up. It would be theraputic for him, and on his return, maybe he could write a new book. Maybe a Culture novel about the bloody Culture, for a change.

Huh? (1)

roc97007 (608802) | more than 6 years ago | (#22799772)

> In his native United Kingdom, Banks' work is released in hardcover at the front of bookshops; here, those seeking his science fiction work, at least, must dig down into the trade paperbacks -- and often find things out of print.

Really? I saw Matter on the shelf at Barnes and Noble this very day when I was picking up an order over lunch in Beaverton, Oregon. If we have it prominently displayed here, it should be pretty much everywhere. I'm thinking of picking it up this weekend.

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