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Sci-fi that deserves an audience beyond the genre cul-de-sac
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'.