Kings, princes, evil viziers, treachery, and court intrigue share the stage with galactic civilizations, manufactured hollow worlds, interstellar spies, and terminal technologies in Matter, the triumphant new novel in Iain M. Banks' loosely connected Culture series. After seven books collecting Culture tales of various lengths and experimental structures, the prolific Scottish writer has produced an almost-perfect work of 21st-century science fiction. Combining the hard SF of Larry Niven, Robert L. Forward, and Robert Anton Wilson with the light, fantastic touch of Douglas Adams and Piers Anthony, Matter is a page-turner with humor, suspense, and a huge imagination that would be intimidating if it weren't so thoroughly humane.
Prince Ferbin, a gadabout member of the Sarl royal family, witnesses the shocking murder of his father by a trusted adviser and flees with his servant to find justice. That means traveling up through the levels of the Shellworld Sursamen—a nested series of concentric spheres created by an ancient civilization as a vast planetary machine—to beg the help of the world's overlords, and their overlords in turn. As Ferbin journeys into the bewildering complexity of intergalactic peoples, his younger brother Oramen is starting to have suspicions about that trusted adviser, who is now ruling the Sarl as regent and mounting an invasion of the neighboring level. But the mystery of an alien city slowly being revealed under an enormous system of waterfalls captures his interest, and may distract him from discovering the truth about the regent's betrayal. Meanwhile, a renegade sister, long ago farmed out to the space-faring Culture to train with the quasi-covert agency called Special Circumstances, is on her way back to Sursamen in the wake of her father's death. She isn't the only one with an interest in the Shellworld, however, and the menacing plans of the crab-like Oct lead her and a motley crew of deputies on an improbable mission to the planet's god-inhabited core.
Banks' vision of a universal detente among anarchic superpowers overseeing a complex network of client species, in a technological setting so advanced that scarcity has vanished and money is obsolete, has always provided plenty of room for political machinations. In Matter, however, he achieves an urgency born of fascinating, fallible, but always relateable characters in microcosm to balance his enormous science-fiction edifice in macrocosm. Then he refuses to settle for the easy answers and predictable arcs that his adventure-genre plotting would lead readers to expect. There's tragedy here, all the more affecting because it swallows up people worth caring about. While the novel takes a few introductory chapters to set up the pieces for this massive chess game, its nested quests are refreshingly fleet and charming, and the final twists are unforgettable. Matter is not only a magnificent gateway into Banks' obsessions, but also an immensely satisfying banquet of science and wonder.