Readers of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels might have developed
some strange notion that the Culture is more or less invulnerable,
that its awesome size, its technological sophistication, its liberal
idealism might secure it against any threat. Excession,
Banks’s first Culture novel for six years, puts the Culture resoundingly
in its place. Not only has it barely left its own galaxy, it doesn’t
even know how to leave its own universe – and something else does:
the excession of the title and the Culture’s very own Outside
An excession, broadly, is anything which threatens the Culture’s
existence and, in this case, takes the form of a small black body
sphere which has parked itself in a reasonably remote corner of
the galaxy and done absolutely nothing. Its accidental discovery,
however, provokes a complex chain of events involving different
factions within the Culture and a minor but thorny problem of
some uncivilised but quite clever jellyfish called the Affronters.
Drawn into this is Genar-Hofoen, a Culture diplomat whose love
affair with Contact agent Dajeil forty years earlier has left
them both emotionally devastated.
Excession presents some intriguing developments of the
Culture cosmos: minds getting religion, entire civilisations "subliming"
to a higher state of existence, and a noisy endorsement of Andrei
Linde’s idea that "our" big bang was just one of many
and that the universe is incalculably larger than we think it
is. Banks injects the slightly tired device of converging plots
with some new vigour and subtlety, using it to place more or less
equal weight on the emotional lives of two people on the one hand
and the vast backdrop against which their story is told on the
other – the universe is so big that only the emotional
can be said to have real significance. And Excession is
of its time: a novel of the information age in which the Culture’s
equivalent of email is a driving force for the plot and cybertheorist
notions of a hive mentality are delivered deadpan, though hopefully
with tongue in cheek.
The Culture series has never disappointed and Excession
is a fine addition to it. Characteristically witty, wayward, filled
with surprises, it’s richly textured, extravagantly inventive science fiction and,
importantly, science fiction with soul.
Reviewed by Steven Kelly