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Iain M. Banks

Iain M. Banks
London 1996

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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 Context Problem.

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


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