Excession, by Iain M Banks

Published 1996
Review by Tim

Let me lay out the setting for you, first of all: a future more than 10,000 years remote from the present, and technology so sophisticated it is almost magical. The majority of the galaxy lives under the benign guidance (whether they want it or not) of the Culture, a galaxy-spanning association of biological and machine sentients. Humanity was one of the founding members of the Culture, and are a major part of the population. Members of the Culture have gained humanity's ultimate dream, a society in which poverty and oppression are unknown, where all wishes are fulfilled (so long as they do not involve oppression of other sentients), and where death is a rare and strange accident. Folk live in a variety of circumstances; on planets, ships, peregrinating structures up to the size of worlds, orbital rings having many times the "land" area of a normal planet.

The prime movers and shakers in the Culture are not humans. The true decision-makers are the Minds, advanced cybernetic intelligences that were originally built by humans and other races, but which have long since moved beyond their makers. And no, we're not talking tired old Hollywood "profitcy-of-doom" here. You know what I mean: The Terminator meets The Matrix, slaughters half of humanity, stacks the remainder in sheet-metal bee-hives-from-hell, tranquilized by means of computer-chip suppositories. Forget all that crap.

The Minds are people; that is, thinking, feeling beings with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies. They are usually the guiding personalities ships, orbitals, stations, and other major constructs. The main difference between humans and the Minds is that the latter can think faster and deeper. And while humans and other alien species all play their parts in making the Culture run, it is the Minds who usually get rolling first, and who make plans for the big picture. So it is not surprising that the Minds get organized first when the Excession shows up.

An Excession is, quite simply, anything that is excessive: excessively powerful, excessively aggressive, excessively mysterious. Like that. To make matters worse, this particular Excession represents an OCP, or Outside Context Problem. And what is an OCP, you ask?

[An OCP] was the sort of thing most civilizations encountered just once […] in the same way that a sentence encountered a full stop. […Imagine] 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 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 Culture had actually survived OCP's before, but there was never anything quite like this, something so powerful and unfathomable that it made galaxy-spanning civilizations ripple and shiver just by sitting there. So a group of Minds form "The Interesting Times Gang" to deal with the problem, ships with names like Serious Callers Only, Anticipation of a New Lover's Arrival, Shoot Them Later, and No Fixed Abode.

While the Minds are the main players, there is action on the human scale as well: Byr Genar-Hofoen, the wastrel-diplomat who is the Culture Ambassador to an appallingly vicious group of creatures known as The Affront; Ulver Seich, a beautiful and brilliant young woman and a spoiled brat besides; and the perpetually pregnant recluse Dajeil Gelian, sole (living) human resident of the Eccentric ship called The Sleeper Service.

And looming over all, powerful and inscrutable, is the Excession.

If you look over the list of novels Jenn and I have selected to review, you may have noticed that neither of us are particularly over-fond of "broad-canvas" type novels. You know the type - stories that rotate through a dozen characters, and just as you get interested in what is happening to one, you are unceremoniously shunted to another. Still, every once in a while I find one that clicks for me. Like Excession.

As of this review, Iain M Banks has written some eight novels in his future history of the Culture. All of them are first-rate, and none of them have ever received a Hugo nomination, or made the final ballot for the Nebulas1. At least four of them, in my humble opinion, have deserved a nomination at minimum. Especially this one. Banks has also written as many non-science fiction novels. His first, a critically acclaimed (and chillingly warped) story of abnormal psychology, called The Wasp Factory, is a contemporary novel set in Scotland. Excession is my personal favorite of the Culture novels so far. It is a profoundly imaginative work set against a background of wonderful originality.

September, 2001

1The Hugo and Nebula are the premier literary awards for speculative fiction. The Hugo is awarded by readers, while the Nebula winners are chosen by fellow writers.