Matter is my first step into the world of The Culture. I’ve heard bits and pieces about it through a variety of other sources, from the absurd ship names, to the concept of Outside Context Problems, to the absurdly high tech level – but I’ve never actually read a novel in the universe. While Matter is not the first book in the series, it is a pretty good jumping on point to the series.
Matter has two main narrative threads that come together at the end to enough of a spectacular degree that it almost feels like more of a Gainax Ending than the end of The Big O did. The story is based around the planet of Sursamen – a Shellworld (planet filled with a variety of concentric structures all the way to down to some sort of core), a planet with a moderately low-tech level society, but one which has interactions with several other higher tech worlds, some of whom are serving as mentor races to civilizations on this one. There have been almost 4000 Shellworlds in the galaxy, but half of them have been destroyed under mysterious circumstances.
Hausk, the King of Sarl, has murdered by one of his generals, Mertis tyl Loesp. Hausk’s oldest son, Ferbin, barely escapes being killed by tyl Loesp himself (though tyl Loesp thinks Ferbin is dead). In a desperate attempt to get help, Ferbin heads off planet with the only retainer he can trust, Holse, in order to seek out his sister Djan Seriy Anaplian – who had left the planet 15 years earlier on a cultural exchange with The Culture. Before leaving, he leaves a note with his younger brother and next in line for the throne, Oramen, warning him of tyl Loesp’s treachery. Ferbin and Holse end up encountering a degree of, for lack of a better term, culture shock as they encounter various high tech civilizations on the way to their reunion with their sister, in the hope that she can help them save their brother and avenge their father.
Tyl Loesp is being backed by an alien race called the “Oct,” who are seeking a mysterious artifact in the ruins on the 9th level of the Shellworld. However, tyl Loesp’s main goal is unification of the Shellworld under his control, and he’ll happily murder anyone in his way to accomplish that goal, leading to several assassination attempts against Oramen. If this all sounds very Game of Thrones, it absolutely is. It doesn’t have the same level of sex to it that Game of Thrones does, not by any means. But it does have tremendous amount of political maneuvering as Oramen learns that his Regent absolutely means him harm, and as he comes of age and prepares to try to reclaim his birthright.
And then there’s Anaplian. Anaplian left Sursamen on a cultural exchange program, and then ended up as a Special Circumstances Agent for The Culture. To put this another way – if Elizabeth Bennett went to study abroad for several years, but instead of just coming back more traveled and culturally literate, she also came back kitted out like Major Motoko Kusenagi with a Guyver Suit, she’d be Anaplian at the start of this story. At the start of the book she’s just coming home on bereavement leave, only to earn that the Oct are up to something on Sursamen, and by the time she meets up with her brother and learns what’s going on back home from him, she’s ready to get her John Wick on.
It makes for an interesting ride through the story as all these plot threads start heading on their collision course, with the implication being that Anaplian is going to be an Outside Context Problem for the people who killed her father. Then, at the final act of the story, the contents of the ruins are opened and an entirely different Outside Context Problem shows up (and one that’s been lightly foreshadowed when you go back to the “half of these Shellworlds have been destroyed” bit earlier), and everything just goes straight into Ludicrous Speed.
As a long time fan of anime, I was absolutely down for this, and really dug this shift, because it’s something that comes up a lot in speculative fiction action anime, where everyone just shoves their chips into the middle of the table. That said, escalation this rapid can be jarring to some audiences, and it’s also something that people might prefer in visual media instead of novels, so I could see this being very jarring.
Also, like some older anime, there isn’t a lot of denouement to speak of. It’s there, but it’s also in the novel equivalent of a post-credits stinger, so I can see people straight up missing it.
I enjoyed the book, and I’m glad I finally got around, in this time of quarantine, to finishing it.
Matter is currently available from Amazon.com in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook editions. Buying anything through those links helps to support the site. It’s also available in hardcover from Powell’s – if you prefer not to go though Amazon (though that one is not an affiliate link).