Reading your first Iain Banks novel is like nothing else in literature. It's a little like being in the washing machine on spin cycle. You emerge dizzy but refreshed. Machine gun pacing, vivid characterization, universe-spanning cultures and, of course, The Culture. Smug, self-satisfied, hedonistic and vain, The Culture is also bifurcated between more-or-less humankind and Minds, advanced AI's that are not always tolerant of their "meat-based" co-citizens.
More than any other novel of The Culture, this one involves those Minds and, without spoilers, they turn out to be human, all too human. Banks handles very well the problem of writing dialog for beings who are far, far more intelligent and think millions of times faster than we do. As others have noted, it sometimes makes for dense reading, but it is very believable. In some ways, this is a novel about the psychology and motives of Minds.
As always, Banks laces the story with sly humor, word play and wholly believable aliens. The Affront, the most conspicuous aliens in this tale, are a wonderful invention. As always, the structure of the novel itself with its interlacing of different story lines and physical organization is a part of the story itself, although less obviously so than in the earlier _Consider Phlebas_.
The Excession of the title is the focus of the attention of most of the characters in the story, but Banks is far too gifted a writer to make it the whole story. Readers who complain about the ending may be missing Banks' most important point. Perhaps the story isn't so much about the Excession, but how the characters react to the Excession. And maybe the ending is Banks' way of underscoring that point.
As always with Banks' stories of The Culture, there is moral ambiguity and it's impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys. For my taste, that's a lot more "real" than the moral absolutes of space operas in the tradition of E.E. "Doc" Smith.
An excellent, rollicking adventure, full of surprises, laughs and sly irony. Densely written but highly readable. Much more mature than earlier Culture novels. Highly recommended.
on April 1, 2004
On vacation, at an idyllic Thailand beach resort with an unexpected library, I got hooked on Iain Banks. It was this book that did it. As the other reviewers say, it's a tad long (i.e. perfect for long holidays and vacations.) And sure, the story does become tangled at times. But it's unbelievably creative and screamingly funny in a sarcastic and cynical way. Think "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe" on growth hormones. (If one is looking for "hard" science fiction, however, this is likely not your book.)
I would buy the book if only to have the complete listing of all the names Banks employs for his glib and sentient starships. These are a catalog of odd-ball word pairings and acidic aphorisms. My favorites - "Ethics Gradient" and "Fate Amenable to Change."
Throughout Excessions, Banks's writing is persistantly imaginitive, heading off in unexpected directions, creating a novel sweeping universe; and frankly is everything I hope for in science fiction. My only complaint is that after reading this book I bought 9 or 10 more books by Banks, and I found none provided the enjoyment that this one did. While the other books are all excellent, they did not bowl me over. Is that because everything else was not as good, or that a reader tends to favor the first thing he reads of a wonderful writer? Judging from the range of responses from other reviewers as to "the best" Bank's book - I am leaning towards the latter.
on October 31, 2001
Most Iain Banks books are challenging reads, it's a credit to the man that he refuses to write down because he's penning SF novels and not the higher profile "literary" stuff that most of the mainstream probably recognizes him for (is he well read in this country, nobody I know has heard of him . . . what's with that?) so what you basically get with the Culture novels is SF from someone who really knows how to write and doesn't just have a degree and feels the need to share this nifty cool idea he had the other day. This book is full of cool ideas but more importantly it's a dense and slightly elusive work . . . while it's not opaque stuff isn't spelled out explicitly for the reader, there are a lot of dots to connect here. The setup is a large object has appeared from literally nowhere and interacts with the energy grip in a way that is supposed to be impossible. But this isn't the first time this object appeared and the only person who is around from that last appearance is Stored in a ship and has to be convinced to come out. That's how the plot starts. Where it ends is somewhere totally different and if sometimes you think you're reading a totally different book, that's just par for the course with Banks. The focus this time around is more on the Minds in the ships, which is good and bad. The Minds are basically human and their rapid fire conversations that take up a large chunk of the book are highly entertaining . . . however it can be daunting for readers unable to keep track of the dozens of names, especially with little strong personality to back up the Mind and make an impression. You may wish for a recap box at some point to make sure you're still up to speed. Still astute readers are rewarded with a plot that twists almost dizzingly . . . I've read a few Banks books by now and he still amazes how he manages to turn everything upside down so quickly. The action is good, the dialogue between ships crackles, the plot is mind bending and the last page deserves to be read over and over again. I can't say this is his best work, but like all his other stuff the quality is high and if new readers have the stamina, they'll find themselves pleasantly delighted.
on November 14, 2013
Ian M. Banks, more than any other writer, has a knack for making artificial intelligence machines into living, "breathing" characters. (In fact, they don't breathe.) And they are the real starts of this novel.
