Excession is entertaining, but also excessive.

opening remarks

Excession was published in 1996, a six-year gap between it and the previous Culture novel Use of Weapons.  In that period Banks wrote three “Iain Banks” books including Complicity which I’ve meant to read for over two decades and never have.  It has occurred to me that once I’m done with the Culture novels, I should circle back and pick up his literary fiction.  But for right now, Excession it is.

knee-jerk observations

Following a reasonably sedate Prologue involving a pregnant woman (Dajeil Gelian) living in a tower located onboard a spaceship (Culture I presume), the opening chapter is a sudden blast of madcap, full throttle action.  A drone, Sisela Ytheleus, is desperately trying to avoid the force that has taken over an Elencher spaceship.

I’ve always struggled to visualise spaceships or alien species when they’re rendered in prose.  Banks’ description of an Affront made fuck all sense to me.  Google images to the rescue!

Genar-Hofoen, a diplomat for the Culture, is enjoying a boisterous and violent banquet with the aforementioned Affronters, when he’s informed, via coded message, that his services are required elsewhere.  With reluctance and no information about his mission he heads back to his module only to be confronted by a hologram of his Uncle:

The Outside Context Problem – also known as colonialism:

I like the backstory for the Elench, who, as their name suggests, refuted the Culture’s stagnant nature.  The Elench actively want to be changed by what they discover rather than mould it, Culture-style, into their image.

An Excession – a Culture term – refers to the appearance of a species or artefact that exceeds the Culture’s technology.  This particular Excession is an anomaly, orbiting a star, which apparently can skip between Universes.  It’s a capacity that the Culture does not possess but would like to very much.

Excession would appear to be the novel where Banks provides a little more context and detail around the Minds.  I do love how lyrical he gets (is he taking the piss?) when he describes the Land of Infinite Fun.

Excession is a much flabbier book than Use of Weapons and Player of Games.  It’s entertaining, but there are chapters – at least in the first third of the book – where Banks interest in an idea or a character gets the better of the plot.  It’s not all bad, Banks’ tangents are often funny, usually laced with his dry sense of humour, but I do keep wishing he would get on with telling the story.

Flab aside, one of the delights of the novel is the insight we get into the psychology of the Minds.  Here one of them – it might be Anticipation Of A New Lover’s Arrival, The – is concerned that their principles won’t stand-up to the threat posed by the Excession.

Ulver Seich, a twenty-something rich girl, had been sequestered by Special Circumstances – the intelligence arm of the Culture – to masquerade as another woman.  Seich is a vapid, arrogant, selfish person, a caricature.  She’s impossible to take seriously.

I find the concept of travelling to younger versions of the Universe, to avoid heat death and, ostensibly, exist in eternity, to be the sort of mind-blowing idea that elevates science fiction beyond a genre of rayguns and spaceships.

One thing Excession does is broaden our understanding of the Minds that control the Culture’s fleet of ships and set the direction and strategy of the society as a whole.  The humans are squabbling, mostly ineffectual ants when compared to the motivations that drive the Minds.  Cliques, conflicting agendas, eccentric outsiders and even those willing to betray the rest to meet a specific goal make up their number. The betrayal of Attitude Adjuster suggests that the Culture’s utopia, while not rotten, isn’t remotely perfect.

Banks’ treatment of gender within the Culture-verse has always been progressive if a little simplistic.  But I like that gender transition is treated so matter of factly, that gender and identity can be in a constant state of flux.  Also ‘Mutualling’ is a bonkers idea.

The Gist Of It

Excession features three interweaving storylines.  The first, and most fascinating, is the appearance of a spatial anomaly that the Culture recognises as exhibiting technology in advance of their own.  The second involves a war between the Culture and the overly aggressive Affront.  The third narrative is a tale of love gone sour between the perpetually pregnant Dajeil and the promiscuous Genar-Hofoen.

The stories are tightly linked together. The ship that Dajeil calls home, the Sleeper Service, is heading toward the Excession (the MacGuffin in space).  The Affront is also bound for the anomaly, stealing a moth-balled fleet of Culture warships so they can stake their claim.  It all sounds exhilarating, but those plot points I’ve just mentioned happen well into the novel.  It takes far too much time for the story to heat-up, the early part of Excession weighed down by tangents, too many characters and conversations between the Minds that are entertaining but repetitive.

What’s neat though is that the Minds are the stars of this novel.  After playing a secondary role in the previous books, Bank’s makes them the focus, exploring their varied natures and personalities.  It’s intriguing to see the many agendas at play, evidence that the Minds don’t always reach a consensus, that there’s friction amongst the ranks.  It also highlights how little involvement humans have in the bigger issues of the day, demonstrated in how the Minds don’t immediately share the existence of the Excession to their human crews.  If it wasn’t made abundantly clear in Player of Games and Use of Weapons, it’s the Minds that run the show.

What’s less pleasing is Bank’s struggle to write for women.  His men are conflicted and flawed, while his women are broad stereotypes.  Dajiel is a cypher, an expression of Sleeper Service‘s concern for how it treated her and a reaction against Genar-Hofoen’s hedonistic and selfish desires.  She’s never really her own person.  Ulver Seich is worse, the Culture’s version of a self-obsessed Valley Girl.

All that said, I didn’t hate Excession.  The climax would excite a Hollywood Executive, imagining all that lovely CGI, and there’s a genuinely moving scene between the ship Sleeper Service and Genar-Hofoen about love and regret that’s possibly the best thing Banks has written, to this point, for the Culture series.  And yet just as its title suggests Excession is an excessive novel, it’s length never justified by a meandering, albeit entertaining, story.