Grade: Γ — A good or even fantastic book within the genre, probably worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that is likely to be unappealing to individuals who are not fans of a given genre. This is the highest grade that many very good books that are part of a series can receive, since series require an investment in reading that normally only appeals to fans of that genre.
Excession is Iain M. Banks‘ seventh science fiction novel, and his fourth that is definitively set in the Culture universe. It is an innovative tale told primarily from the point-of-view of the culture Minds (Hyper AI’s that govern the Culture and most of its various sub-groups), and stands out as one of his best books. Though like all of his books it is a stand-alone novel, it is probably not the best book to start with if you haven’t read a Culture novel before. If you are familiar with his Culture books, however, Excession is a wonderful insight to the inner workings of the most fascinating of Banks’ creations.
The Culture is a hyper advanced, galaxy spanning utopian civilization whose citizens lead an arguably hedonistic life free of concerns. Governed by a series of hyper-intelligent artificial Minds (they are to Artificial Intelligences as humans are to single cell organisms), the citizens of the Culture live as long as they wish, have backups of their memories in case they die, can change shape (and sex) at will, can gland whatever drug or feeling they desire… can do whatever they please. This book solidly builds upon the concept of the Minds and their interactions within inner workings within the society introduced in Banks’ previous novels.
I loved this story. It centers on the appearance of an ancient and mysterious black sphere whose origins and purpose are beyond even the hyper-intelligent Minds’ capability to understand. While there is a good deal of time spent following humans about in this tale, what stands out in the novel is the absolutely fascinating actions and interactions of the Minds.
While Minds play an important part in all of his other Culture novels, this is the first (and to date the only) one of his novels that really puts them and their personal communications at the front and center of the entire books. In this way, we gain new understanding about the truly diverse and anarchic nature of the Culture (to a degree that one might argue that the Culture might not actually represent a single culture at all), but more interestingly, we get to see his world from the Point-Of-View of the ships, Minds and Drones that tend to steal the show in his books anyway.
We meet a large number of Minds, in this book, most (if not all) of which are Ship Minds (Minds that have been put in a ship to pilot it around), and many of which are categorized as “Eccentric.” To that end, we gain insight to the whimsical nature of the ships, and begin to understand that perhaps they are not as capricious as they sometimes seem.
Having said that, the nature of the book means that some elements of character development are not as deep or enthralling as many of his other works. Since the prime motivators in this story are Minds, intelligences that are far beyond and thus intrinsically alien to our own, it is effectively impossible to allow the reader to “get truly inside” the Minds’ minds (as it were). Neither do the stories of the human point-of-view (POV) characters fully enthrall one, since in one sense they are merely pawns being moved around space.
Even so, I found this an absolutely fascinating story that added depth and understanding to my enjoyment of the Culture series as a whole. To that end, while anyone might pick up this book and enjoy it, I think it really can only be fully appreciated by someone who was already a fan of the Culture series.
P.S. The ship names in this one really built an amusing idea into one of the best on-going bits of humor that I’ve read in Science Fiction.
[end: tight beam, M16.7m, tra. @ c5.22.957.3499]
xROUs A Certain Moral Flexibility
oVFP Ask Questions Later
 The State of the Art (Orbit, 1991), his fourth Science Fiction book, is a collection of short fiction that includes some Culture stories, but a number of non-Culture tales. There are some suggestions that Against a Dark Background (Orbit, 1993) might also have taken place in the Culture Universe, but there is nothing in the story that states it.
- Against a Dark Background, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 1993) (sophyanempire.wordpress.com)
- Redemption Ark, Alistair Reynolds (Gollancz, 2002) (sophyanempire.wordpress.com)
- Looking, but not finding excitement. (poisonedbybooks.wordpress.com)
- Blog – The Future Arrives Next Week (technologyreview.com)
This is one of my absolute favourite Culture books, but you are right when you say that the human characters don’t really get attention they deserve. I think Banks actually struggles with stories containing such an open format regarding the mix of Minds and humans as I felt his most recent, Surface Detail, suffered from the same problem.
Incidentally, it is an interesting exercise to read this book entirely from the perspective of a Mind. Simply flip through the book ignoring any text that isn’t a transmission between ships.
Actually, I had to look back through Excession to remind myself of any of the human bits. The Mind parts completely stole the show. I completely agree, it is one of his best for imagination and one of my favorites.