What makes these characters enjoyable, though, is that their culture (as, in effect, de facto protectors of The Culture civilization) feels so human, with dignity, noble goals, ethics, protocols, social norms, and an admirable overall desire to make things better. The fact that The Culture is built on individual freedom, including freedom to do what you will and freedom from the nasty and brutish challenges of illness, physical disadvantages (let alone disabilities), and poverty, makes it easier to root for these "Minds". And the fact that The Culture is not perfect at achieving these goals, especially when it comes to meddling with less advanced civilizations, makes it all the more believable. Otherwise it'd just be too utopian.
There's a mystery at the heart of this novel: A mysterious ship (if it is in fact a ship) that suddenly appears in a corner of the galaxy. Nobody knows what it's about, where it's from, what it wants. But it may have appeared previously long ago. The only thing that's clear is that it's vastly more powerful than the Minds who are the giants of The Culture.
This is a very enjoyable read, and is one of the few novels I've read that I plan to read again.
on March 29, 2010
To keep themselves amused, the super-AIs known as Minds in Iain M Banks's science fiction universe spend their time runing galaxy-sized simulations, a world of make-believe and might-have-been the Minds call the Land of Infinite Fun.
"Excession" is a bit like spending a few hours in Mr Banks's own Land of Infinite Fun; outlandish, amusing, intriguing, but never quite involving enought to let you forget that it's all just make-believe. Po-faced it certainly is not, it's space opera with a wink and a smile, gently tapping on the fourth wall but never quite breaking it.
"Excession" is the fourth book set in Mr Banks's Culture universe. This universe features technology as ahead of own our as the iPod is to the clay tablet, technology taken to its ultimate extreme, capable of building anything, anywhere, in any quantity desired. As a result, the biological inhabitants have long since given control of space ships and habitats (nobody's so old-fashioned as to live on an actual planet) and pretty much everything else to the Minds, a bunch of computers as pompous as Deep Thought, as twiggy as HAL and as serious as a whoopy cushion at a Shriner convention. They are the perfect security blanket for the cosseted inhabitants of the Culture. Together, they can out-think and out-fight anything the galaxy can throw at them.
Anything? Well, almost anything. The word "excession" you see, means something beyond a civilization's ability to understand, or resist should it prove hostile. The Aztecs would understand the concept. The Culture, as luck would have it, may have discovered an Excession, in the form of an impenetrable black globe which may serve as a link to other universes. As an added complication, it's also rather close to a warlike race called the Affront.
Mr Banks plugs us into the machinations of the Minds, as they struggle to respond to the challenges posed both by the Excession and the Affront, not to mention a cabal-within-a-cabal of rogue Minds with an agenda of their own.
It's not all a meeting of Minds, though they hog the limelight and all the best lines. There's also Genar-Hofoen, a rake in the Clark Gable mould, currently serving as an ambassador to the thuggish frat-boy Affront. Somewhere in his closet, with all his other skeletons, is his ex-lover Dajeil Gelian, now a recluse on board a highly eccentric ship called the Sleeper Service.
The Minds have a job for Genar-Hofoen, though it might be pure stratagem. Tricky chaps, AIs. Just ask David Bowman. Are they trying to stop a war over the Excession, or start one?
The mysteries emerge into clearer resolution somewhat haphazardly, as we flicker randomly back and forth between Genar-Hofoen, Dajeil, and the Minds. The plot is mere subroutine, never the main program. The history between Genar-Hofoen and Dajeil, for example, is revealed in flashback info-dumps, and does not resolve so much as suddenly stop, blue-screened by other events around the Excession.
It's never a terribly compelling story, but then it's always fun to watch Mr Banks at play in his universe.
Mostly, you see, the novel is an exploration of the imaginative universe M Banks has created for us. What do supercomputers do for fun? What would post-humans do for religion? What would families be like if you could change your sex anytime you wanted? You get the feeling Mr Banks would rather answer these questions than attend to his sprawling story. It's a nice reminder that while American scifi has the best gadgets, it's the Brits that have the most fun. The overall structure of may suffer as a result, may get a little buggy, but the result is priceless.
It's not quite Infinite Fun, but you don't have to have a brain the size of a planet to enjoy plugging into Mr Banks's universe.
on July 20, 2015
If you aren't familiar with Iain M. Banks' books, start here.
Seriously. There is no better introduction to his Culture universe.
