Sunday, August 5, 2018


by Iain M. Banks, 1996

Culture Novel Number Four. Just so we’re all caught up, here’s my description of what the series is all about: The Culture is a powerful and immensely wealthy interstellar state whose citizens are free from all material concerns and can lead lives of leisure. That’s actually quite boring from a narrative perspective, which is why the series primarily focuses on the Culture’s problematic foreign policy...

The Excession is a mysterious object in interstellar space that seems to be older than the Universe itself. It is believed to be a portal that can allow two-way travel between universes both older and younger than our own, and if it were to come into a government’s possession, the balance of power in the galaxy would be significantly altered. The Culture is, understandably, very intrigued by the possibilities. So are the Affront, a ludicrously unpleasant interstellar empire that the Culture has been tolerating for centuries. Personally I'm awfully judgemental about the Affront and have no problem calling them evil, but the Culture is far too urbane and cosmopolitan to label them as such. That said, they consider them to be very distasteful indeed, and they would really rather not see the Excession fall into the Affront’s hands (or tentacles).

The Culture is ruled by super-AIs known as Minds -- ordinary citizens of the Culture are basically their pet monkeys. This is the first novel in the series where the Minds really come to the forefront as major characters with individual agendas. It seems that some Minds see the Excession as the perfect opportunity to deliberately provoke a war against the Affront. The Culture will almost certainly suffer casualties on a vast scale, but the Affront are just plain unpleasant and the galaxy will be better off if their ambitions are checked now….

And that is part of the story of Excession, a novel with more viewpoint characters than all previous Culture novels combined and easily the most complex plot of the series so far. I’m happy I read it on paper and not on a Kindle, as I frequently had to flip back to re-read old sections to properly keep track of what was going on. (Tip to readers: yes, it is indeed important to keep the names of the various Minds straight in your head.)

This is the book that popularized the term Outside Context Problem, a wonderful idea for us history geeks to add to our mental lexicon:

... something most civilizations would encounter just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop ... The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbors were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass... when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.

The Excession, of course, represents an Outside Context Problem for the Culture, the Affront and the rest of galactic civilization, and unless it somehow decides to go away by itself, life as we know it will change forever.

Unfortunately, I really wanted to like Excession more than I did. To be clear, I didn’t hate it. The plot is well-thought out, and Banks is always a pleasure to read. The basic problem is that I didn’t care about the characters. None of the Minds are really relatable for us humans. The most prominent human character, an eccentric citizen of the Culture who seems to genuinely enjoy spending time with the Affront, is an interesting enough oddball that he might have been able to carry a novel as the sole protagonist, but his impact on the story is diluted by the fact that he shares narrative space with other characters who are either too enigmatic to really care about or just plain not interesting. This is where I really miss The Player of Games, with one main character who we stick with for the entire book.

After finishing Excession, I formulated a rule of thumb: My enjoyment of an Iain M. Banks novel is inversely proportional to the number of viewpoint characters it has. (Note: This only applies to Iain M. Banks, not Iain Banks.)

Other assorted notes:

  • Vernor Vinge’s famed space opera A Fire Upon the Deep was published in 1992. Excession was published in 1996. I see a pretty clear and obvious influence of the former on the latter. I’m not the only one, am I?
  • Banks seems to be making his characters more subtly alien now. In the previous Culture novels, the galaxy was unaccountably full of humans who’d happened to spring up on different planets; there were also more alien aliens (most notably the Iridians) but they seemed to be a minority. Here, aside from introducing the Affront, another weird-looking race, he’s also giving more hints of alienness to otherwise humanoid characters -- this retired war criminal has scales, that generic official has an oddly shaped head. (That doesn’t count the bit where the dude with wings sleeps with the lady with four arms; I figured they were both into body modification.)
  • Is it just me, or is Displacer technology (basically a Star Trek-style transporter, but it runs on different technobabble) suddenly much more commonly used here than in the previous books? I figure it could just be because The Player of Games and Use of Weapons were both more planet-based and Excession is more starship-based, but it still comes across as a shift in the established technology of this universe.

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