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Excession
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on 1 November 2012
The egalitarian, interstellar society, the Culture faces the twin threat of a developing war and an `Excession'. The latter is described as the kind of event that has a similar effect on a civilisation that a full stop has on a sentence. In this instance it is an enigmatic, moon sized, black sphere that appears to be -circumstantially and impossibly- older than the universe itself. Against this backdrop a variety of sub-plots begin to collide including half-millennium old conspiracies, rogue star-ships and a four-decade long bout of depression.

I've always enjoyed Iain Banks' sci-fi. His contemporary fiction -whilst always entertaining- seems to suffer from being too much of its time; many of his early novels already seem a tad dated due to the many time-specific references. The same detail heavy descriptions, when applied to a sci-fi context, make his fantastical environments believable and relatable. That same creative and engaging world-building is on display here. This is an author completely and comfortably in control of his writing.

Now twenty-five years old, the Culture has become a rich playground for Banks. It has a texture and depth that is now so well established, he is able to develop themes with real finesse whilst developing a rollicking good plot. As ever, there is real wit in the names and exchanges of the Culture's genius artificial intelligences, the Minds. If anything, the wonderful wordplay and banter between these city-sized egos makes the human characters seem rather pallid and uninteresting and it is certainly the sections of the book featuring the meat based characters that dragged a little for me.

Nevertheless, this is a smashing addition to Banks' output. Lasers are fired, civilisations brought to the edge of extinction and between all that the moral limits of anarcho-democratic societies are explored, the extent to which the ends justify the means considered and the comparative relevance of personal and pan-galactic tragedy contrasted.

I suspect that you have to already be inclined toward books with spaceships and reactionary, right-wing societies composed of tentacle bearing aliens to really enjoy this novel. That seems a real pity as `Sleeper Service' is a more complex and captivating character than you would find in many literary works, despite being a seventy kilometre long rocket-ship. And I challenge anyone not to love a battleship called `A Frank Exchange of Views'.
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VINE VOICETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 1 February 2013
Thousands of years ago, the Culture encountered an Outside Context Problem. A perfectly black sphere materialised out of nowhere next to a trillion-year-old sun from another universe. It did nothing and vanished. Now it has returned, and both the Culture and a hostile alien race known as the Affront are desperate to uncover its secrets.

Excession was originally published in 1996 and is the fourth novel in Iain M. Banks's Culture series. As with all of the Culture books, it is a stand-alone novel sharing only the same background and setting, with minimal references to the events of other books and no characters crossing over.

A plot summary of the novel makes it sound like Banks's version of a 'Big Dumb Object' book, a novel where the characters are presented with an enigmatic alien entity and have to deal with it (similar to Rendezvous with Rama or Ringworld). However, this isn't really what Excession is about. Instead, the novel operates on several different levels and uses the titular artifact as a catalyst for a more thorough exploration of the Culture and its goals, as well as a more human story about relationships and change.

Excession is the first book in the series to explore the Minds, the (mostly) benevolent hyper-advanced AIs which effectively run and rule the Culture (as both spacecraft and the hubs of the immense Orbital habitats). Previous novels had portrayed the Minds as god-like entities whose vast powers allowed the various biological species of the Culture to live peaceful lives of post-scarcity freedom. Aside from their whimsical sense of humour and tendency towards ludicrous names, the Minds had not been fleshed out much in the previous novels. Here they are front and centre as several groups of Minds attempt to deal with the Outside Context Problem, or Excession, and find themselves working at cross-purposes. One group of Minds appears to be involved in a conspiracy related to the object's previous appearance, whilst another is trying to flush them out. Another Mind appears to be operating on its own, enigmatic agenda. There are also Minds belonging to the Elench, an alien race closely aligned with the Culture but who may have different goals in mind in relation to this matter.

Banks depicts communications between the Minds as something between a telegram and an email, complete with hyperlink-like codes (in which can be found some amusing in-jokes). Following these conversations is sometimes hard work (especially remembering which ship belongs to which faction), but worth it as within them can be found much of the more subtle plotting of the novel.

The stuff with the Minds and with the alien Affront (think of the Hanar from Mass Effect but with the attitude and disposition of Klingons) is all great and somewhat comic in tone, but the book also has a serious side. Several human characters are dragged into the situation as well, and it turns out two of them have a past, tragic connection that one of the Minds is keen to exploit. It's rather bemusing that Banks drops in a terribly human drama into the middle of this massive, gonzoid space opera, but the juxtaposition is highly effective, giving heart to a story that otherwise could drown in its own epicness.