Banks wrote more-or-less-mainstream general fiction as Iain Banks, and science fiction as Iain M. Banks. He declared that he wrote general fiction to fund his writing of science fiction, and was outspoken about his opinion that science fiction is the only genre of fiction that actually matters, because it is the only genre of fiction that thinks about how to address and solve future problems before we encounter them ourselves. In a bitter irony, he died in 2013 of an untreatable cancer that he discovered he had while in the middle of writing a (general fiction) book about a man who discovers that he has untreatable terminal cancer. (The Quarry, if you want to read it. I haven't, yet.) But fittingly, his last book completed in his Culture universe, The Hydrogen Sonata, is about an entire starfaring civilization that has decided to "sublime" — to move on to a more advanced state of existence.
Iain did not die. He sublimed. He left behind him the Culture universe, a rich, thought-provoking universe filled with wonder and new viewpoints.
Start here. Read your way through the rest. Consider Phlebas, Look to Windward, The Algebraist, Matter, Surface Detail, Against a Dark Background, Use of Weapons, Inversions, ...
You won't regret it.
on October 26, 2014
I’m reviewing a 1996 novel read in 2014, so I am making allowances for certain ideas. I’m a Banks Culture fan, but this was not his best work. The story lines are more straightforward than some of his other novels, but unfortunately that doesn’t work in this narrative’s favor.
The “excession” (defined and explained many times elsewhere) could have been far more interesting than portrayed. While the biological characters in many of his works are petty, sophomoric, and indistinguishable from the bored rich kids of this century, the characters in this book seem more churlish and infantile than usual. Biological entities, living in a post-scarcity society, with the advantages of the Marain language, and the opportunity to interact with Minds surely wouldn’t all revert to spoiled young adults.
The book centers on a group of Minds that have long prepared for (and perhaps looked forward to) the uniqueness of the situation presented, but they don’t act in any particularly prescient manner other than seeing through a conspiracy that was frankly transparent and one historically repeated numerous times. It would be hard to imagine Minds as developed as Culture vessels would remain stymied for more than a few seconds.
The world building and dialogue was good as usual, but the plot was - well - ordinary. Not something I would expect from Banks.
on January 5, 2016
Jeez, the Amazon bot wants me to pre-review this book with a checklist of notes on plot, mood, pace and character. Do they know I'm writing a review of an Iain M. Banks novel, a novel which might be his most complex (and that's REAL complex) and adventurous, definitely his most imaginative, and a novel in which a good proportion of the characters are AI Minds, not humans?
Read this book and tell me. It has been one of the books that has given me new faith in science fiction. Mr. Banks' passing leaves a hole in the genre that will not soon be filled.
on January 12, 2013
Ian M Banks is one of my favorite writers. As a part of the 'Culture' series, I would define this as 'hard' scifi, with a lot of big ideas coming at you in a dizzying pace. Which makes sense, because if you took a book written and set today, traveled 2300 years back in time, and had people read it, they would likely set the book on fire, then maybe try to do the same to you.
Likewise, a book set 1000's of years in the future should be a little disturbing to readers today, for the same reason. Society will keep evolving. So in a story set this far in the future, it makes sense that there are concepts so foreign, they would be met with outright hostility today by some. And here, the big concepts are strewn all over the place, delivered with a dry wit and narrative style that keeps you reading, despite the challenge of trying to make sense of it all.
I like the AI minds being outside the stereotype of the "out of control, out to get us" plot-line that has been done to death. They are more like people, with a kind of dry wit. They make up a decent part of the story. But the AI minds method of communication is a bit hard to get used to. Even there good bits are hidden. Example: The Ships are named by the AI's running them (they name themselves), and the names they choose are hilarious. "Problem Child", "I Blame Your Mother", and "Shoot them Later" are a few of my favorites. Also, it is interesting that these books tend to focus on "Special Circumstances", the ethical grey area of the Culture. This adds a twist of an ethical dilemma, a common theme in the Culture books.
This is where I started reading Banks, but it was an effort. It may be easier to pick up closer to the beginning of the Culture series. I would say this is one of the best of them so far
on March 16, 2016
I am still working through the Culture series. To give a basis of comparison, I have read the following books in this order:
Player of Games
Use of Weapons
Of these, Excession was the hardest to follow, although I mostly understood it by the end, as with most Culture books. This novel features the characters of Starship Minds most heavily, amid an historic scientific event and a (minor) intragalactic war. There are some amazing scenes depicted that will stimulate your imagination, and some fantastic dialog between these starships. There is also one of the only space battle scenes ever depicted in the Culture, and it's quite an awesome one.
I wouldn't start the Culture series with this novel, but it's still a very good one and worth reading if you like the others. Very imaginative sci-fi.