I just completed Iain Banks' latest Culture novel 'Matter'. He is something less of a yarn spinner in this one and I was stalled at page 20 for a while, but by the time I got to page 120, I could tell it was going to be a great story.
Unlike 'Phlebas' which was the second Banks book I read (after the Algebraist), Matter was a bit more predictable. The intrigue from this book comes from knowing in some detail what Culture SC operatives and their technology are capable of. So the drama builds in this story by knowing that several species at various levels of sophistication are going to be met with the wrath of god, god being a relative term - achievable by humans in already achieved by one woman exiled from a doomed world.
The other interest in this story comes from the seemingly infinite hierarchies of species which are so incredibly alien to human emotions and storytelling. A fascinating device to be sure. Here you have the story of essentially almost modern humans in something of a Napoleonic age who live in a world dominated by the Oct, a species that most resemble nothing more or less than crabs. Not giant man-eating crab-people, but dinner plate sized creatures who smell funny, think and talk sideways. The Oct were described as possessors of the most untranslatable language in the galaxy. Every year they win the prize and nobody can understand their acceptance speech. The Oct are enmeshed in a constant struggle for power with the Aultridians, an even more smelly race of creatures that resemble doormats. Above the Oct are an insectile race, and above them a race of waterborne creatures which I can best say resemble a cross between porcupine fish and sea urchins.
If you can imagine how difficult it might be to live in America if your candidate doesn't win in November, imagine what it must be like to be ruled by crabs inferior to ants inferior to fish and that the fish basically own a volume of space containing two million stars. This is the predicament of Ferbin, the playboy prince whose father, the King is assassinated. He must plead his case up this motley chain of command while running for his life. Unbeknownst to him, his exiled sister a secret agent for the Culture, the masters of the galaxy, is working her way down back to her home planet and finding it not difficult to care even in her post-ghetto life. Family still matters. But her lust for revenge is tempered by her new sophistication and the rules of engagement, or is it?
Banks shines in his description of the Shellworld, a new invention into his great galaxy. And the appendix adds to the wiki-able knowledge base that attaches to his interstellar inventions. There is great multi-species drama and intrigue in this novel, and yet another reason to read all of Banks.
By the way, the title, like 42 is an answer to one of the great philosophical questions of our age.