Excession (****½) is, as is normal with (early) Banks, well-written and engaging, mixing well-drawn characters (be they human, psychopathic floating jellyfish or Mind) with big SF concepts. The book's only downside is a somewhat anti-climactic (though rather clever) ending. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
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on 4 January 2017
One of my favorites. I read it originally in hardcopy but bought and read it again on my Kindle. Certainly one of his more thought provoking stories where for once the Culture is outclassed and unnerved. Detailed though, I tried for a second time to keep a track of the ship conversations but it is hard to work out who is part of the ship conspiracy, who is just keeping a listening watch and those who are the good guys!
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on 6 October 2013
Banks does not accommodate his readers enough. I imagine when he wrote, he used a list of ships and people by his side. No one could possibly remember which ship and person names belonged to which of the three factions.
I suggest, unless you have the luxury to be able to read this in a short time, you will find it all puzzling: most mortals have to read in snippets when time allows, last thing at night for instance.
It would have helped, where his ship names more distinguishable by faction. And he could have built more on his characters so that the reader might give a damn.
(Spoiler) I don't think the mystery of the central theme is adequately explained by the brief and punctuated final chapter.
Could have done better, and usually did. Try "Player of Games" for a smoother and more cogent effort. Unless of course you have the time to read this over a couple of days, or less.
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on 23 December 2014
It's Iain Banks. Whilst it's true that nothing more _need_ be said, I'm going to anyway. His coherent universe is compelling, and his imagination spectacular. No mile wide holes here. There is some truly awful kindle crap published, especially in the SF arena. This is the antithesis of the title below:

Stars & Empire: 10 Galactic Tales (Stars & Empire Box Set Collection)
Jay Allan, Michael Bunker, Joshua Dalzelle, Isaac Hooke, Christopher Nuttall, Edward W Robertson, Jasper T Scott, Endi Webb, Dietmar Arthur Wehr, Raymond L Weil.

which is truly awful.
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on 11 February 2015
Pretentiously complicated- to the extent that several times I discardedit, no longer compelled to finish reading to discover the denouement. For once, the storyline did not engage me. The pseudo-Mind jargon added nothing to the narrative; their vessels' names more silly than beguiling. As you may gather- I am disappointed! All previous Culture novels have fizzed with ingenuity and humour. This has fallen well below that level.
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on 29 December 2016
The only difficulty I now have after reading this book (Iain M Bank's finest in my humble opinion) is deciding whether, after my mortal life, to return as the ship mind of either an eccentric general systems vehicle or a gangster class warship. Decisions, decisions.

My only regret, and it very nearly is an all encompassing sadness, is that there will be no more future tales of the culture to look forward to.

But hey, if I can hope to return as a ship named "Always up to something or other" then Iain M Banks could well already be exploring the universe as the good ship "I'll choose my own name thanks Mr Fox".
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on 5 April 2017
Whatever pre conceived ideas you might have,and however confident you might be of an eventual outcome,it will be far beyond your expectations,it may even need a second read,a real tour de force!
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on 24 March 2013
Some of Ian Bank's culture novels can be a little ho hum, and a new reader would be left wondering what all the fuss was about. Bank's likes to explore all the little backwaters of the culture, and this is to be commended, but what you need as a new Bank's reader is a tour de force, demonstrating what a straight up fantastic writer he is.

The books, IMHO, to start with are Excession and the The Player of Games.; Then you can attempt Look to Windward or the Hydrogen Sonata while getting the point. Excession is extremely good, hard sci-fi, brilliant human story, epic concepts and distances, lots of culture minds and ships (always good), strange and slightly comic aliens - ideal. So start with this - Excession, it will please you.
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on 9 June 2014
I think this is the first time I have given 5 stars to a science fiction book - it's certainly the best Culture book I have read. The interplay between the Minds is delightful - so much so that I got impatient while the humans were on-scene. But it is quite a complicated book to read - about two thirds of the way through I had to go back to the beginning and jot down a bit about what each Mind had said to another. The book would be almost impossible to film, unfortunately, but an adaptation to a radio drama might be possible and should be tried.
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