A Sustained Gravitas Deficiency (a review of Iain M. Banks’ Excession)
The last few days have been something of a sci-fy-y sort of week for me. On Saturday we had the penultimate episode of the first Steven Moffat/Matt Smith series of Doctor Who, and the day after its broadcast I both finished watching the finale of Battlestar Galactica season 1 (which I’d been renting from Lovefilm) and downloaded the first Mass Effect game from Steam while it was on special offer.
But a couple of days before all that, I had finished reading Iain M. Banks’ Culture novel Excession for the first time. It’s the fourth of his novels I’ve read (after Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games and Use of Weapons — all “M. Banks” genre fiction), and it was blummin’ brilliant.
[Some spoilers below]
I think my first encounter with this novel came while browsing through a copy of The Complete Polysyllabic Spree in a bookshop, a collection of Nick Hornby’s book reviews. Excession was the only sci-fi or fantasy novel reviewed in there. Hornby didn’t make it far into the book, explaining that it was representative of all the reasons he Doesn’t Read Sci-Fi. (“Nothing in the twenty-odd pages I managed of Excession was in any way bad; it’s just that I didn’t understand a word. I didn’t even understand the blurb on the back of the book.”) From the sound of it, it struck me that having Excession as one’s first one’s point of contact with science fiction seemed a bit of a jump straight into the deep end. A bit like someone who’s never played a videogame in their life asking whether Ninja Gaiden Black would be a good one to start with — brilliant, but just a little bit daunting for a newbie!
For me, Excession is representative of all the reasons I do like sci-fi. A.I. entities that occupy extended computer networks rather than humanoid robot bodies are among my favourite concepts in science fiction: characters like Halo‘s Cortana, Red Dwarf‘s Holly, Ender’s Game‘s Jane, Portal‘s GLaDOS, and I’d probably add System Shock‘s SHODAN to that list if I was brave enough to play it. The Minds had been some of my favourite elements of the earlier Culture novels I’d read, so I’d been looking forward to reading Excession ever since I heard about how much it focussed on them — beings so smart that they like to spend their leisure CPU cycles simulating entire alternate universes with different physical properties. (They have funny names too.)
BAM! Early on, we jump straight into an action sequence showing a drone escaping from a ship whose Mind is being taken over by some sort of hostile intelligence. Said ship is putting obstacles in its way — minor little hazards, such as detonating the air in the corridors it’s flying through. All the while, the drone is moving bits of its personality into various backup subsystems, producing fields of various shapes to bank round corners, and remotely activating displacement devices to teleport it the hell out of there. It’s doing all this while travelling at supersonic speeds.
Then later: “It had been drifting totally unconscious for nearly half a second. Scary.”
Hell yeah! This is my sort of SF!
I’m not normally a fan of drastically non-humanoid alien races in science fiction, but there are exceptions. The Pierson’s Puppeteers of Larry Niven’s Ringworld were one; the Affronters of Excession another. Fivetide and the others of his species were great fun throughout. Not exactly pleasant sort of people for the characters (and small cuddly animals) in the book, but very entertaining for the reader! Likewise the gelsuit introduced early on: in the fact that it’s sentient, with a personality that irritates its human companion while being immensely entertaining for the reader, it reminds me of not just the drones featured in previous Culture novels, but also Douglas Adams’ doors that insist on wishing you a good day as they open for you. The gelsuit’s a cool bit of sci-fi tech, if not quite as cool as those suits in Revelation Space that made Iron Man’s armour look like a Victorian diving outfit.
The Mind-to-Mind conversations lived up to the hype: the first one, the one that caused Nick Hornby to break down in tears, may look daunting, but Banks quickly tones down the density of email header technobabble like “[stuttered tight point M32 @n4.28.855.0065+]”. After a couple of such transmissions, you’ve figured out what “x” and “o” and the indentations mean and from then on you can pretty much follow them like a normal conversation, the only challenging part being keeping track of the large number of names involved.
Those Mind conversations are the home of some of the book’s funniest and most memorable moments, such as the the appearance of the line “Group initially comprises all previously mentioned craft except Wisdom Like Silence.” (Er, trust me, it’s hilarious in context.)
As are the following two paragraphs:
The Appeal To Reason’s drone was duly launched; a small, fragile-looking, gaily adorned thing, its extremities sporting ribbons, flowers and little ornaments and its casing covered with drawings, cartoons and well-wishing messages scrawled by the crew. It puttered hesitantly towards the Excession, chirpily beaming signals of innocent goodwill.
If the Fate Amenable To Change had been a human, at this point it would have looked down, put one hand over its eyes, and shaken its head.
On the downside, compared to the Minds, the drones are a little short-changed in this book: one called Churt Lyne is introduced promisingly, but later on doesn’t do a great deal. (Although it does get another of the book’s best gags: “Armed, it can fuck solar systems.”) In general I didn’t find the human-scale story as compelling as those of any of the previous Culture novels I’d read — though I definitely wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that the book would have been better if Banks had gone the whole hog writing a book all about the Minds, omitting the tale of Dajeil and Genar-Hofoen entirely.
I’m not sure if Excession was quite as good as The Player of Games. The latter had that wonderfully-written passage towards the end of the final Azad match: the description of the game as a dance and the perfect way of debating the Culture and Azadians’ respective philosophies.
This seems a good place to quote an amusing post by “K” in Rllmukforum’s Iain M. Banks thread, written shortly after he’d posted some negative comments about Banks’ most recent book Transition:
Given Banks’ deep understanding of modern geopolitics and clear struggles in coming up with new storylines, I’ve done one for him here. A hundred years ago, there was a Contact mission to a desert planet called Qira, led by Ynto Brail and a humorously defective drone called Shbu, looking for the lost WMD-class ship called the Definitely Not In My Name, Pal. After they fail to discover it and the dark secret it contains, Brail and Shbu go apeshit and slaughter every native on the planet with a proscribed Blackwater-class combat meme, before covering the whole thing up and going on the run.
Only two people can arrest them and bring them to the Guahe – the space war crime court that orbits a black hole inside another larger black hole. One is sexy woman assassin SC asset Maon Skychomp, whose interests include planned economies, having sex with other lefties, and hang-gliding through the photospheres of red giant stars. Following her unauthorised assassination of a fascist dictator, by way of posing as a concentration camp victim delivered to his private sex prison, paralysing him with nano-toxins secreted in her fanny batter and then cutting off his nuts with a monofilament wire disguised as her hair, Skychomp has gone off to a picturesque planet to moon about for a bit and meditate over the ethics of killing evil bastards in various theatrical and contrived ways.
The other is ace liberal bearded playboy Ni Aim Sknab, ten-times winner of the best shag in the galaxy award in both the male and female categories. He is also a world-class poet and political commenter, and author of the smash hit pamphlets Why Socialism is The Best Form of Government Provided You Create A Load of Hyperintelligent AIs Who Can Do Literally Anything And Let Them Run The Show, and Whisky, Cars, and This Thing My Mate Said Once. Recruited by SC, he must travel across about five planets and about four hundred pages of travelogue, and then convince her to kill Brail and Shbu by shagging her a few times.
Banks’ next book Surface Detail, due out in October 2010, sounds great. Lives taking place in the digital world — Banks goes cyberpunk perhaps? The talk of a “deranged warship” conjures thoughts of the ROU Killing Time‘s standout scene in Excession. And “Lededje Y’breq” — what a name!