Excession by Iain M. Banks Book Review


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Over his colorful career as an author, Iain M. Banks has established himself as the master of the strange. Excession is the fifth installation in his highly imaginative and chilling Culture series, which takes us to a Utopian society known, unsurprisingly, as the Culture. In this post-scarcity universe, all races, including humans co-exist with savvy robots and other intelligent machines.

The lives of the citizens of this utopian society revolve around addressing the burning questions about the universe. And as a space-faring race, they confront a whole lot of these big questions. In particular, 2,500 years ago, an artifact called Excession emerged in a remote corner of space, just close to a trillion-year-old waning sun from a very far universe.

The Culture is quietly and subtly controlled by intelligent machines, also known as Minds. According to the narrator, these super-brainy artificial robots spend the vast majority of their free time self-indulging and contemplating excessively on a handful of big questions at the expense of the bigger picture that’s The Culture.

When the Excession appears in space and engages with the universe’s power grid in a manner that was initially thought to be impossible, Byr Genar-Hofoen, the head of the Department of Special Circumstance is given the go-ahead to investigate the new phenomenon. The object was a perfectly spherical black body, but it didn’t do much.

However, Byr Genar-Hofoen is distracted and sidetracked by a gorgeous and brilliant operative Ulver Seich, whom Bank intimates, is a “spoiled brat.” Among the many distractions is his ex-partner Dajeil Gelian, so the Diplomat takes too long before getting near the Excession. 

At the same time, a specific group of Minds that occupy a massive array of autonomous space-crafts is suspicious of other Minds who they think are involved in a conspiracy. If true, what is their motive?  

Meanwhile, as the Diplomat of the Department of Special Circumstance is distracted by the recently-emerged object, the torturous and cruel expansionist alien Affront takes advantage of the opportunity to take over a fleet of Culture’s battleships. From here, he kicks off a war that they realize too late that they have been compromised and couldn’t possibly win the battle.

Banks’s Excession is generously amusing and brilliantly imaginative. From one chapter to the next, the whole novel reads like a sequence of knowing jokes, but one filled with subtle chaos, messy relationships, betrayal, and battles. The author uses hilarious names, particularly for spaceships – for instance, Shoot Them Later, Not Invented Here, and so forth. While this doesn’t necessarily make up for the lack of real characters, it makes Excession one of the most readable novels for fantasy, adventure, and science fiction lovers.

What’s more, the author incorporates a brilliant support cast of characters that include adorable but droll droids, beautiful yet tart-tongued heroines, and more. In some of the communications between spaceships, you can easily note that a character doesn’t have to be human to be thick-skinned, whinny, and neurotic. Banks’ cast of stammering politicians is sure to keep you smiling from page to page.

Banks uses rather fast-paced writing but occasionally decelerates to let hard science and complex scenes sink in, which lends more authenticity and human appeal to this futuristic society. When you rush through the book, you will find it to flow with a warp speed, creating a lighthearted and adventurous romp that’s sure to make your weekend or lazy evenings all the more worthwhile.

Though not strictly consistent, Excession has an incredibly inventive and ambitious concept, coupled with an epic scope and the execution is spot-on and engrossing. Together, all of these elements have helped Banks to construct one of the most memorable and enduring visions of almost post-apocalyptic fiction work.

In this easily compulsive read, you’ll find a wide range of plans within plans, plots within plots, and schemes within schemes. The stories of androids, humanoids, and other races make for an interesting read, all while piquing your conviction about the relationship between human beings and intelligent machines.

If you have set your mind on Banks’s Culture series, you have no choice but to start with Excession. It’s not just the first book in the series; it’s also the cornerstone of the story. Parting words: this book is highly recommended for you if you’re an avid fan of other fan-favorite sci-fi novels, such as Carl Freedman’s Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand, Maureen F McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, or Vonda N McIntyre’s Dreamsnake.

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