Well, it’s a new year – and good wishes all around! After a mentally tired December when I wrote little, I relaxed while getting to know the work of Roger Zelazny – and re-reading Iain M. Banks’ Excession, the fifth of his Culture books. Some people suggest starting with other novels set in this universe if you’re new to it, and that may be good advice. But I loved reading Excession again because this is apparently the first novel in which Banks elaborated all sorts of details about the way the Culture worked. His first four Culture stories, written mostly in the 80s, used the Culture as background, but it wasn’t until 1994 when he wrote an essay about this society that he constructed it more fully. And this novel from 1996, fills in a lot more detail.
Excession is experimental in many ways, shifting its style from compressed action sequences to baroque complexity as the multi-layered story lines demand. The novel has that typically Banksian mix of the bizarre, the near disaster and the comedic. It captures the grandeur of space together with the folly and impermanence of human relationships. There will be spoilers in this discussion, but for me the beauty of Banks fiction is not so much the secrets of plot as the richness of imagining a complicated society, surely one of the great creations of science fiction.
Banks raises background information to an art form as he explains in Excession several aspects of the Culture. It’s a universe of plenty, run by powerful AI Minds, in which everyone’s needs are met as a birthright, so conventional jobs and money are unnecessary. The Minds realized early on that the universe was too vast to manage as an empire and so respect the many species within their purview to act as they choose, short of declaring war on the Culture. There are times, though, when the Special Circumstances branch of the Culture’s diplomatic corps launches clandestine schemes to alter the development of a people they think is heading in a dangerous direction. These Minds, embodied in great spaceships, sometimes withdraw from society and either do as they please (earning them the title of Eccentrics) or decide to abandon the physical world for a higher one through the process of Subliming.
Though these powerful AI Minds could invade the consciousness of anyone they want, there are strict rules against doing so, and the right to lead your life as you wish is sacrosanct. Due to tampering with genetics, Culture citizens live baseline lives of centuries as they can store their consciousnesses and download them to a new body at any time. They can even change gender, just by thinking about it, so any individual can bear children if they wish, an ability that is central to one of the story lines in this novel.
In fact, the story opens with a scene of a pregnant woman, Dajeil Gelian, who has been living in a tall tower by the sea – though it is a constructed environment within the great ship, Sleeper Service. An avatar of the ship informs her that after forty years, during which she and the ship have been mostly cut off from the Culture, the ship is about to undertake a mission that will change Dajeil’s circumstances. Having suffered a traumatic experience in the past, she has suspended her pregnancy for all this time (one of those tricks humans can do in this universe). The ship wants her to reconcile with the father of her child, Byr Genar-Hofoen, and allow the baby to be born. I won’t describe exactly what happened in that background story, but the upshot was that Byr left for good, and Dajeil retired in her grief and remorse to the Sleeper Service.
The mission the Sleeper Service is called to do involves the sudden appearance near the star Esperi of a huge perfectly black object which appears to defy the laws of physics in the universe of the Culture. When drones and spaceships approach it, they are either pushed away to a distance of many light years, subjected to attack or made to disappear altogether. The great Ship-Minds of the Culture rarely, if ever, encounter something like this, but they have a name for such objects or phenomena: an Outside Context Problem. In other words, something beyond the scope of even their advanced knowledge and technology. They call this one the Excession.
This object appears tied into the energy grid of this universe’s spacetime in a unique way. Tapping into that grid is what enables the Culture’s ships to move at speeds greater than light, but it has an Ultraspace component and an Infraspace one. The Excession is tied into both simultaneously, an unheard of feat. Its uniqueness prompts three different groups to investigate. A civilization known as the Zetetic Elench sends ships determined to make contact. A more barbaric and warlike group, called the Affront, wants to declare war and take it over. The Culture Minds are more cautious and want only to observe.
The Minds are major characters in the unfolding story, and they feature Banks’ famous ship names, including in this story The Anticipation of a New Lover’s Arrival, Gray Area, Shoot Them Later, Serious Callers Only and The Attitude Adjuster. They communicate in email-like messages as they consider what to do, and a group of them, calling themselves The Interesting Times Gang, take it upon themselves to investigate the Outside Context Problem. Meanwhile, the Affront initiate a conspiracy with a disgruntled Mind vessel to betray the Culture by seizing a huge number of stored Culture warships and putting them at the service of the Affront for their war plans to capture the Excession.
While that is going on and while Dajeil is considering what to do in her soon to be demolished tower by the sea world, we learn a lot more about Genar-Hofoen. He has been a Culture ambassador to the Affront and is swept up in their bizarre society. The Affronter species possess leg-thick tentacles, a beak-like mouth and a body surrounded by a gas sack to keep them buoyant in their strange atmosphere. Theirs is a male-dominated society that revels in crude and violent habits. They brutalize women, maintain a gelded class of junior members for their amusement and abuse, and make war whenever possible. Banks is at his vivid best in describing Genar-Hofoen taking part in their equivalent of racket-ball (played with a live bird), attending blood sporting events, and enjoying himself at a banquet where everyone throws tiny harpoons around to spear food off the plates of other diners.
Genar-Hofoen, strangely enough, feels more at home in the chaos of the Affronter world than he has ever felt before. When the Culture approaches him to reconcile with Dajeil, he agrees, provided they will give him an Affront body that he can download his mind into when he wishes.
Banks often writes about marginal characters who want to break out, to some extent, from the Culture’s norms or who live reckless and dangerous lives. But Genar-Hofoen seems dedicated to a life of all the freedom and pleasures he can experience, and in his human male form that means having as much sex as possible and then moving into the altogether weird existence of the Affront from time to time. When he and Dajeil try to reconcile, they face at just that moment an incredible life or death choice, thanks to the Excession. I didn’t really warm to the human characters in this novel, but the late scene that finally brought them together helped me see their needs more clearly. It’s a brilliant climax to their story, as well as those involving the conspiracy, the Culture ships and the Excession itself.
As far as characters go, I was drawn much more to the wit and charm of the drones, avatars and Ship-Minds as well as to Fivetide, the Affronter host whom Genar-Hofoen spends his time with. Strange that they are much more interesting in human ways than the human characters themselves. Reading Excession isn’t a simple experience since there are many levels of action, and it can be a little confusing to keep all the Ship-Minds straight. I found it much easier the second time through when I could appreciate the author’s great skill in weaving all the elements together. Fittingly enough, the Excession has the last word in a monologue representing its report and findings about whether or not this group of societies comprising the Culture are yet worthy of its civilization’s vastly superior technology. It’s the ultimate outsider view of this universe, and you’ll have to read the story to find out its verdict.