CBRIII Maneuver #23 – Excession
Profile: Science Fiction, Space Opera, Expanded Continuity.
Summary: From the back of the book, “Diplomat Byr Genar-Hofoen has been selected by the Culture to undertake a delicate and dangerous mission. The Department of Special Circumstances–the Culture’s espionage and dirty tricks section – has sent him off to investigate a 2,500-year-old mystery: the sudden disappearance of a star fifty times older than the universe itself. But in seeking the secret of the lost sun, Byr risks losing himself. There is only one way to break the silence of millennia: steel the soul of the long-dead starship captain who first encountered the star, and convince her to be reborn. And in accepting this mission, Byr will be swept into a vast conspiracy that could lead the universe into an age of peace… or to the brink of annihilation.”
After Action Report:
The more I read of Banks, the more I am in awe of his ability to write in many different styles. Even within the brackets of his ever expanding Culture setting, the individual stories range from traditional epic Sci-Fi to thriller to detective story. Excession reads like a love story welded to a political conspiracy and is remarkably un-centered on any particular character or plot. Rather, the narrative is like a tapestry that being woven as you watch; dozens of divergent threads coming together to produce the final scene.
The rear-cover summary is misleading, as Byr Genar-Hofoen barely qualifies as a protagonist, let alone the main character. Unlike most of the Culture novels, most of the action in Excession takes place with the Minds, the incredibly intelligent thinking engines that run the Culture on both the macro (interstellar politics) and the micro (individual ships and habitats) levels. These somewhat inscrutable figures appear in other books, but only as either nebulous political pressure, or as a single ship who is entangled with the protagonist. Excession offers a look into the conversations, backroom deals and outright conspiracies that comprise the Culture’s politics. Significant portions of the book are set aside to explain the complex social structure that exists between the Minds and the various things that drive them.
The plot is a sequence of misdirects and MacGuffins and conspiracies that make it very hard to talk about without spoiling things. There are at least three primary narratives to follow, Genar-Hofoen’s mission to steal the soul of a dead captain, the story of the Excession event, as related by the Mind, Fate Amenable to Change, and the several layered conspiracy within the Culture and more particularly, the group of Minds called the Interesting Times Gang who have been tasked with monitoring and dealing with Outside Context Problems.
The Excession itself is probably the most interesting single concept in the entire novel. The word Excession was coined by the Culture to describe events of an excessive nature, and in this case, the Excession is an object from outside the universe. In Culture jargon, an Outside Context Problem is a situation which the society in question is wholly unequipped to even comprehend. Banks’ uses and analogy of a tribe of primitive natives on an island who have lived in peace for generations at a stable technological level, suddenly being invaded by metal-plated monsters from a far off land with magical sticks that bark fire. OCPs are frequently terminal for the society involved, as it either adapts and changes shape, or is killed off. These problems are all the more terrifying for the Culture, as they are damn near the pinnacle of civilization for their galaxy. The concept itself has more merit than the plot of the novel gives it.
For long-time fans of Banks’ Culture, Excession comes as a wonderful glimpse behind the scenes to the powers-that-be that orchestrate the events of the rest of the continuity. For those less familiar with the setting, the extra details, coupled with a large cast and non-chronological narrative lines are probably overwhelming. The book is also packed with Banks’ in-jokes and running gags. Banks’ is a brilliantly witty author and his sense of humor is a great addition to the continuity in general, but the self-referential humor is unhelpful to new readers. There is no right order to read the Culture novels in, but Excession probably not a good starting point. Nevertheless, it is an excellent novel and a worthy entry into the cannon of Banks’ magnificent Culture.