Review of Excession by Iain M. Banks
by Iain M. Banks
Finally, the Culture novel I’ve been waiting to read since I started the series. Everyone told me not to start with Excession, so I didn’t—and honestly that was pretty good advice. I can see why people wouldn’t enjoy this novel, and even though I think I would have liked it with no previous Culture experience, reading other books has given me a deeper appreciation for what is happening here.
Excession reminds me of children’s books where the main characters are all animals, and humans have very little to do with the plot. Just replace “animals” with “AI Minds (mostly ships)” and you get the idea. There are only a handful of named human characters in this book, and really only three of them are important to the plot—and even then, they really have very little impact on the A-plot. Iain Banks once again probes the idea that humanity has a place in a post-Singularity galaxy, but we probably won’t be in the driver’s seat.
This is essentially a Big Dumb Object story, but what makes it different is that most of the book is spent discussing what to do with it, and setting things up, than actually doing anything to/about the Excession. On one level, this book is mainly dialogues between ships separated by vast distances. While they debate how to treat the Excession, a faction within their group uses this distraction as an opportunity to engineer a compassionate war. The intrigues-within-intrigues are mindblowing in this. I love how just when I thought I had a handle on who was on whose side, Banks would drop a well-timed twist to blow all my theories out of the water.
Banks writes his machines with a personality only a British author can manage. They are funny and quirky, but some are ponderous and self-important, while others are rude, perverse, or downright twisted. It’s so fascinating to see the range of personalities of the Minds—and also to nip at the edges of our possible comprehension of what it would be like to exist in such a capacity. Banks explains how the Minds’ version of fun and diversion is to model different possible universes, and to actually inhabit and explore these mental universes (which explains the attraction of the Excession, I guess). There is also plenty of commentary on the philosophical tension between the Culture’s kind of enforced stagnation and the temptation to Sublime (ascend to a higher plane of existence, whatever the hell that means). In a post-scarcity society where one wants for nothing and crime has become a kind of performance art, the chief problem is boredom.
Although Minds and drones have been major characters in the other Culture novels I’ve read so far, this is really the first time we start to understand their psychology (such as we pitiful meatbrains can). Minds are created to enjoy whatever function they will serve, whether it’s coordinating a Hub, managing a General Systems Vehicle, or serving as a warship. As the story goes on, we start to see how Minds interact and the way they judge each other. Sleeper Service’s obsession with Dareil and Byr’s conflict is an example of what happens when a Mind feels like they have made a huge mistake. In this respect, while neither of these human characters have a huge effect on dealing with the Excession, their peripheral actions greatly influenced one of the ships directly involved in the plot.
There’s something very Shakespearean to all this, and I feel like I’ve seen this before in Banks’ writing. From the complicated conspiracies to the tragedies and deep regrets, the plot unfolds like a vast tragedy (although you could argue that, in the end, it is a comedy despite the gigadeath—I think Banks is mocking the wider space opera genre here, pointing out how when the narrative operates at such a remove, pathos becomes an intractable problem). The Culture misses out on a huge opportunity because one section of it couldn’t avoid the temptation to play political games.
This conspiracy to incite war is a fascinating subplot, because it makes me wonder is such a story is possible with human proponents. I don’t mean the conspiracy part (that seems obviously plausible), but the fact that such a vast action could happen and the Culture could stay intact. This positive consequence only seems possible because of the way Minds work and the fabric of the Culture itself, which is heavily influenced by the Minds’ operations. The Culture is a paradoxical society, both remarkably flexible yet also very rigid in other ways. Despite technical civil war in the form of some Culture warships firing on other Culture ships, there are not many intimations of long-term repercussions for those actions; in contrast, I think a human-run empire would tear itself apart in the aftermath of such events.
Hey, I’m not saying machines will do it better … but I do welcome our robot overlords!
At a more basic level, I unabashedly revel in Banks’ prose and the way he describes the science-fictional setting of this novel. I’m long over my adolescent fascination with posthumanism and nanomagic, but I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t stop reading Excession; I was totally nerdgasming over descriptions of the ships, the Minds, the way humans interact with the world and even their own bodies. Banks just imagines the Culture’s culture so vividly and believably that you really wish you were there, somewhere, to experience it for yourself. This is a universe I would love to come back to, again and again, and I’m glad I’ve got a bunch of other Culture novels to read before I return to this one.