Excession, fourth (or fifth, depending on how you count) in line of the now ten Culture novels penned by Iain M Banks, is a galaxy-spanning space opera. But it is also something else – the rare Culture novel that I actually was close to put down unfinished.
It didn’t get even close to running until page 280 or so of 455. And even then it didn’t go all the way.
Throughout the pages we meet a number of ship Minds and humanoids, every one of them into “it” for some reason or other – be it self-interest or long-time political intrigue – and even to me, who normally enjoy that kind of story the plot becomes too clever, too Byzantine to follow. Time and again I had to ask myself “now, this name, who is this human or Mind? what did this human or Mind do previously? who is this human or Mind associated to?”
And what was this “it”? Different for each participant, of course – for some of the humanoids it was the offered chance to be a part of Special Circumstances, the secretive branch of Contact doing covert work for the Culture. For the ship Minds and their long term existences it was mainly about politics and intricate plotting. And I have to admit that I just didn’t manage to keep track of it all.
I can see the workings of an idea behind it – how the ship Minds with their long life expectancies plots beyond the event horizon of mere humans, however long-lived compared to our time period, and how this affects the humans involved. And how these “artificial” minds have private motives and drivers… which in our eyes would make them “human”.
It is not enough to give this story enough energy to make it an inspiring read.
All in all I don’t think Excession does either the Culture or Banks justice, not with books such as Player of Games, Look to Windward, Inversions and Surface Detail – or even Use of Weapons or Consider Phlebas – out there to compare with.
Go read those first.
Then, when you’re a convinced Culture fan, feel free to read or ignore this work.