Excession

by Iain M. Banks

Cover image

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: 1996
Printing: February 1998
ISBN: 0-553-57537-6
Format: Mass market
Pages: 499

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Excession is the fifth book in publication order in Iain M. Banks's long-running Culture series (if one counts The State of the Art), but for reasons I now forget was the first one that I read. That makes this a re-read, but it's been at least ten years since my first reading. Like most of the Culture novels, Excession can be read in any order, and I suffered no ill effects from reading it first, although I think it benefits somewhat from the slower build-up of the other books.

It's also the first book of the Culture series that takes place in the center of the Culture, instead of around the edges. Contact and Special Circumstances are again involved, of course, as those are generally the most interesting parts of the Culture, but we see far more of Culture politics and even some hints of daily life inside the Culture than we have in previous books.

And, most notably, Excession is about the Minds. Particularly the Ship Minds, although the Minds of orbitals and other structures are also involved. There are humans (well, "humans" as defined within the Culture) involved as well; indeed, they're central to both the interactions with a dangerous alien culture and a significant subplot involving a woman who has been living on the GSV Sleeper Service. But the core plot driver of this book is a situation discovered and discussed by the Minds, and one gets the clearest feel yet in the series of the degree to which the Minds actually run the Culture.

For those who aren't familiar with the Culture universe, they are a starfaring civilization that lives almost exclusively in space habitats, orbitals, and huge starships. They're a post-scarcity society with access to manufacturing capabilities and physical resources that allow any citizen of the Culture trivial access to just about anything they want. They also have strong AI; the Minds at this point now construct each other, and are massively more intelligent than any human can be or can even understand. All this has appeared in previous books, but Excession spends more time on the details: what happens to Elder races, what it's like to be right on the edge of leaving the physical universe as we know it, what the Minds spend all their time doing when they're not taking care of humans, some hints of what human culture is like, and many other delicious details.

We also see Culture politics, in some ways for the first time. The Culture is a cooperative, non-hierarchical, consensus-driven society without many external threats, but it still has politics, particularly when spurred by a significant danger. And I think that's the most delightful part of this book, in part because, due to the nature of Culture society, those politics are almost exactly like the politics of open-source software projects. Banks nails the tone of that sort of decision-making process.

No one can really force anyone else without going to drastic measures, and there's a strong cultural push toward consensus and cooperation, but there are also real conflicts. Debate is a mix of respect for facts with weighing of opinions based on who expresses those opinions and what one's past experience with those people is. There are some formal structures, which everyone ignores when they're not convenient. There are some Minds that are allowed to bypass all of the rules because of their past reputation. There are alliances, back-channel communications, trust and distrust, Minds who just leave in disgust, and forwarding of people's mail to other parties. It's funny, fascinating, completely recognizable if you've been involved in something similar, and provides a ton of suspense and enjoyment to the plot. If Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep has a deserved reputation for putting Usenet into an SF novel, Excession puts e-mail, both mailing lists and private discussion, into an SF novel and does it as well or better.

I'm intentionally avoiding talking much about the plot, since figuring out what's going on is a large part of the fun. But there are several threads: one around a discovery that sets the political turmoil in motion, one about the non-Culture Affront civilization (an over-the-top violent society that's by turns amusing and appalling) and their Culture ambassador, and one around the woman Dajeil Gelian and her suspended pregnancy and strange relationship with the GSV Sleeper Service. A few more characters and complications are added along the way before they all tie together. Some of these threads work better than others: I had a hard time caring about Dajeil and her self-indulgent problems on both the first and second reading, and I eagerly devoured every scrap of Ship politics in the book and wanted a great deal more. But Banks does bring them together into a satisfying ending that includes a shift of perspective on the point of Dajeil's long story that redeems it somewhat. The final ending is a bit unsatisfying and a bit cliched, but that's only a minor complaint.

Excession wants to be my favorite Culture novel but doesn't quite manage it, largely due to the uneven pacing and the presence of weaker story lines. I would have preferred much less Dajeil, somewhat less of the Affront, and rather more of the Ships. (Of course, the Ships are probably the hardest part of the book to write.) An ending with a bit more punch would have also been nice. But it's still one of my favorites, and one of my favorite SF space operas in general, and a great window into the inner workings of the Culture that you don't get from the earlier books. Highly recommended, and not a bad place to start the series, although I think The Player of Games is better.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-10-29

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21