|author||Iain M. Banks|
|summary||Iain M. Banks latest space opera|
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.