British author “Iain M. Banks” (the mysterious pen name of literary author Iain Banks) is best known in science fiction circles for his space opera universe focusing on a post-scarcity, AI-controlled interplanetary utopia called The Culture. The Culture is very highly regarded, though I’ll admit to not really knowing about it before taking on this project; perhaps that’s a reflection of how long the series took to make an impact “across the pond,” or it’s just more evidence of how clueless I was as a teenage science fiction fan around this time. I did manage to get some familiarity with the series before reading this novel though, which I’d say is necessary, considering how much goes on here.
The Culture, as I mentioned, is a utopia made up of genetically engineered people from various races, mostly called “human” (though apparently not from Earth). There’s no real government, no want, violence is rare, people have astounding control over their bodies to the extent that they can change sex at will, and hyper-intelligent (and snarky) computers called Minds do most of the work with ease. Few other species can compete with The Culture, and a wing of their society called Contact (and it’s secretive intelligence service Special Circumstances) manipulates alien races to make sure that this remains the case. The people of The Culture can be a bit hedonistic – what else is there to do? – and most of The Culture stories seem to revolve around members of The Culture trying to find something meaningful to do with their perfect lives.
The titular Excession in this novel is a mysterious visitor from a parallel dimension. The Culture sends Minds to investigate as does a group called the Elench, former members of the Culture who like to incorporate more alien ideas, as well as a violent, war-obsessed and tentacled race called the Affront. For most of the novel, Minds from these three groups chatter with each other around the Excession. Another Culture ship called the Sleeper Service has had previous experience with the Excession and seems to have gone “Eccentric” as a result. It offers to store members of the Culture in suspended animation as long as they pose their frozen bodies for tableaux based on famous works of art. One of the people stored is a woman named Dajeil Gelian, who has a romantic history with a Contact diplomat named Byr Genar-Hofoen. The Sleeper-Service’s Mind decides to use the Excession as an excuse to get the couple to resolve their decades-old issues.
Did that make sense? This is a fairly complex novel, and much of it is taken up in odd blocks of code-like text that conveys the Minds’ conversations. Banks’ Minds can be pretty amusing, but I did tire of them a bit in this novel. The plot itself involves conspiracies within conspiracies within conspiracies, all set in motion by the Excession, which doesn’t do all that much else. – it’s not that hard to figure out in the end, but it’s hard to keep track of at the time. And, I had a hell of a time keeping all of the ships’ names straight.
There are lots of great ideas here, and I like The Culture overall (I’m definitely reading more when I finish this project), but there were stretches of this novel that didn’t entirely keep my attention. Banks is a great writer though, and there are nice bits of prose throughout. And, I thought the material with Dajeil and Genar-Hofoen, though its connection to the main plot is tenuous, was fantastic. Their relationship is simultaneously relatable and unique to The Culture, takes some fun twists and turns, and provides a nice distraction when the Minds’ hijinks wear thin.
This novel has its strong points, but it is not a good introduction to The Culture, and I certainly liked the human elements better than the AI elements, even while I can admire the fact that Banks is willing to focus so on the latter.