by Joseph Michael Owens, Kyle Muntz, and Peter Tieryas Liu
If Use of Weapons was a psychological investigation into the world of the Culture, Excession is a philosophical excavation, featuring the AI Minds going to war [JMO: Such a gotdamn great opening line!!]. The Culture have come across an ancient artifact that is “a perfect black body sphere the size of a mountain” and a “dead star that was at least fifty times older than the universe.” Its disappearance and reappearance decades later spurs off a string of events that make for one of the most frenetic, entertaining, and metaphysical science fiction narratives I’ve read. Joining me for this review of the fourth book in Iain M. Banks’s Culture Series are Joseph Michael Owns and Kyle Muntz in our followup to our Use of Weapons review (which was at HTMLGiant). So let me ask first: what exactly is a black body?
A black body in thermal equilibrium (that is, at a constant temperature) emits electromagnetic radiation called black-body radiation. The radiation is emitted according to Planck’s law, meaning that it has a spectrum that is determined by the temperature alone (see figure at right), not by the body’s shape or composition.
Peter Tieryas Liu: I’d say temperature makes for a perfect allegory for the state of mind in this book, especially with the way it delved into the world of the Culture, particularly the Minds. In the first three books, the protagonists were always human and told from their perspective. In Excession, the human arc is secondary to the conversations of the AI Minds as they try to uncover what’s really going on and discover a conspiracy among some of the older Minds of the Culture. What are some of the things you guys enjoyed about Excession?
Kyle Muntz: For me, Excession broadened the scope of the Culture universe more than any of the books so far, as well as going in really different directions formally and structurally. It’s a smart book that verges on to metaphysics, that ramps up Banks’s invention even further than he’d taken it before. There’s just an endless amount of cool stuff in this book, but it’s also funny, challenging, and takes its already great premise in a very interesting direction.
JMO: I agree with both of you. To emphasize even more what Kyle said, there really is an endless amount of cool stuff, but the thing(s) I liked most were the Interesting Times Gang (ITG), the group of Minds who are sort of . . . I’m not even sure how to describe them. It’s not like they are in charge because there’s pretty much no hierarchical structure, but perhaps they are the best decision makers among the Culture’s Minds. Plus I think most or all of them have been around since the time of the Idiran War, so there’s a lot of history there.
PTL: Excession introduces us to the Affront. They are a particularly savage race “described as a kind of self-perpetuating, never-ending holocaust of pain and fear. Affronter society rested on a huge base of ruthlessly exploited juvenile geldings and a subclass of oppressed females.” And: “They glorified, first and foremost, in their cruelty. Their cruelty was the point. They were not thoughtless.” I kept on thinking of a race of violent aerial octopi. Next to some of the bestial races introduced in the Culture like the Azadians and Idirans, where does the Affront stand for you guys?
KM: I think more than any other race introduced in the series, the Affront challenge the Culture’s idea that technological progress is a good thing: it brings freedom, increases quality of life, decreases violence, etc. Instead the Affront, despite being advanced enough the Culture actually have to negotiate them, have used their technology to become one of the most oppressive and cruel species in all of fiction.
In that sense they really are an ideological “affront” to the Culture’s way of life (who are based on universal freedom, safety, rights), this sort of terrible blip in the universe. There have been some pretty aggressive races in the series, but I think only the Affront have been completely cruel. Before them, it’s always been races that, you know, have their good and their bad elements.
Considering the Affront are aiming to conquer so many other species, I think it explains (at least to a certain extent) why for the first time in the series you have factions in the Culture actually pushing for a preemptive war… which takes the novel into some interesting (and difficult) territory.
JMO: Up until this point in the series, the Affront were one of the more compelling races Banks had introduced, though I still think I prefer the Idirans as opponents of the Culture. I think Consider Phlebas made me nostalgic for those guys! Though, like Kyle said, the Affront really challenges the Culture’s way of life in a way probably not seen since the Idirans. . . .
PTL: One of the absolute joys of reading Excession was reading all the interchanges between the Minds and finding out how the Culture thinks with their computerized syntax and witty brevity. In terms of pacing, Excession was by the far the fastest page-turner for me in the series. I love the Minds. We also get a glimpse of what the Excession could potentially signify, giving them: “the ability to travel-easily-to other universes… An entire universe would be yours alone. In fact, go back far enough-that is, to a small enough, early enough, just-post-singularity universe-and you could, conceivably, customize it; mold it, shape it, influence its primary characteristics.” We also find out how the Minds spend their time: metamathics. “They imagined entirely new universes with altered physical laws, and played with them, lived in them and tinkered with them, sometimes setting up the conditions for life, sometimes just letting things run to see if it would arise spontaneously, sometimes arranging things so that life was impossible but other kinds and types of bizarrely fabulous complication were enabled.” What would your metamathics universe be like?
