Cultural Marxism 5: Excession
Reflecting on the fact that his last book was going to turn out to be the relatively slender and small-scale The Quarry, Iain Banks made the observation that “the real best way to sign off would have been with a great big rollicking Culture novel.” It’s difficult to imagine he didn’t mean Excession. Like TheState of the Art before it, Excession is a novel about pushing the premise of the Culture to a breaking point. But where The State of the Art picked an approach to this that was fundamentally a dead end, Excession comes up with one that’s thrilling in its boundless possibilities. Ironically, it basically does this by taking the premise of The State of the Art and turning it on its ear. Where that novella asked “what if the Culture met us,” Excession asks “what if the Culture met a race even more advanced than itself?”
This leads to Excession’s – and arguably the Culture’s – most enduring contribution to the broader culture, namely the phrase Outside Context Problem. The passage where Banks describes this is very possibly the most-quoted paragraph of his career, and with obvious reason:
The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you’d tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass… when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you’ve just been discovered, you’re all subjects of the Emperor now, he’s keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.
There’s a lot to love here. Banks has always been a witty writer, but here he’s visibly taking on Douglas Adams as a major influence (also apparent in the book’s other great line about Outside Context Problems, namely that they’re something “most civilizations would encounter just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop” – the performative hesitation of “rather in the same way” prior to the sentence metaphor is a dead giveaway, as is the oblique turn of the metaphor, which is in the same basic vein as Adams’s famous “hung in the sky in much the way bricks don’t,” although the harmony of form and function involved in having the sentence end with “a sentence encountered a full stop” is a bit of sparkle above and beyond the obvious influence). But he’s also just got a damn good idea there. Contact between civilizations of wildly differing technological capabilities is a sci-fi standard, but discussions of the phenomenon are almost always framed from the perspective of the technologically superior species – “first contact” and “the Prime Directive” and the like. Banks, however, turns it on its head, theorizing the idea from the perspective of the inferior civilization and extrapolating from it a general category of civilization-ending situations. It’s top notch stuff.
And unlike The State of the Art, this doesn’t involve repeatedly poking the fundamental weaknesses of the central metaphor with a stick. Instead of pointing straight at the questions the series is least able to address it opens up big new ones. And there are a lot of those. This is a novel that’s absolutely jam packed with ideas and questions. This also means that it is a hot mess in a way that no previous Culture book comes close to. There’s really no other way to describe it. Its two main plot threads barely relate to one another despite hurtling gamely towards simultaneous resolutions. It plays an astonishingly cheap trick in which it turns out that events haven’t actually been related in chronological order and that several narrative strands actually take place some time before chapters they’re freely inserted in the middle of. This isn’t a big twist, nor for that matter a particularly large flaw so much as a thing you realize about halfway through the book with a sort of “oh. Huh.” A bit of clumsiness that stands in sharp contrast to the finely worked and elegant complexity of, say, Use of Weapons.
But the fact that it’s a sprawling mess is just as much the appeal of Excession. The mad novel of big ideas is a tried and true category of science fiction, after all, and Banks throws himself gamely at the task. Some elements of the book are familiar tropes – the Affront, for instance, are blatantly the same troublesome sadists as Azad and the Iridians, and indeed the reason the Culture hasn’t just dealt with them already is ultimately due to the politics of the Iridian war. But the book doesn’t try to elevate the Affront into being anything other than the straightforwardly black-hatted villains its plot requires. And alongside the Affront are some properly impressive concepts, most notably the Zetetic Elench, a Culture-offshoot civilization that seeks to be changed and transformed by other species it encounters – an idea that frankly could support an entire book or series on its own. Here, however, it’s reduced to a side plot, and not because the book is poorly focused but because it has even bigger and better ideas, the bulk of which lie around the question of what a civilization more advanced than the Culture would mean in the first place.
