This is an epic science fiction/space-opera novel by a very impressive author. It is also a #5 in the series, so, no matter how much you are intrigued by this review (here is hoping), do not go out an acquire it without reading some of the early ones as your confusion will be palpable.
A mysterious artifact appears mysteriously in a remote corner of space, beside a mysterious, trillion-year-old sun from a different universe. It has the ship Minds, the Culture and several of it’s allies in a tizzy and is the catalyst for a number of conspiracies, political maneuverings and deals. It is also a chance for the author to give the reader a lot more about the Culture from a new perspective.
Several small things I really enjoyed about this book. I LOVED the way the inhabitants of Banks’ world call ‘space’ volume; as in “..all the ships in the adjacent volume..” it is with small details like this that an author effortlessly (for the reader at least) sets the scene of a different time and place. The Excession has lot of little touches like this one.
The complexity of the intertwining plots is fascinating and I liked the way that the ship Minds make up the majority of the characters, the intrigues and the substance of the plot. In the universe of The Culture, Minds are smarter-than-human AIs, individuals in their own legal right many of them are in ships of different kinds, some in stations. While there are a few human actors -and one exceptionally alien species- as main characters, the majority of our social interaction is from Minds, or their Avatars and I really enjoyed the complexity of these relations. This book takes all the previous notions, from earlier novels of AIs as ships and takes it to whole new levels of detail and fascination.
The detail! The detail of Banks’ world is exquisite if not intimidating. It is hard for me to decide if this is sci-fi or space opera; I lean toward sci-fi myself, but possibly there is not enough hard tech/science in it for some people. Still, the detail of the different aspects of minds in the Culture, the details of the different kinds of lifestyle in the Culture and the general scene of a whole world operating just out of sight. The is very, very impressive.
Where the detail becomes overwhelming: Unfortunately, quite early and then all the way through. This is a long book and it took me a long time to read it, by my standards. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but at the end of the day, I rather suspect that I missed a lot of it. One of the main problems I had was actually with the best, the most impressive of the aspects of this book: One that I have total respect for. Using the Minds (mostly of ships) as the main characters was perfect for the story. The way the ships were named, the way they communicated their ‘inner lives’ as distict from their crew who we barely encounter… It was all formidably well done and well thought out. But I, regrettably, could not keep them straight in my head most of the time. Like you say at the end of a bad date “it is not you, it is me!”
The ships, these formidable, intelligent, individual agents have names that suit them, chosen by themselves, and occasionally they change them. Also they communicate via…. some kind of signal? a bit like an email trail…? And directly with each other. So you have these long discussions between Fate Amenable To Change, Ethics Gradient, Grey Area and similar. It is great stuff, even if, like myself you can’t keep them straight in your head. But it detracted from the story for me in a big way.
You see, with a random name like that, no scene or context to help determine who is who and no visuals I really didn’t know what faction was doing what. To be honest (and this is embarrassing) It was only in the last hundred pages that by reading a ships name I knew who the ship was. There are 452 pages if you include the Epilogue, so I was kind of late for that party.
The other down side to this level of character confusion (in addition to suspecting my own intelligence is lacking for most of the book), is that it makes it hard to pick up and put down this novel. My lifestyle does not include the ability to put my life on hold for the entire reading experience. I have to put books down to go to work, stuff, things. When you are continually reading it is easier to keep the context and the characters distinct in your head. Picking up this book for half an hours quiet reading time in my lunch break, it would take me a good five-ten minutes to figure out where I was and who was who.
That is a lot of complaint isn’t it? The amazing thing is that I still really enjoyed this book. I doubt I remember all of it, not sure that I ever understood whole swaths of it; exactly how many different Mind/Ship factions were there? At least two surely? Maybe three….?
And yet, despite that I enjoyed it, might read it again, will definitely read more of the Culture books and am very impressed by it in general. Am I a literary masochist? Quite possibly.
As a final note; how good is Banks at oceans, seas and all things marine? The man has an absolute genius for describing anything sea related. In this book we have a woman living in a tower by a simulated ocean in which marine animals live their lives (yes, that is just how big these ships are, and just how complex their minds, that they can create and maintain this). To be honest I have walked on beaches beside real seas that were less convincing than the one he writes here.