Wednesday, 10 March 2004

Iain M. Banks: Excession (1997)

Edition: Orbit, 1997 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1227

After a couple of novels which, though they seem similar, were not set in Banks' favourite science fiction background, Excession returns to the Culture. Like all the Culture novels, Excession is about how the Culture interacts with outsiders - only this time things are different. In the earlier novels, these contacts are with groups which are technologically inferior, and can be read partly as commentaries on the relationship between the former colonial powers and the cultures with which they came into contact. Here, though, the contact is with something called an Outside Context Event, a potentially disastrous meeting with an alien entity far ahead of the Culture's technology. This takes the form of an excession, the entry of an object into normal space from an unknown origin (excession literally means "going beyond").

The Culture are not the only galactic civilization interested in this alien object. Such analysis as is possible points to incredible potential developments in physics, applicable in technologies such as instantaneous travel, or almost incomprehensible weaponry including the means to subvert the Minds (artificial intelligences) of the Culture, not just an advanced civilization but one very different (one assumes) from that of the object's origin. Apart from Culture splinter group the Elench, the main competitors are the Affronters, whose general behaviour is reminiscent of the most drunken rugby club dinner. There are also complicated political games between the Culture Minds that are involved. The story is, however, told mainly through the experiences of the humans manipulated by the massively more intelligent Minds, punctuated by messages passed between the Minds themselves. (This is typical of the Culture novels, and basically makes it easier for a human reader to identify with characters while feeling that there is more going on behind the scenes than the text reveals.)

Banks' writing in Excession is up to his highest standard, and it has an extremely clever ending. It is the best of the Culture stories and is probably one of the main touchstones for the new school of space opera which is currently popular.

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