Excession

marain

Excession, first published in 1996, is Scottish writer Iain M. Banks’s fourth science fiction novel to feature the Culture (a fictional interstellar anarchist, socialist, and utopian society). It concerns the response of the Culture and other interstellar societies to an unprecedented alien artifact, the Excession of the title.

The book is largely about the response of the Culture’s Minds (AIs with enormous intellectual and physical capabilities and distinctive personalities) to the Excession itself and the way in which another society, whose systematic brutality horrifies the Culture, tries to use the Excession to increase its power.

As in Banks’ other Culture novels the main themes are the moral dilemmas which confront a hyperpower and how biological characters find ways to give their lives meaning in a post-scarcity society which is presided over by benign super-intelligent machines. The book features a large collection of Culture ship names, some of which give subtle clues about the roles these ships’ Minds play in the story. In terms of style, the book is also notable for the way in which many important conversations between Minds resemble email messages complete with headers. Most reviewers praised the book’s ideas and witty writing, but some complained about its complexity. A few who praised it commented that Excession’s complexity and frequent use of in-jokes make it advisable for new readers of Banks’ Culture stories to start with other books.

The Excession of the title is a perfect black-body sphere that appears mysteriously on the edge of Culture space, appears to be older than the Universe itself and resists the attempts of the Culture and technologically equivalent societies to probe it. The Excession is what the Culture’s social scientists describe as an ‘Outside Context Problem’ (OCP), one which a society cannot foresee and is often fatal. A metaphor to help explain this phrase is that of a successful aboriginal culture suddenly finding ocean-going vessels on its shores for the first time. Bank’s describes an OCP as the kind of problem, ‘most civilizations would encounter just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop.’ An OCP is generally not considered until it occurs, and the capacity to actually conceive of or consider of one in the first place may not be possible or very limited (i.e., the majority of the group’s population may not have the knowledge or ability to realize that the OCP can arise, or assume it is extremely unlikely).

The term was coined by Banks for the purpose of this novel: ‘The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you’d tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbors were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass… when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you’ve just been discovered, you’re all subjects of the Emperor now, he’s keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.’

Banks has noted that he spent much time playing the ‘Civilization’ computer game (appearing to refer to the first version of the game series) before writing the book and that it was one of the inspirations for the concept of the ‘Outside Context Problem’ central to the novel. In an interview, Banks specifically compares this to having a ‘Civilization’ battleship arrive while the player is still using wooden sailing ships. The situation has been more recently described as black swan theory.

The book, more than any of the other Culture novels, focuses on the Culture’s Minds as protagonists. When asked about his focus on the possibilities of technology in fiction, Banks said about the book: ‘You can’t escape the fact that humanity is a technological species, homo technophile or whatever the Latin is. Technology is neither good or bad, it’s up to the user. We can’t escape what we are, which is a technological species. There’s no way back.’ Also significant within the Culture novel cycle is that the book shows a number of Minds acting in a decidedly non-benevolent way, somewhat qualifying the godlike non-corruptibility and benevolence they are ascribed in other Culture novels. Banks himself has described the actions of some of the Minds in the novel as akin to ‘barbarian kings presented with the promise of gold in the hills.’

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