About once or twice a year, something happens that reminds me of something from an Iain M. Banks novel, and I go that spot on my bookshelves, actual or virtual, and pull one down to re-read. This past month or so, Excession has been my concern, and, as its name suggests, I found myself wondering how I could have missed so much of the novel the first time?
Banks’ Culture novels present a post-scarcity civilization of mixed humans and various ranges of artificial intelligences. At the top of the proverbial heap, and largely running the show, are the Minds, vast intelligences usually tasked with operating a variety of sizes of ships, orbitals, hubs, and other facilities that range in size, in terms of complexity, from small cities (in space) to entire planets. At the top of the hierarchy are the Minds that are also the largest ships in the Culture, the General Service Vehicles (GSVs). The capabilities of the GSVs, as is revealed throughout the series but is also the focus of Excession, are virtually limitless.
Despite their being the true power behind the throne, much of the novels in the Cultureverse are told about and through humans. Speaking of that perspective, it should also be noted that, for the most part, the humans involved are rather close to humanity as we understand and experience it. So, while Culture humans have the ability to change form, change sexes, and lead lives several hundred years, and possibly up to a thousand years, in length. Most of our guides through the Culture are happy to stick to the basics, with the occasional need to gland something to make them more calm or more quick to respond, or whatever is called for by the current situation.
Some human stories are a part of the braided narrative of Excession, but the novel is also fascinatingly most concerned with the actions of various Minds, whose awareness of the shifting nature of it all, especially politics, seems to be what plagues them. The eponymous entity ostensibly at the center of the story, the Excession, seems more a MacGuffin than anything else, save a postscript at novel’s end, but its appearance somewhere within the Culture’s zone of influence is what puts a large number of diverse plot points in motion. (Spoilers ahead.)
In Banks’ Cultureverse, ships move about by tapping into the energy grids that lie “above” and “below” reality as we know it: thus above real space lies “ultra space” and below it lies “infra space.” (The obvious analogues here are the two kinds of radiation that lie just outside the human-visible spectrum we call light, ultraviolet, at a higher frequency, and infrared, at a lower frequency.) Either grid can be tapped, but not both at the same time. The object that gets dubbed the Excession appears to be able to tap both at the same time. This appears to be the limits of its expressibility. Initial attempts to communicate with it result in the loss of the ship. Thereafter, the various ships that come to witness the Excession for themselves keep their distance.
Despite the desire of the Culture minds that the excision might bring some of the known “Elder” civilizations to the scene, the only other civilization that seems interested are the Affront, a brutish, egocentric species that lives to establish their superiority through a variety of means, the more painful the better. The Affront represent, for some in the Culture, a mistake in need of mending, and so the appearance of the Excession, with its possible promise of unknown technological riches, is allowed to lure the Affront into war with the Culture, a war the reader knows, and the Minds involved know, from the first novel in the series, Consider, Phlebas, that the Culture will inevitably win.
One of the concerns of Excession is the Culture’s impulse to intervene in the affairs of others. The goal is always, of course, to make them less brutish, militaristic, and prone to see others as either potential slaves or cannon fodder: in short, to make them more cultured, and the irony of the verb form is not lost on Banks’ and his Culture denizens. There are glimpses of reconsiderations of, and possible recriminations for, the active peace-making in which the Culture engages, in other Culture novels. Echoes of the Idiran war echo in Look to Windward, with one of the Minds being particularly wracked with guilt by events that took place centuries ago. There is also a hint of the Culture having gotten into trouble for its busybody nature in Surface Detail.
But only in Excession is the matter taken up so centrally and by the players who seemingly matter the most but who are largely a backdrop in other novels, the Minds themselves. Like any good speculative fiction opera, there are plots and counterplots and plots within plots and subterfuges. What fascinates is how Banks manages to make matters both mundane enough for the reader to follow as well as surreal, quite literally, enough that we recognize in some fashion that the experiences of the Minds is necessarily not at all like our own. (He drops his guard here regularly when he resorts to analogies like “The giant ship watched the Excession, still billowing out towards it. For all its prodigious power, the Sleeper now felt as helpless as the driver of an ancient covered wagon, caught on a road beneath a volcano, watching the incandescent cloud of a nueé ardente tearing down the mountainside towards it.” Really? A ship with a Mind that does “metamath” for fun and which has, we are told, just finished constructing in record time and with complete stealth some thirty thousand war ships and its first impulse is to imagine itself in a covered wagon?) The problem is, of course, how not like us the Minds are, and yet with their politicking and guilt, they are like us.
And guilt plays a large role in Excession, as it does elsewhere in the Culture books — it is perhaps one of the central themes for Banks, the one emotion a post-scarcity world is sure to feel, one supposes. At least two Minds destroy themselves out of guilt, which is not unlike the Mind that does so in Look to Windward. In the case of all three Minds, they have been guilty of participating in war. In all three circumstances, there were possible mitigating circumstances: the Affront do seem rather horrid and there more horrible impulses would be better curbed than continued to be let loose upon any sector of the galaxy. But, it seems to be the case, in the overall trend of the Culture novels, that it’s better to achieve such means through skullduggery or a bit of carrot-and-sticking. Given, how many of the novels are about the exploits of, willing or unwilling, agents of Contact and/or Special Circumstances, Excession is one tale in which the Culture’s inner workings on front and center and it would appear that they are as willing to dig into their own skulls as those of the civilizations which they seek to improve through their “involvement.”