Obviously this has to be played carefully. It is, after all, still a Culture novel, and the point manifestly isn’t to introduce something even bigger and better for us to get distracted by. And so the Outside Context Problem is kept at a careful remove, represented only by a mysterious artifact in Rendezvous with Rama style (the eponymous Excession). But Banks downplays the mystery of this by also emphasizing the phenomenon of species that “sublime,” a nebulous process involving abandoning physical form and, with it, most concern for that world. As Banks puts it, disturbingly, “the implication was that the very ideas, the actual concepts of good, of fairness and of justice just ceased to matter once one had gone for sublimation, no matter how creditable, progressive and unselfish one’s behaviour had been as a species pre-sublimation.” This, obviously, cuts to the heart of what the Culture is as a premise, and Banks gets to that in the same paragraph, talking about the Culture’s sense of horror at this given their own intensely moral worldview, and how they “decided to attempt to accomplish what the gods, it seemed, could not be bothered with,” namely the propagation of moral good.
As always the moral implications of this open interventionism are the point of the exercise, with the Culture’s efforts to control the Excession derailed largely by their propensity for overly baroque conspiracy as an old scheme involving hiding a bunch of warships in Affront territory and then manufacturing a cause for war goes a bit tits up. This isn’t portrayed as wrong per se – the Affront are straightforward villains and the reader is pretty freely rooting for their downfall. Rather it’s portrayed as overthought – a conspiracy whose flaw is precisely that it’s a conspiracy, with all the secrecy and excess complexity that implies. The strong implication is that the reason “doing good” goes wrong, in other words, is the messiness of the material reality in which it must be done.
Which ties in with the other big thing revealed about the Excession and its makers, which is that they can travel through different universes. Indeed, the possibility of this is the crux of why the Culture is interested in it. Even without going full many-worlds hypothesis (and the book doesn’t really hint at that) this poses a kind of fundamental challenge to the notion of do-gooding interventionism, suggesting instead universe-crafting at a more fundamental sort of practice. This is even further emphasized by one of the book’s more amusing details, the note that Culture Minds (who, unusually, make up the bulk of major players in Excession) spend their free time in what they call Infinite Fun Space creating simulated realities with bespoke laws of physics. Which is to say that they write science fiction.
It’s here that the premises and themes of the book begin reaching their inevitable breaking point, approaching a conclusion that’s as fatally on-the-nose as that of The State of the Art. And wisely, Banks stops short, gesturing at it but leaving it unstated. The result is far from perfect, but it’s at least forward-looking, reinvigorating the series and giving it, if not strictly speaking hope of topping Use of Weapons (one does not top a book like Use of Weapons over the course of a career), at least hope of finding new and interesting directions in its own right. In that regard, I suppose, the obvious point of comparison is Consider Phlebas, which, like Excession, is a bit of a hot mess that doesn’t quite know how to be all the things it wants to be. In effect, Excession is a second first Culture novel.
October 17, 2016 @ 7:36 pm
I was re reading the Wasp Factory entry and was wondering if you still think (as you did in that article) that a central theme to Banks is people as technology? You haven’t touched on that much. Could it be the long pauses between them?
The Not Quite Handsome Doctor
October 17, 2016 @ 8:06 pm
Yassssssss. . . .covering the Culture is randomly my favorite non-Who thing on your site. I can’t believe I didn’t consciously recognize the Douglas Adams influence on Banks’s paragraphus mirabilis before. Seems so obvious in retrospect.
October 18, 2016 @ 3:25 pm
I think the other cited bit of Adams-ness is more a direct nod to 1066 And All That, which concludes (from memory) “Thus America became Top Nation, and history came to a .”
October 17, 2016 @ 8:39 pm
I was always struck by the last Culture book being The Hydrogen Sonata, the extended meditation on death and the afterlife – and that this was completely accidental.
October 18, 2016 @ 2:09 pm
The one before that, Surface Detail, was even more explicitly about death and the afterlife.
I’m not sure if that confirms or refutes your point.
October 19, 2016 @ 11:26 am
I think the Hells are more an afterlife – the Sublime is pretty clearly the afterlife, the proper one you can’t really come back from and don’t really want to. The transition in Hydrogen Sonata is clearly heavy with consequentiality in a way the Hells just aren’t.
October 17, 2016 @ 8:56 pm
A book I am very fond of, even while finding large chunks of it artistically unsatisfactory and/or morally objectionable. As you say, there’s so much going on in there, and the messiness is part of the charm.
It occurred to me reading this that the book explores a kind of narrative collapse scenario – an OCP not for the Culture but for the Culture series. It flirts with the prospect of the Minds becoming able to dispense with the remaining practical constraints on their ability to reshape the world and play god in a more literal sense, something that they obviously cannot be allowed to do if more stories are to be told.
