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Iain M. Banks
Bantam Spectra Books, 499 pages

Iain M. Banks
Iain M. Banks (as opposed to Iain Banks, his name for non-SF fiction) is the popular author of the Culture novels, including Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games.

Iain M. Banks: A Few Notes on The Culture
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A review by Greg L. Johnson

Iain Menzies Banks is one of the few writers in the world with one foot planted firmly on each side of the fence that separates science fiction from the literary mainstream. As Iain Banks he writes intense psychological dramas such as The Wasp Factory and Complicity. As Iain M. Banks he writes wide-scale sf; most of it, like Excession, set in a galaxy-roaming civilization known as the Culture.

The Culture is a post-scarcity society run almost entirely by incredibly sophisticated artificial intelligences known as Minds. Human beings living in the Culture have no material needs, no need to work if they don't want to, live about four hundred years, and can dose themselves with any drug they wish through internal glands under their conscious control. It is no wonder then that the Culture is somewhat paternalistic, hedonist, and mostly free of internal conflict. For this reason, the Culture novels in general, and Excession in particular, deal mostly with conflicts between the Culture and other societies.

An excession is the Culture's term for a first contact that immediately produces an unpredictably powerful and violent reaction. In this case, the excession is an artifact that suddenly appears in an area of space where a star had mysteriously vanished several thousand years earlier. The artifact destroys a ship and displays powers that are beyond the capabilities of the Minds of the Culture. Everyone immediately begins to plot ways to locate the excession and find out what makes it tick.

The second problem faced by the Culture in Excession is the Affront, an aggressive, fun-loving race competing with the Culture. Part of the fun of all the Culture novels is that the various galactic empires the Culture comes up against often resemble the societies of old classic space opera. The Affront are, in temperament but not form, kind of super Klingons, judging each other and other species by their ability to dominate a fight and party afterwards. Their idea of a good time is guaranteed to anger animal rights activists throughout the universe. They see the excession as a way to gain a technological advantage on the Culture.

The resulting conflicts and plots bring together a number of Characters -- some pursuing their own interests, some manipulated by others. Byr Genar-Hofeon is a diplomat representing the Culture to the Affront. He is summoned and given the task of finding a woman who may have been present when the star originally disappeared. Also summoned, possibly to oppose Byr, is a young woman named Ulver Seich, who desires to make a name for herself in Special Circumstances, the Culture's espionage and dirty tricks section. They both may or may not be working at the behest of a group of ship Minds known as the Interesting Times Gang.

Banks brings the same literary skills to his space opera that he displays in his more "serious" fiction. His prose style is witty and highly descriptive. His characters, including the Minds and other beings, are multi-dimensional and often quirky. These qualities are especially evident in Excession and make the book the most enjoyable Culture novel since Player of Games (1988). All Banks novels have their dark side however, and in Excession at least two of the characters have a terrible secret in their past that they have long avoided dealing with.

That said, Excession may not be the place to start if you are new to Iain M. Banks and the Culture. The first half of the book is taken up almost entirely in setting up the action of the second half, and is full of references and inside jokes that make more sense if you are already familiar with the background of the Culture. Player of Games works better as an introduction to this universe -- or, if you prefer less levity, Use of Weapons (1990) is an intense, dark look at the seamier side of the Culture's relations with other societies.

Current fans of Banks' writing will find much to enjoy in Excession. From the pleasure-seeking humans to the always wittily-named ships, the elements that make the Culture novels great reading are all here. Along with Lois McMaster Bujold, C.J. Cherryh and Vernor Vinge, Iain M. Banks has led the way in restoring galaxy-spanning stories -- space opera if you will -- to science fiction. These writers combine the sense of wonder of classic sf with modern literary techniques and well-developed characters. What science fiction reader could ask for more?

Copyright © 1998 by Greg L. Johnson

After forty years of reading sf, Greg L. Johnson decided he was finally qualified to tell other people what he thought of it. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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