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Literature / Matter

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Matter is a 2008 novel of The Culture, focusing on the various political goings-on on the Shellworld of Sursamen. The main protagonists are all siblings in the royal family of the Sarl on the Eighth level: Djan (now a Special Circumstances agent for the Culture), Ferbin and Oramen. The story begins in the midst of a war on Sursamen between the Sarl and the Deldeyn. The king of the Sarl, Hausk, is killed by his Evil Chancellor Mertis tyl Loesp while Ferbin watches. Ferbin realises he has to flee and seek help from higher civilisations (termed Optimae by the Sarl) when he is pronounced dead, but he is pursued by tyl Loesp's knights while his younger brother Oramen has to deal with the pressure of being the only thing between tyl Loesp and the throne.

Matter provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Action Bomb: Djan destroys the Iln war machine by detonating the antimatter that powers the implants in her skull.
  • Action Girl: Djan Seriy Anaplian, as is to be expected from a Special Circumstances agent.
  • Big Dumb Object: Much of Matter is set on a Shellworld, which is an artificial planet consisting of multiple hollow concentric spheres. Each internal sphere consists of a different discrete planetary habitat. We are told that there are thousands of Shellworlds and that they were built by a long-vanished race for possibly nefarious purposes. They also have a nasty habit of killing their inhabitants, though nobody has worked out what triggers them to do this. We also see a Nestworld, a vast Topopolis-like structure surrounding a star built by a contemporary neighbouring race of the Culture; we are told just this one Nestworld is home to 40 trillion beings, which is more than the entire Culture combined.
  • Bittersweet Ending: All 3 siblings die due to the Iln Machine (although it's possible Djan could be brought back from back-up). But Sursamen is saved, and Holse returns to the Eighth level as Special Circumstances agent, along with the funds and means to improve life for the Sarl.
  • Continuity Nod: The Sleeper Service is mentioned as being an example for supposedly-Eccentric ships all over the Culture.
  • Human Aliens: The Sarl. They're pretty much human-basic, but due to the low gravity on Sursamen they are much taller than most pan-humans.
  • Imported Alien Phlebotinum: Discussed. Races at higher levels of technology (see below) are generally frowned upon if they give high technology to low-tech civilisations.
  • Malignant Plot Tumor: Most of the story is about tyl Loesp's rise to power, but halfway through an Iln shellworld-destroying device is uncovered and takes over the plot as it tries to blow up Sursamen.
  • Mind Probe: The Sarcophogus in the Nameless City probes the mind of anyone who stands at a certain place in front of it.
  • Near-Villain Victory: The Iln War Machine comes insanely close to complete victory. Having bested the heroine and literally decapitated her, it stoops to examine her head and discovers, to its detriment, that Culture Special Circumstances agents are actually capable of surviving decapitation for a brief time... because of the antimatter power source keeping their brains alive. She tells it to go fuck itself, and then turns off the containment field. Boom.
  • Outside-Context Problem: The Iln war machine.
    • The actions of Djan in her introduction as an agent of the Culture make her one of these for a little while.
  • Precision F-Strike: Delivered to the Iln machine.
  • Scenery Porn: At points, Banks really rams home the strangeness and grandeur of the Shellworld.
  • Schizo Tech: The Sarl have barely developed guns and their society is very much medieval, but they live on the eighth level of a Shellworld developed as part of a galaxy-spanning forcefield and are frequently contacted and assisted by the Oct, a civilisation with space travel and advanced technology.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The centrepiece of the Nameless City beneath the Hyeng-Zhar Falls turns out to be an Iln device developed to destroy Shellworlds. Although depending on what the Shellworld's original purpose was (either a galactic shield or a prison cage), it could potentially be a very misguided Well-Intentioned Extremist.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: When the Iln war machine tries to explain its actions, Djel mutes it.
  • Space Whale: The Xinthian WorldGod is one.
  • Strange-Syntax Speaker: The Oct apparently think "laterally". Unfortunately, they're incapable of anything but lateral expression, rendering them incomprehensible to other species who aren't concentrating hard (preferably after writing it down first).
  • Technology Levels: The Sarl are right at the bottom in this book, with many levels of civilisations above them in technology and power. The Oct and Aultridia control transit between Sursamen's levels, but they're insignificant on a larger scale. The Neriscene control the Surface and therefore the whole planet, and have a significant empire, but the Morthanveld are truly in control of the whole region of space and have technology rivalling the Culture. Holse is disheartened by the seeming insignificance of his people in the galaxy, but he soon realises that only the rules on his own level matter to him.
    • Played with when Ferbin and Holse try to access how dangerous the Iln Machine is. Both wonder why it's capable of doing so much damage when the Culture and Morthanveld are of a seemingly equal technological level. Djan explains that different civilizations develop at different levels, leading them to different technological outcomes; there isn't a universal technology tree that every Involved civilization will achieve.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Ferbin, although he is a relatively benign example, simply being not very intelligent but not at all malevolent. Although to be fair, the circumstances he's in are WAY beyond anything he's practically capable of dealing with.