Iain M. Banks – Excession

Title: Excession
Author: Iain M. Banks
Year: 1996

Since Excession is the tenth novel I read by Iain M. Banks, it should be quite clear that I like him a lot. However, he has proved unreliable in the past, sometimes producing masterworks and at other times just barely passing the average mark. This erratic behaviour doesn’t seem to be correlated to publication date at all, so reading Excession after some of the books that comes after (such as Look to Windward) doesn’t give any hint of what I might think of Excession. Still, I have thought most Culture novels worthwhile in some way, and knowing that Excession wouldn’t be bad, I picked it up.

As is the case with a lot of Banks’ novels, the story is somewhat divergent, focusing on a number of interrelated threads (some more interlaced with each other than others). The primary event that makes everything else happen is a mysterious hypersphere appearing in the galaxy. It defies a number of assumed physical laws and is deemed to be very interesting, very dangerous and possibly a lot of other things no one can even think of. It’s called an Out of Context problem, something which the Culture has no previous experience of and potentially can bring it down. The excession itself is not a very big part of the story, although a number of high-level Culture ships are very concerned with it and we do get to follow their conversations, arguments and actions regarding the entity.

Instead, the main focus is on a number of humans who are, for various reasons, drawn into the vortex spiralling around the excession (although humans and other races can be said to cause more stir than the excession itself). These threads are connected, but in a fairly weak manner, which also makes the reading a bit tedious at times. The stories themselves are not extremely interesting and only become worthwhile when put into a larger context, which happens much too late and to too small an extent.

Still, as I said in the first paragraph, Banks simply doesn’t write bad books, and even though I think this one is pretty far from being his best, it’s still good. I have said so before, but Banks combines a sense of the fantastic and the humorous, two traits which are rare in themselves, but even harder to find represented in one author.

Banks normally writes fairly complex books, often using many story lines which run parallel to one another, but which most of the time makes sense, at least towards the end or in retrospect. The problem with some books (Excession included), is that the threads are not relevant enough. If we take Look to Windward as a contrast, it’s a book containing a number of wildly different stories, but which yet still manages to feel complete and held together. This is not the case with Excession, and that’s the primary reason I’ve decided to give it just three and a half snails.

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