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Review: ‘Excession’ - Iain M. Banks PDF Print E-mail
Written by Iain   
Monday, 01 March 2010 00:00
Back in 1996 Iain Banks released this, his 7th novel under his sci-fi ‘M’ moniker (although I’m counting one of those as The State of the Art, a collection of his short stories) and the first novel set in his Culture universe since Use of Weapons, a few years earlier.  It has for many fans become the seminal Culture book, exploring as it does its universe to a greater extent than perhaps the previous four novels in the series managed.  It probably also owes its popularity to the shift in focus from essentially individual human character’s stories, as in the likes of Use of Weapons and Player of Games, to what many consider the Culture’s most endearing aspect – sentient spaceships.

Yup, if Excession is really about one thing it’s those ships, or more specifically the Minds that control those craft; massive spacehuggers both physically and in their intelligence.  They display humour, aggression, compassion, they conspire, and at one point one even commits suicide.  They also have their usual whimsical names - the likes of Jaundiced Outlook, Fate Amenable to Change and Unacceptable Behavior - names in fact very deliberately chosen by Banks to express facets of each ships’ personality. Sure there are still flesh and blood characters who are indeed central to the narrative, but even then it’s more about how the ships (or at least one in particular) manipulate them.

Actually it might be easier to list what things don’t display artificial intelligence in this novel.  Everything from giant asteroid space habitats down to the small robotic drones introduced in earlier books and, most interestingly, the suits worn by human species in environments they’re not adapted to, have an intelligent Mind controlling them, the latter being prone to irascibility and sarcasm – I suppose I would be too if I had to spend my days as a sentient item of clothing.

I’d have to say though I wasn’t immensely impressed with the story’s main protagonists, an alien race known as The Affront.  I imagine them as sort of hyper-Klingons (although not humanoid), and in a universe as intelligent as the one Banks creates here they come across as out of place pantomime villains – warrior like, living for battle, sadistic towards other races and their own female population etc etc.  I’m quite sure this is exactly the slightly tongue in cheek race Banks intended them to be, and this is not a novel lacking good dollop of humour - see my comments about acerbic apparel – but they don’t chime well with the rest of the narrative.

This is an epic novel, not in number of pages but certainly in scope, and there’s a lot to take in here.  Not a good starting point for Iain M newbies – I’d personally refer you to The Player of Games for that, but if you’ve read one or two and now want to truly immerse yourself in the culture of The Culture, pick this one up.

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