Book Review: Iain M. Banks’ Excession (or: Star Trek Turned up to Eleven)
I try to be well read.
This is, ultimately, an impossible task, given the sheer amount of published work out there, and general restrictions of time, budget, attention, etc. One quite simply can’t read everything. You can’t even read everything in a given genre (whatever your tastes might be) unless you narrow it down considerably. Still, this doesn’t keep one from trying, or at least sampling the work of various ‘important’ authors.
Which brings us to Ian M. Banks, and today’s novel review: Excession.
Banks is an interesting writer, in that he got his start writing “real people literature,” as Ian Banks. After he wrote three critically acclaimed literary novels, he convinced his publisher to publish his science fiction work, under the name Ian M. Banks. And so, Banks is kind of a ‘crossover’ author, in that his novels can be considered respectably literary, even if they’re about aliens and spaceships and stuff. It’s also worth noting that Banks has mentioned that his literary works outsell (and effectively subsidize) the sci-fi ones.
“Excession” is a term used in the novel for something that’s ludicrously overpowered- like an aircraft carrier sailing up to a tropical island that’s still in the stone age. It’s a fitting title, given this is a Culture novel.
Banks wrote most of his sci-fi novels in “The Culture” setting; it’s fairly unique, in that it’s a transhumanist, post-scarcity, liberal/anarchist utopia, that works. Basically, think Star Trek, only Turned Up To Eleven (and without that pesky Prime Directive business).
The Culture is a spacefaring civilization of trillions of people, who can do pretty much anything they want to. They have The Culture has replicators, unlimited energy, teleporters, faster than light travel, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and more- and they use all of it. All of this is done under the guidance and stewardship of the Minds, hyperintelligent, mostly-benevolent AI’s.
One of Banks’ strengths as a sci-fi writer is his ability to create truly alien worlds, and populate them with appropriately bizarre creatures. Not only do we see things from the perspective of the Minds, but the novel also features the Affront, a race of bug eyed floating tentacle-monsters with a typical sci-fi ‘warrior culture’ schtick going on. (Banks is also a fan of Significant Capitalizations, if you haven’t noticed).
The plot of the novel centers around the titular Excession, an inexplicable alien entity from another universe that’s even more advanced than the Culture. This kicks off a race between The Culture and The Affront to see who can take control of the Excession first. This is a bit of a simplification of the general scope of the novel, but ultimately it’s kind of a stock Star Trek plot, just with a more involved execution.
Of course, most of the major players of the novels are the aforementioned Minds. The thing is, they are usually light years away from each other (not like they have body language anyway), and so their communications are in kind of an e-mail/chat log form. Text only. Then factoring in you’ve got a bunch of them, and they all have names like Steely Glint, Not Invented Here, Shoot Them Later and so on. Amusing and fitting names, yes- but at the same time, it’s easy to confuse one Mind for another without any other meaningful physical descriptors to distinguish them. By the end of the book I had some idea that one group of Minds were conspiring at cross purposes with the other, but I wasn’t quite reading attentively enough to recall for certain which Minds were on which sides of the conspiracy.
Additionally, another odd quirk about reading about the Minds is how ridiculously powerful they are. It’s not just that they’re housed in kilometers-long Ships that can pretty much make or do anything they want to, but also for the fact that Minds can think and act much faster than any human, to the point where the conversations or actions of a Mind are noted to take mere milliseconds. I found this to be an odd little pacing quirk, as it took my mere meat-brain longer to read about the action going on than the action described. Granted, any fast-paced action will read like that (especially if you’re reading, say, a Flash comic book or something), but I found it worth noting anyway.
Also like a Star Trek episode, there’s a B-plot as well, centered around a handful of humans who get caught up in the conspiracy. I was kind of disappointed by this B-plot, as it started off promising, but it turned out that the mere humans were just along for the ride with little to really contribute. The humans’ storyline was more emotional, more soap opera than space opera. The key humans even fall into melodramatic tropes: the spoiled debutante, the callous rake, and the woman he scorned.
I’ve read that Excession is filled with little nods and in-jokes to previous Culture novels- perhaps too many. I haven’t read all that much Banks, so I’m sure a lot of stuff went over my head. Which brings up a good question- how much ‘homework’ should a reader be expected to do before going into a novel? Sure, Excession is a stand alone work, and it doesn’t say “Book 2 of 3” on the cover, but still. I’ve had this problem with Culture novels before, as the first one I read was Look to Windward, which was a direct follow up to an earlier novel. I didn’t know this at the time, having randomly grabbed a title from the library bookshelf.
Overall, Excession is well written (if somewhat slow paced in the first half), but I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who already hasn’t read Banks’ previous culture novels. By and large, my favorite Culture novel I’ve read so far is Player of Games, which is far smaller in scope, but still quite interesting.
I still enjoyed the book, however, and now I’m just a little more informed about an important modern Sci-Fi writer. So there’s that, at least?