Book Review: Matter

Cover of Matter by Iain M Banks

This book review is of Matter by Iain M. Banks.

The Basics

Matter is set in a universe full of amazingly advanced aliens, all of whom are held in balance by a realisation that there is someone bigger or stronger or more powerful than they are.

Except for the quasi-medieval society of the Sarl, inhabitants of a layer-cake engineered world called Sursamen. When the king of level 8 is killed by his treacherous right-hand-man, the kings three surviving children must try and reveal the crime and set the record straight.

The Good

Banks has created a vast and richly detailed universe and Matter is set squarely in the middle of this magnificent imagination-scape. The varieties of alien life are wonderfully diverse. The technology is fantastic and vividly imagined and totally awesome.

This is good science fiction. Or at least it is good world building. But considering the fact that Banks has already written half-a-dozen novels set in the same universe, it’s hardly surprising that he has created such a vivid universe.

The Bad

The universe of Matter is so incredibly vivid that Banks seems to get lost in it and spends hundreds of pages describing (over-and-over again) the detailed, different, alien races and the wonderful landscape of Sursamen.

The characters also didn’t really work for me. According to the book description on, the guy who seems to be the protagonist was incredibly annoying and I found myself groaning every time the point of view switched to him. His servant was more interesting and likeable.

What bothered me most about Matter is that the really interesting part of the story (in my mind at least) occurs in the last 50 pages of this 565 page monster, and Banks essentially glosses over it. He’s spent hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of pages going nowhere and then suddenly has to wind up the tale right at the end and it sucks.

(I’m trying really hard not to spoil the plot here, so I can’t really express the things that ruined the story for me any better than that, sorry).

The Bottom Line

Obviously, this book and the entire Culture series is very popular and there must be a large audience for it, but I’m not that audience. I found Matter to be a 500 page imagination-wank with a great plot crammed into the last 50 pages and completely mangled in the process.

I really wanted to enjoy Matter more, but it just didn’t work for me.

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