Iain M. Banks
Excession sits at the confluence of several streams. First, I called it out on my 2013 Reading List because I try to read at least one Banks book each year; Excession was next up chronologically. Second, within days of me finishing the book, Banks announced that he had cancer, throwing the SF community into a sad frenzy and, in my mind, forever tying this book to his illness. Third, because of other commitments both to the blog and to my real life, I’m not getting to this post until scant weeks after Banks’ tragic passing. This means that Excession is joining the list of Recently Deceased Authors posts here, but somehow I feel considerably less flippant this time around.
Actually reviewing the book here is a daunting process. While I am no Culture noob, the amount of material generated by his sizable and devoted fanbase is daunting. Further, Banks’ all-around celebrity means that voices far wiser than my own have already said their piece about it. I direct curious readers first to a brilliantly written review by the peerlessly intelligent and often grumpy Adam Roberts. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but he sure says it well. If that isn’t enough, how about a post by Two Dudes favorite Alastair Reynolds? In it he reveals that Excession is the very book that convinced him to polish up Revelation Space and go full time into writing. If the book does nothing else, the SF world owes Banks a huge debt for kicking Reynolds in the tush and getting him to write.
There are times when I (foolishly?) believe that I too have something worthy to add to the conversation, and there are times when I would much rather shut up, make myself very small and unobtrusive, and let the adults speak. This is most definitely the latter. I don’t necessarily think that everything that can ever be said about The Culture has already been said, but I doubt mightily that I will be the one to provide a stunning new insight.
That said, I have to write something. Since I am an unapologetic Culture fan, I’ll just mention a few things that I enjoyed about the book and call it good. Most obvious are the ships. Everyone likes the Culture ships, with their funny names, witty and superior banter, and blatant manipulation of the Culture’s meatier members. Banks could probably publish a book of nothing but ships reciting naughty limericks and win a Locus Award. They take center stage in Excession (the ships, not naughty limericks) and are far more entertaining than the biologicals.
Next up for our amusement is The Affront, a barbaric civilization that aspires to be the Culture’s rival. Banks makes it clear from the beginning that they haven’t a prayer of getting that far, but the Culture is loath to spoil their dreams. As a firm believer in humanism, civil rights, pacifism, etc., I should be disgusted by the Affront, but something about them is so gloriously alive that I can’t help but smile as they torment their food, enslave their women, and revel in their crude cruelty. No wonder the book’s erstwhile protagonist wants to join them. This makes for an interesting contrast with Player of Games and its serious treatment of bad guys.
Another major point of interest for Culture fans is the history that starts to creep out in Excession. Banks is slowly beginning to reveal the inner workings of the Culture, offering a glimpse into the makeup, governance, and past of his creation. It’s not a lot, since the action always takes place on the margins, but it is far more than in previous books.
Finally there is the usual gonzo wackiness of a Banks creation. It’s not as florid as Consider Phlebas, nor as warped as Use of Weapons, but Excession has all the hallmarks of Culture book. It seems strange that Banks would be a sort of godfather to all these British authors writing darker stuff (Alastair Reynolds, Richard Morgan, etc.), but so it goes. Excession isn’t a comedy, but it is very funny. There is something about the light-hearted way he goes about things, even when the straits are dire and the situation deadly serious, that appeals to me. It stands out all the more, now that cancer has claimed the author.
So there we have it. I make no apologies for the lack of deep philosophy this time around. Maybe next time?