KM: For sure. I loved the Minds. Earlier in the series, they seem cold, impassive, distant, but for the first time Excession gives us a top-down perspective of how the Culture is run. Plus they’re hilarious when they talk.
Excession (and, to a certain extent, The Hydrogen Sonata) are the only books to give this perspective of Culture minds, though with Look to Windward we get the more toned down example of how one of them runs day-to-day life on an Orbital. The thing is: they’re endlessly intelligent and knowledgeable, but also endlessly infused with their own personalities… which is why so many of the oldest ones just spend their time wandering the universe, being eccentric and marveling at existence or whatever.
With metamathematics though… I don’t even know. Haha.
PTL: My favorite Mind was the Killing Time. He was a badass battle cruiser (Torturer-class Rapid Offensive Unit), but he also felt surprisingly, well, human. Did you guys have a favorite?
KM: This is probably too easy, but for me it’s the Sleeper Service for sure. A ship that’s spent hundreds of years filling itself with recreations of historical events, carrying a woman whose kept herself pregnant for hundreds of years? Yes.
JMO: Mine is also the Sleeper Service because of the reasons Kyle mentioned, but also because it’d been totally retrofitting itself in case of an impending crisis such as this. It’s cool to think that, as smart as some Minds are, some are even smarter and cleverer still. Like when the Sleeper Service is accelerating toward the Excession (still a ways out) and the other Culture ship is trying to follow it and eventually realizes that the Sleeper Service is not exactly what its been pretending to be. In fact, it’s way more badass!
PTL: Byr undergoes a gender change (Mutualing) and becomes a woman, even becoming pregnant. I’ve sometimes joked with my wife that I would love to be her for a day, just to see life through her eyes and understand her better (which I meant). In fact, if I could do this gender change for a short time (“The process was painless and set in action simply by thinking about it), I would probably jump at it just to experience it. Would you guys try it out if it was as easy to switch back and forth as in the Culture?
KM: I would for sure. This is a difficult subject to talk about well, but I think a world where the physiological elements of gender were that fluid is infinitely preferable to the one we live in: with its (generally harmful) gender binaries, ideologies, and whole institutions so complex they’re almost impossible to discuss objectively—or even, you know, civilly.
I’m not sure what it would mean exactly, but I think it would be better for all of us if gender could be so easily experienced from both sides. And, of course, if we lived in a society (like the Culture) so free of gender-related prejudice.
PTL: Much of the book revolves around the idea of the Outside Context Problem. It’s the paradigm of Cortez pulling up to the Aztec Empire with guns, and in the same way, the strange artifact, or Excession, could be a completely superior and advanced civilization that could wipe them away if it pleased them. “…Waiting for the first OCP was the intellectual depressant of choice for those people and Minds in the Culture determined to find the threat of catastrophe even in Utopia.” It’s funny to note the inspiration for him came to him while playing the PC game, Civilization. As Banks put it: “You’re getting along really well and then this great battleship comes steaming in and you think, well my wooden sailing ships are never going to be able to deal with that.” Let’s talk OCP (not Omni Consumer Products, heh) and Civilization.
KM: As a thought experiment, event the idea of making the Culture deal with an OCP is fascinating. As a society infinitely more sophisticated than our, that OCP would have to be infinitely more sophisticated still–and, though I sort of wonder if a society capable of understanding and naming an “outside context problem”, and approaching it knowing that’s what they might be dealing with is dealing with the same kind of thing, the sort of metaphysical and philosophical heights Banks takes it to are just astounding.
PTL: As much as I loved the book, two points kept me from considering it one of the best in the series. The first is the uncovering of the Conspiracy. (PLOT SPOILERS START). Kyle, you pointed this out in our Use of Weapons review– one of the things that makes Culture so incredible is their penchant for standing against all-out war. The Culture is way more insidious and effective. When they want to infiltrate a civilization, they don’t want to simply conquer them, but change their entire Culture. The Azadians in Player of Games were an atrocious lot, but the Culture takes the time to beat them at their own game, showing the superiority of their way. In Use of Weapons, when the Culture doesn’t like the way of a nomadic tribe, they send Zakalwe to actually assist the “Chosen” one who is, at best, a cruel despot. But their real purpose is to have Zakalwe meet the Matriarch who realizes there are others outside their society who are even stronger, thus leading to a revolution in the future when the Chosen is determined to be infertile and the Matriarch takes over. In comparison to how deviously “persuasive” the Culture is, it seemed out of character for the Minds, even corrupt ones, to precipitate a war with the Affront merely to want to wipe them out.
I kept on wanting there to be more of a deeper reason than simply hawkishness, remnants of the debating that took places after the Idiran War. I realize the Culture determined, “There was no practical way of quickly changing either their nature of behavior,” short of another war. But if so, why not just openly go to war? They are practical Minds after all. Why all this deviancy? I would love to hear what you guys thought about the conspiracy.
