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Iain M Banks – ExcessionExcession is the 5th book in Iain M Bank's Culture series (if you count State of the Art, the short story collection) - this is a story focussing on Ships, Ship Minds, and the groupings, games, and politics amongst themselves as well as within the wider Culture.

2500 years ago, a ship found a dead star, estimated to be 3 trillion years old. Given that this is about 50 times the age of the universe this was a rather odd result. Next to the star it found an artefact – a black-body sphere, impenetrable by scans, or anything else. And then the artefact, and the star, vanished.
Now the artefact is back, and is found by a ship of the Zetetic Elench, a splinter group who try not to change the cultures etc they encounter, but to be changed by them. Their ship is taken over, completely and swiftly, and is only just able to send a warning to the Culture, who in turn engage the 'Interesting Times Gang' of old-time ship minds to manage this potential OCP they call the 'Excession'.

Intermission: OCP. Outside Context Problem. Or, as the book puts it: 'An OCP was the sort of thing most civilizations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather the same way a sentence encountered a full stop'.

Whilst this is going on, a conspiracy (or is it?) of Culture minds plays Pittance, a store of Culture war ships from the Idiran war, into the hands (well, appendages) of the Affront, a civilization (sort of) of loud, brash, rowdy, cruel aliens who, in the eyes of these minds, need a good trashing to set them right. The ships set out for the prize that's going – the Excession.

And, to add a human element, the last main thread concerns Dajeil Gelian, pregnant for 40 years now, and the ex-Culture (now Eccentric) Plate Class GSV 'Sleeper Service' that she lives on as the sole human occupant. Dajeil has been pregnant for all that time because of something that happened between her and Byr Genar-Hofoen, now Culture attache to the Affront...

This is, in most people's count, the 5th book in the 'Culture' series by Banks, although this is less a series in the classical sense, and more a collection of loosely connected story playing in the same universe, and sometimes referring to previous events, or using the same minor protagonists. It can perfectly well be read on its own, the main thing the reader might miss is a more thorough introduction to the Culture in general.

The book follows the main protagonists, telling their story (in the 3rd person) through a substantial number of little side stories and minor characters, the importance of which you find out later; although most secondary protagonists seem to vanish/die after their first appearance (hey, this is not Pynchon, ok?).
The core part of the book is told as communications logs between culture minds (mainly ships, but also some others), sometimes with a lot of made up technical protocol surrounding this, which makes for a rather slow story, with lots of subterfuge, politics, backbiting, and general games played. If this type of story, played out by computers or by humans, is your thing then you'll feel right at home here. I personally would have preferred a bit more direct story and plot instead, but that might be just me.
There are a number of interesting and in-depth parallels and variations on themes, which are done in a clever if not essential-to-catch way.

The characters themselves are hard to identify with, not just because they live in a universe and culture that is very far removed indeed from what we know, but also because they all are rather 'out there', unusual, sometimes clichéd and nearly all of them damaged creatures. Interesting, but not really something most people will identify with. The only one I kind of rooted for was the Sleeper Service, mainly for being kind of cool...

Besides the usual Culture style technology (I shall not repeat myself yet again, go read older reviews, or check Wikipedia on the topic) which is not all that relevant to the story at hand there is a good part of cosmology which is playing an interesting and expanding role in the proceedings (and, it transpires – whisper it! – the foundation of the story, which is why is keeps creeping up in little inserts in the text). Interesting, and very clearly fiction...

This is not a bad book, not at all, but also not my preferred Culture story, either (that would be 'The Player of Games', thanks for asking). Worth reading on its own, even more worth reading as part of the series – and not a Banks style 'torture scene' in sight...

Title: Excession
Series: Culture
Series Number: 5
Author: Iain M Banks
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL:
Publisher:  Orbit
Publisher URL:
Publication Date: 1996
Review Date: 090605
ISBN: 185723457X
Price: UKP6.99
Pages: 455
Format: Paperback
Topic: SF
Topic: Space Opera

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