This was a weird one. My main impression having finished it is that the story it told isn’t the story I was expecting in the first quarter of the book. And it kept not being the story I was expecting all the way through. But not exactly in a fun way, just in a mildly perplexing and unsatisfying way. Especially as I’d have quite enjoyed the story I thought it was going to be.
But that being said, I did still really enjoy the book. It just wasn’t because I liked the story. What Excession was sold to me as – and what it definitely fulfilled – was a book full of exposition about the Minds. They’re one of the bits of the Culture that seem really cool and shiny right from the first, and so I was pretty keen to get some story actually told with them as major viewpoint characters, rather than mysterious and vague, somewhat all-powerful and nebulous entities going on in the background. And we definitely got that. We got ships with proper personalities. We got them interacting and being not particularly human-like, but also pretty human-like indeed, and it was great… it’s just a shame I never really got all that invested in the plot.
Also the human characters are pretty unlikeable. They’re not really the point of the book, thankfully, but you are definitely supposed to have some sympathy for at least one of them, and I really just didn’t. They’re all terrible, terrible, uncompelling people. There’s a selfish, self-absorbed ambassador who admires the caricaturedly awful alien species he liaises with, there’s a woman who’s been having a forty-year sulk, and then there’s the spoiltest, brattiest teenager I’ve ever had to read, and I’ve read a fair bit of YA literature. That said, Ulver Seich, the last one, was interesting simply because she seems like exactly what I’d expect the Culture’s populace to be like. Maybe I have a pessimistic view of humanity, but I just imagine that, in a society where you can easily have pretty much anything you want, a not-insignificant proportion of the people in it will just be spoiled and bratty. And she is. She’s never had anyone saying “no” to her or even gently pushing her aside, and suddenly she’s in a situation where maybe she should be listening to advice and doing what other people say and she doesn’t handle it well. Which makes her really annoying and tiresome as a person, but an interesting read, in some ways.
Genar Hofoen, one of the other major characters, has similar issues. He’s a bit older, and less… bratty… but just as selfish and self-absorbed as Ulver Seich, with a side-helping of really liking the Affront, the nasty aliens du jour. And there’s something deeply dodgy about a man who likes and respects the Affront.
So I complained about how much of a caricature the Azad Empire was in The Player of Games, and hoped that it was a one-off we wouldn’t see again. Alas, this was not to be. If anything, I think the Affront may be worse. Instead of being ostensibly relatable human civilisation with a few differences, hiding very familiar but very awful awful underneath, the Affront are very physically alien and with a much more different social structure, but with just as much awful going on. They’re… well, they’re laddish. It’s a hypermasculine culture with overtones of armed forces camaradarie laddish. We don’t meet any Affront women, and what we hear about them is mostly about their treatment (violent and sexual) at the hands of males. There’s no pretense to them, no subtlety. All the awful is front and centre and they just don’t care. And Genar Hofoen likes them. You can see why I don’t like him, then.
But, like I said, this isn’t a book about the human/organic characters, at least for me. The development of the Minds, especially what we learn about them going Eccentric and so forth, is really really fascinating. We get to see them as actual personalities, with voices and opinions and ways of doing things. We get to see them disagreeing. And most importantly we get to see how they fit into the structure of the Culture and of Contact/Special Circumstances more specifically, and how they manipulate events around them to make everything happen. It definitely gives a sense of the extent to which the human-focussed events of the other books probably had a whole lot going on underneath that Banks never explicitly said, but I think had in mind. That may just be wishful thinking, I suppose, but it fits how I’ve started thinking about how Banks does things. And for all that I prefer character driven books, the exposition and development we get on the Minds is really quite compelling, and more than enough to rescue everything else from being less than thrilling.
I say that… the plot wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t all that captivating. I found it a little disparate and confusing, as well as not being the plot I expected, but once again, I think this might be down to me reading the book too slowly. I’ve been incredibly busy recently and just not been getting through things like I normally do. Even that aside, I don’t think the whole thing is that compelling. I love the idea of an Outside Context Problem, but I don’t think the way it’s handled (and particularly how it’s ultimately resolved) does it much justice as a conceit. Banks skirts around it too much for my liking, possibly because he spends so much time focussing on things like conversations between the Minds (yay), and the weird self-obsessions of the human characters (meh).
I don’t think I’d read it again, which is unusual for me. But I think that’s down to not really getting much into the plot. Once I have the exposition, what would there be to gain from another go through? I suppose what that means is that it’s a book I’m glad I have read, rather than a book I enjoyed reading. In this dubious honour it joins a lot of Victorian literature, the first two Wheel of Time books, and some Asimov and Clarke. It’s not a brilliant place to be, I’ll admit. But I really am glad I’ve read it, and it absolutely isn’t stopping me reading more Banks, and more Culture novels, so that’s a positive at least.
Next up: Shadow by K. J. Parker