This Culture novel was the most difficult and most puzzling in my experience with Iain Banks’ writing, so far, and still I am not sure about my feelings, if I truly liked it or not. The novel was enjoyable, of course, and it also was a quick read, its momentum provided by the rapidly advancing plot, but still it seemed as if something was missing: certainly I did not feel as invested in the characters as I was with previous books, and this might be the reason for my faint dissatisfaction, considering that characterization was the strongest point of the novels I read before this one.
An Excession – or out-of-context problem – is an event without precedent and without predictable outcome: in this case it’s a mysterious black body suddenly appearing in space near the star Esperi, doing nothing, but still representing a menace, if nothing else because of its inscrutability. The study of the Excession is carried out mostly by the Culture’s Minds – the vastly evolved artificial intelligences residing on huge ships, or in the orbitals: they appear here as the true movers and shakers of the galaxy, even more than humans who seem far less preoccupied with the strange phenomenon than their cybernetic counterparts.
In a way, this novel is about the Minds more than it is about the mysterious object at the center of the story: I already encountered some Minds in my previous “travels” in Banks’ Culture, but they never took center stage as they do here, and this gave me a new perspective on the Culture itself. As a society that can offer its citizens everything they want, with easy and ready access to any kind of physical resource and where the word “impossible” seems to have no place anymore, the Culture might look like the perfect Utopia. The Minds have evolved to the point where they can build each other in a sort of mechanized parthenogenesis, and they are the true managers of society, while humans can freely pursue their diverse goals.
Minds are not coldly perfect, though: some of the human traits they acquired along the way surface through the messages they exchange with each other (one of the most enjoyable parts of the story), and these exchanges are both amusing and illuminating, showing how the degree of evolution the Minds reached has endowed them with the equivalent of a soul, besides their distinctive personalities. The other side of this coin is that the Minds can also fall prey to human flaws, and errors: as the story develops we understand there is a conspiracy, brewed by a group of Minds, to start a war between the Culture and an alien civilization, so that the Culture might finally impose some more enlightened rules on the wayward Affront (I’ll come back to them in a moment…).
Here resides one of the reasons for my puzzlement with this novel, if not the main one: confusion. The huge number of Mind-ships’ names, most of them quite bizarre (like Not Invented Here, Shoot Them Later, Anticipation for a New Lover’s Arrival, just to name a few) made it difficult for me to keep track of who was who and what faction they belonged to. Much as I enjoyed their witty exchanges, after a while I gave up trying to keep them straight, and let myself go with the flow, in all probability missing some important clues. I thought more than once that maybe the author had given in to his own desire to showcase these amazing intelligences, and in so doing made life difficult for his readers…
Another point of contention with this story comes from the human characters: while I understand that the Minds needed to take the center stage here, I can’t accept that the flesh-and-blood people called into play are never developed as much as they were in the other books, and at times they look more like props than anything else. For example, Byr Genar-Hofoen, Culture envoy with the Affront, is recalled from his post and tasked to reach the ship Sleeper Service to retrieve the conscience of a person who was Stored there: along the way we are given Genar-Hofoen’s back story, and many details about his past liaison with Dajeil Gelian, who is the Sleeper Service’s only passenger and has been keeping her pregnancy in stasis for forty years. As the past they share is slowly revealed, it becomes clear that the Sleeper Service is doing all it can to help them reconcile their differences, and to overcome the tragic circumstances that brought on their separation. And yet, when the moment comes, it also seems to pass in a manner that’s way too subdued in respect of the huge anticipation that was built until then.
In the same manner, I’m still wondering what was the purpose of the young spoiled brat Ulver Seich, who is enrolled by Special Circumstances (the Culture’s equivalent of a secret service) to expedite Genar-Hofoen mission: much space is given to the girl’s self-centered character, and her dismay at the physical changes she undergoes to resemble Dajeil Gelian and therefore to better ensnare Genar-Hofoen. And again, it all boils down to practically nothing… There is something I’m missing, I’m certain of it, but for the life of me, I’m unable to see what it is.
On the other hand, the depiction of the Affront, a neighboring civilization that is totally alien both in appearance and in outlook, and that looks like the Culture’s polar opposite, is one of Excession’s best features: imagine a race of floating octopuses, gifted (so to speak…) with congenital bad manners and the boisterousness of unruly students on spring break. And still that would be too weak a description: the Affront are by turns amusing and outrageous, the details we learn about their culture made me hate them, while their unabashed enjoyment of life made me smile with the tolerance reserved for rambunctious kids. I can see, with hindsight, how some of the Culture’s Minds saw such a danger in the Affront and its cruel values, so that they decided to start a war (something the Culture avoids studiously, preferring a more subtle integration) rather than risk a long-term contamination of its status quo.
Still, it’s not enough: I was fascinated by Player of Games; soul-wrenched by Use of Weapons; and poignantly affected by Look to Windward, but I could not summon any strong emotion with Excession, and it left me with a pervasive sensation of incompleteness, which feels very strange for a book by Iain Banks.