KM: For me, I read this as a sort of commentary on the immensity of war–which is so vast and terrible that even Culture AI’s are left with psychological scars from it. When the corrupt Culture AI’s see another thread of that magnitude coming up, they finally snap. It’s all very difficult, because the Affront really weren’t open to negotiation–they were “The Affront”, after all, haha.
Excession is the only book in the series where you see the Culture AI’s breaking down like that. Look to Windward deals more specifically with the repercussions of the Idiran War on society, but with Excession we see the effect it had on the ones who actually fought it, and how those things perpetuate and are such a problem.
JMO: My thoughts are that the Minds will almost always go with the more subversive route if possible, though being so completely logic-based, this approach in Excession might have been what they deemed the most efficient route, especially when dealing with a systematically sadistic civ. like the Affront. The Culture here, in this instance, decided it was morally imperative to curtail or even check the Affront’s cruelty by any means necessary (a very Kantian move by them here, I might add), which leads to some further manipulation (by certain parties I won’t spoil in this review) as an excuse for war. Subversion as moral imperative.
PTL: My second reason is that the humans characters felt bland (for me) compared to those in the other books. The relationship of the two main characters, Byr and Dajeil, seemed superficial in comparison. Their attraction is based on the physical (at least Byr who wants to sleep with every girl he can), and Dajeil is later impressed by his persistence. I just imagined that in the Culture, where everyone has everything, there would be more to love than fucking (I guess that’s what Dajeil sought by resisting Byr’s charms). I found the newly recruited Special Circumstances Agent, Ulver Seich, annoying and ultimately irrelevant to the plot. She could have been anyone and it still wouldn’t have mattered. It didn’t help when she wanted to bring her furry pets aboard and was told, “Ulver, for pity’s sake, this is a secret mission for Special Circumstances, not a social outing with your girlfriends.” The only guy I liked was Gestra Ishmethit of Pittance, and he meets a tragic end. Tell me I am crazy, please.
KM: Nah, I thought the same thing. I’d say Excession has the least interesting human characters in the series. For me though, the Culture AI’s were strong enough to carry the book on their own.
JMO: I agree with what you both said, but for perhaps different reasons. This book was like an infinitely better written Transformers movie for me. The humans are there because they need to be; it’d feel weird if they didn’t. But I paid my admission price to see some Minds/ships do their thing at the forefront of the narrative. The Excession provided an Out of Context Problem (OCP) for the Culture. If you really think about it, the humans (or any other biological for that matter) would be completely — and I can’t stress this enough — ineffectual in trying to come up with a solution for what to do with the Excession. This book was a platform for us to see how the Culture deals with significant problems while the biological population is basically/ostensibly/for the most part blissfully ignorant of what’s taking place.
PTL: On the other hand, the Sleeper Service’s motivation for bringing Byr and Dajeil back together is poignant. He’s the one who permitted their love affair to blossom and he feels a deep sense of regret. (I think this is going somewhere but will leave off on that note to return to later.)
KM: The continuing awesomeness of the Sleeper Service! haha
PTL: I’m really happy Banks included the epilogue to reveal what the Excession truly was. At the same time, it puts an even more negative slant on the decision of the Minds to use the Excession to initiate a war against the Affront. Before the Epilogue, it was much more nebulous and there was even the implication the aggression could have scared off an invading horde, whereas with the revelation, it’s made clear the advanced civilization deemed Culture as having “a fundamental unreadiness as yet for such a signal honor.” Would having left the ending ambiguous have been a more provocative choice?
KM: It’s a tough call for me. I’m not sure if it was the best narrative move, as it sort of peels away the layer of mystery that’s sort of over the Excession the whole book–which is simultaneously intriguing but demystifying. Thematically though I think it does a lot to put things in perspective. The Culture series is very much about “levels” of civilization, but for the most part the Culture is always the higher level. For pretty much the first time, we see a situation where another entity sees them the way they see lower level civilizations–as not even being ready to talk to. It really puts things in perspective, and speaks to the idea of scale that, at least for me, becomes consistently more important the further into the series you go.
PTL: Okay, let’s do our lists again of order in which we liked the Culture books we’ve read.
KM: My ratings are kind of weird and vague, but for me it would be:
- Player of Games
- Look to Windward
- Hydrogen Sonata
- Use of Weapons/Excession
- Consider Phlebas/Surface Detail
JMO: I’d probably rate them as follows, though I should mention I wouldn’t rate any of them below 4/5 stars. (I just really love this series!):
- Use of Weapons
- Consider Phlebas
- Look to Windward
- The Player of Games
- The Hydrogen Sonata
- Surface Detail
- The State of the Art (novella)
- Use of Weapons
- Player of Games
- Consider Phlebas
- The State of the Art
If you’ve read this far, the three of us salute you! We’re hoping to tackle Looking to Windward next as the Culture reflects on an ancient war first explored in Consider Phlebas.