Iain Banks is a prolific Scottish author, specializing in science-fiction and general fiction.
Excession was published in 1996 and is part of the Culture Novels, a series of novels taking place in the same universe.
This book details the Culture’s response to what we call an Outside Context Problem. The term was coined by Banks and describes any problem that is outside a given group’s experience and has lasting, ubiquitous impact upon it.
His style of writing is very gripping. Banks is able to inject a sort of comical element into his writing, that most science-fiction writers would not dare touch. He used this in a multitude of ways, from the types of starships that he has in his books, named ridiculously Torturer class, Abominator class, Psychopath class to the way that the Minds or AIs interact with each other.
This is a review with no spoilers. Some spoilers are cited at the end of this review and clearly indicated as such.
The main characters in this book are the Minds or AIs, which control large ships. Basically what he has done is cast his characters and shipborne AIs with supra intelligence that make the galaxy their playpen. The Minds are actually Von Neumann machines.
The Culture is a mix of AIs, drones, humans, genetically altered humans and a number of different species. The Culture is headed by the Minds, a series of AIs that live on extremely large ships and are completely in charge of them. The GSV Sleeper Service, which was the Quietly Confident years ago, is over 90 km long, 50 km wide and 20 km high. At one time, it had over 200 million humans on it.
The novel details the way that the Culture reacts to an entity that is older than the known universe by trillions of years, which isn’t possible. The Culture sends a series of vessels and Minds to investigate. Meanwhile, the Affront, a non-humanoid species, methane dwelling, use this opportunity to declare war on the Culture. Genar-Hofoen is a diplomat serving on an Affront world before he is called away for a Special Circumstances mission.
Special Circumstances resembles Section 31 of Star Trek, as well as The Obsidian Order from the Cardassians and the Tal’Shi’Ar of the Romulans, in their way of dealing against extreme threats to the survival of their parent entities.
Just like the Tal’Shi’Ar and the Obsidian Order, while Special Circumstances operates behind the scenes, though a large number of people are aware of their existence. In fact, recruits to Contact often express their desire to work in SC.
While the science-fiction genre of Iain M. Banks writing is not hard science-fiction (he uses technobabble to describe faster than light travel, which is impossible in a hard science-fiction setting), it is close enough to interest fans of that genre and others.
The ways that the Minds interact with each other is funny and different.
While the Culture vessels approach the Excession near the star system Esperi, as they named it 1500 years ago when it appeared for the first time in Culture history, strange things are happening aboard the Sleeper Service, a so-called eccentric ship that has left the Culture to pursue its own ends. Or that is what everybody thinks. Aboard the Sleeper Service, we find Dajeil Gelian, whose history is intermingled with Genar-Hofoen.
Ulver Sveich, a new SC recruit gets mixed up in the business as well and is ferried by the GCU (General Contact Unit) Grey Area, known for its dark explorations of biological minds, to the GSV (General Service Vehicle) Sleeper Service.
In some obscure way, the Sleeper Service is trying to finalize the stories that it has followed over the years and it needs Genar-Hofoen and Dajeil to interact one last time before it reaches the Excession.
At the Excession, Zetetic Elench ships and Culture ships are having differences of opinions on how to proceed with contact. More and more ships are converging on this staging area, with strange things happening all around.
The Affront take a fleet of old Culture Rapid Offensive Units ships and speed towards the Excession with a mind to take charge of it. But thanks to the Sleeper Service, the war is soon resolved and the Excession disappears once more, with clues that it will not reappear again mentioned in the epilogue.
I really liked this book, it was a page turner and I finished it pretty quickly. I now have to get all of the Culture novels by Banks to discover more about this setting.
The way that Banks used the ships and described the Culture is quite unique. Most of the time, in science-fiction literature, we are still always talking about people on ships exploring or going on missions. This time, Banks actually changes this archetype by making the ships and the Culture the main focus of his stories.
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Warning: some spoilers ahead.
The book details the Culture’s response to an “Outside Context Problem“, the Excession of the title. It is a perfect black-body sphere that appears mysteriously on the edges of Culture space and appears to be older than the Universe itself. The Excession is mysterious and ineffable for a while, and then disappears after a brief interaction with the Interesting Times Gang, taking with it a number of individuals. From the epilogue, the Excession appears to be a sentient entity, acting essentially as the foot of a bridge for a procession of even higher beings which travel between universes and other vaguely defined spaces. The Culture universe is analogous to a river that the procession crosses. The Excession determines the suitability of the species and societies it encounters to be enlightened as to some unknown further existence beyond the Universe. Due to the ruckus caused by the Excession it deems the Culture not suitable for enlightenment and moves so that it will not disturb the ‘savages’ any more, hence its disappearance at the end of the book.
An Outside Context Problem or an OCP is any problem outside a given group‘s (organisation, society, culture or civilisation) experience, with an immediate, ubiquitous and lasting impact upon it. An OCP is “outside the context” as it is generally not considered until it occurs, and the capacity to actually conceive of or consider the OCP in the first place may not be possible or very limited (i.e., the majority of the group’s population may not have the knowledge or ability to realize that the OCP can arise or assume it is extremely unlikely). An example of OCP is an event where a civilization does not consider the possibility that a much more technologically advanced society can exist, and then encounters one. The term was coined by Iain M. Banks in his novel Excession.
The Culture is characterized by being a post-scarcity society (meaning that its advanced technologies provide practically limitless material wealth and comforts for everyone for free, having all but abolished the concept of possessions), by having overcome almost all physical constraints on life (including disease and death) and by being an almost totally egalitarian, stable society without the use of any form of force or compulsion, except where necessary to protect others.
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Relevant Wiki Links
- Iain M. Banks
- The Culture
- Obsidian Order