Spaceship image by Bruce Coleman
Cover design by Blacksheep
A CULTURE NOVEL/
CULTURE BOOK FIVE
IAIN M. BANKS
First published: 13 June 1996
This edition published: 15 May 1997
On the cover:
Two and a half milennia ago, the artefact appeared in a remote corner of space, beside a trillion-year-old dying sun from a different universe. It was a perfect black-body sphere, and it did nothing. Then it disappeared.Now it is back.
It's really strange sitting down to write this review. When I read this book, only two months ago, the author was still with us. Granted, the news had broken that Banks had cancer and was not expected to live long, but there was talk of some faint hope. That hope is gone now, along with undoubtedly one of the best Space Opera writers that has ever lived.
But as I read the review notes I took while I read this book, in preparation to write this words, the one thing that became clear to me is that Banks will never be completely gone. The stories he wrote will always be with us. People who are yet to be born will one day discover, and fall in love with, the Culture, and everyone and everything Banks created to bring it to life.
Iain M. Banks is not alive anymore, but he's not gone. A part of him will always be with us in the stories he has given us.
Excession is the fifth Culture book. And although they are not a series in the traditional SFF sense, I have noticed that there is the feeling of a progression in the series as I read it. Banks is taking us deeper into the Culture as the series progresses, and he does it through focusing on different aspects of the Culture.
Characters have always been rather important in Banks' novels, and here some of the most important ones are the Minds, the artificial intelligences who inhabit ships, space stations, and planetoids in the Culture universe. They really come to life in this novel. The Minds have been present in previous Culture books too, but here they become much more important, in many ways they take over.
There are also quite a few human (and alien) characters in the novel, and Banks manages to integrate their stories very nicely with that of the Minds. The interaction, and relationship between the artificial Minds and the living creatures is done extremely well.
The characters are very interesting, in some ways they are too interesting. There's not that many of them, but enough that it feels a bit like the reader is shortchanged with not getting to follow more of their story. Of course that is a testament to how well developed they are rather than that they feel shallow.
There are several strands to the story at the beginning of the novel. Banks manages to create some extra suspense, for me at least, by not giving away which of the story lines that is "most important" one. It's a type of narrative structure that can be annoying to a reader, but that works very well here.
Banks opens the book in such a way that you are very quickly hooked in to the story. As more players are introduced they become one more hook for the reader to get snagged by. And once you start to get into this story you are pretty much lost in it. But there is also quite a bit of fragmentation to the story because of its structure, and that it isn't always told linearly makes it more complex to follow than the average Space Opera adventure.
It's the complex structure of the story that really makes it interesting in my opinion. Banks way of writing what happens in bursts rather than a straight line adds both suspense, and another layer to what is going on. Sometimes it can be a bit jolting when the narrative makes a sudden jump in time, but these jumps are not random, they always come when they can give something more to the narrative than just a distraction.
The weaving together of the different story lines and layers is Banks' greatest accomplishment here. Although at times fractured, it becomes clear that this is very much a whole with many strands to it. It's how everything meshes together in a way that feels natural in the end that makes this such a great story.
I've mentioned great characters and a great story. And this comes together to create something that feels like it is much more than what was really put in in the first place. To use a cliche, this is greater than the sum of its part.
This does however lead to what I feel is the only real flaw in the novel, the ending. The build up is so good, and the story so captivating that when it ends it feels disappointing. It just feels that there should be more to it, that it should have more impact than it actually does. It's not really a huge problem, but be aware of that this really is a case of the journey being more important than the destination.
I really like Banks' Culture stories, and despite the flaw I mentioned above this is no exception. This is Space Opera with real depth to it. More character based and philosophical than action-filled, but that is certainly a strength not a weakness.
This is of course essential to fans of Banks' Culture books, and likewise for those who wants a cerebral background to their Space Opera. It also has a somewhat "literary" leaning to it, so it would be a nice starting point to Science Fiction for someone who comes from that reading background.
REVIEWS: You can find my reviews of the previous Culture books here.