Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Review of "Excession" by Iain M. Banks

Let’s skip the highty-flighty, atmospheric float of intros and get right to the point.  Iain M. Banks’ 1996 Excession is gosh-wow, sense-wunda science fiction that pushes the limits of the genre as far into the imagination – and future - as any book has.  The AI ship-minds, post-human world-is-your-oyster humanity, and incredible roster of engine speeds, galaxies, drones, weaponry, biological possibilities, planets, orbitals, etc., etc. of previous books have been topped.  Banks took a look at the savory milieu of the Culture, cocked his head and asked: “How can I up the ante?”  The titular ‘excession’ is the answer.

Arthur C. Clarke’s brilliant Rendezvous with Rama sees humanity attempting to quantify and understand a BDO (big dumb object) that comes sailing through the solar system one day.  In Excession, Banks introduces a similar concept.  Despite having hyper-precise and ultra-technical scanning and analysis tools, the eminently advanced tech-gods of the far-future known as the Culture likewise have difficulty penetrating the 50km black sphere which suddenly appears in a back corner of space.  And so while a handful of characters and species attempt to control the object for their own devices, for the first time in the Culture series the AI ship-minds take center stage as protagonists.

And Banks wholly succeeds.  While the AI mind can exist in imagination only, the author relays the actions and thoughts of these oddball personalities in delicately balanced and wholly relatable fashion that is as realistic as imaginative far-future might be.  On one hand the ship-minds are presented as ‘Other’, something totally exclusive and unidentifiable to the human experience, while on the other, base virtue and vice tint their conduct in an undeniably familiar manner.  At times witty, at times eccentric, and at others just plain human, Banks takes a choice selection of interesting personalities in Excession and uploads them into technical constructs.  The resulting AI minds treat unlimited access to technology, control of the environment, and the complete freedom of movement as though they were toys.  Inter-ship dialogue and behavior not only stimulating, novel, and amusing, they are also brilliant commentary on the potentiality of AI evolution. 

Without giving away too many of the major plot milestones, there are a handful of ships which take the spotlight as the sentient universe investigates the mysterious black sphere.  The Sleeper Service has spent several centuries as a drifting cryolab/artist, recreating scenes of famous battles using the hibernating bodies of humans. Grey Area (called Meatfucker by the other ships for the degree to which it is willing to interact with biological life) is an avid collector of torture instruments.  Attitude Adjuster, while upon first reveal comes across as simply traitorous, later proceeds along a course no one but Banks could plot.  These and several other ships paint the novel in colors of mechanical culture sci-fi has never seen.

Added to this mix and taking a backseat (Har!) to the ship-minds are a handful of human characters.  Living out wholly human stories in Banks’ far-future world, their post-scarcity freedom does nothing to utopian-ize the emotive side of life.  Genar-Hofoen, while first coming across as smug and impersonal, later reveals a side of his personality that will have readers raising an eyebrow in respect.  The eternally pregnant and brooding Dajeil has a story that may not draw much sympathy, but remains wholly relatable.  And no summary of the book would be complete without a brief mention of the newly introduced species, the Affront.  Brash, chauvinistic, and aggressive at every turn, they spit in the face of such ideas as ‘civilized’.  A major player in the game to exploit/steal/attack/destroy the ultimate truth of the black sphere, the Affront are despicably good reading that Banks is able to subvert in utterly satisfying fashion upon denouement.

In the end, Excession is meaty sci-fi that readers can really sink their teeth into, and for others, including myself, approaches a pinnacle of what sci-fi in its purest might be.  Dan Simmons divided AIs into three factions in Hyperion, Banks fragments them further into individual minds, and as a result, the ships’ reactions to the unexplainable BDO appearing suddenly in a universe they dominate - not a competitor in sight - is simply great sci-fi and not to be missed for fans of the genre.  The ship-to-ship banter - highly reminiscent of Vance’s overly formal, comedic dialogue – is just the icing on the cake.  While Banks may aim to entertain, Excession is more than just fun.  A line is crossed somewhere, just not sure whether it’s into literary land, or another dimension… of storytelling.  Does anyone do far future better than Banks?

3 comments:

  1. Regarding the role of artificial intelligences in the Culture, see:
    Yannick Rumpala, Artificial intelligences and political organization: an exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks, Technology in Society, volume 34, Issue 1, 2012, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160791X11000728
    (Free older version available at: http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/rumpalaepaper.pdf )

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    1. Thanks for link. When I get a moment I'll check out the essay as I am curious to see the Culture's connections to our real world.

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  2. Fully agree, up there with Banks' best such as Consider Phlebas and The Algebraist

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