It’s doubtful, though, how keen they would really be to do so. It seems significant that, in contrast to the enthusiasm shown for the Excession by both the Affront and the Elench from their own drastically contrasting perspectives, the reaction of the Culture per se is a mixture of cautious trepidation and the petty opportunism of the conspirators, whose main interest in a discovery of cosmic significance is that they can exploit it to get their way in a long-standing disagreement on a point of public policy (But how can we use this to get Saddam?). There’s a reluctance to engage with the Excession itself and its dizzying implications, and a sense of relief when it ultimately fails to disturb the status quo.
I think this is to do with the book’s exploration of the limitations of utopia. This is a book about the Culture’s own excessions, its misfits, those who have some extreme quality that prevents them from comfortably fitting into society – the Ulterior factions and Eccentrics in general, Dajeil, Genar-Hofoen, Gestra, the Grey Area, and ostensibly the Sleeper Service. Even an ideal society does not, cannot work for everyone.
Of course, the degree to which the Culture is able to deal with this problem, accommodating even those unable to be content within its own norms by blurring out at the edges, is an elaboration of Banks’s original model that reaffirms its best-possible-society credentials. But I think there’s also a suggestion than in their very discontentment, their straining after something else, the misfits have access to something of value that is necessarily unavailable to the well-adjusted denizens of utopia. The Excession represents transcendence, the pursuit of which is fundamentally closed to those who fit neatly into their world. It’s that whole Man’s-reach-should-e’er-exceed-his-graps idea. Certainly Banks thinks that on balance utopia is a better deal, but it brings its losses as well as its gains. It’s an area of concern that he touches on in other books, but this is the one that really puts it centre stage.
October 17, 2016 @ 8:58 pm
Or possibly even his grasp.
October 17, 2016 @ 9:47 pm
I’m not sure whether Banks is quite as sympathetic towards the conspirators as you suggest. They are, if nothing else, narratively framed as bad guys. We approach the conspiracy largely from the perspective of sympathetic and entertaining counter-conspirators. The only character through whom we get the conspirators’ point of view ends up killing itself in a fit of guilt. In the end they fail, leaving the Culture’s existing policy of restraint unchanged, as part of a generally upbeat ending. And they are thwarted by an erstwhile semi-accomplice who turns against them on learning the truth, a character which is presumably meant to be broadly sympathetic, if a bit creepily alien (viewed in real terms, I think it’s a total shit, but that’s part and parcel of its role in a disastrously misconceived plotline rather than being something deliberate, I think). So they are firmly positioned as villains in structural terms.
The actual moral-political question of how to deal with people like the Affront is certainly meant to be more debatable. But the fact that the consensus Culture preference is not to wage war, as with the Idirans, or foment revolution, as with the Azadians, but merely to contain their aggression while trying to cajole, bribe and manipulate them into behaving better among themselves, does represent a significant change of emphasis from previous books, even if there are diegetic explanations for the contrast. It’s part of a shift in the second phase of Culture writing away from favouring large-scale violence as a means of social change, towards non-violent reform through existing structures. This is a line that becomes clearer in the next two books – indeed, in the case of Inversions, it seems quite blatantly schematic, explicit and clunkingly heavy-handed. (Exactly where Banks ends up on this in the third phase is less clear, as these questions are less to the fore in those books, although Surface Detail certainly seems to represent a swing back in favour of revolutionary violence.)
October 18, 2016 @ 9:44 pm
One point I’d make about the Affront is that – as I recall it – they’re initially portrayed as these jolly, hearty fellows who like a good scrap, a bit wearying if you aren’t into that kind of thing, but basically harmless unless they’ve got a reason not to be. And the moment when the book makes quite clear that actually their society is completely horrific to any right-thinking Culturnik is also the moment when it doubles down on the idea that the Culture’s ambassador actually likes them.
If the Iridians were Banks’s take on Scary Dogmatic Aliens; the Affront seem to be a deconstruction of the Proud Warrior Race, In particular, it makes me think of Next Gen era Klingons, and the way the Federation often seemed to react to things like promotion-through-assassination with “Eh, that’s Klingons for you; not our place to interfere.”
October 19, 2016 @ 11:28 am
The Affront is an exaggerated and obvious parody of the British upper classes in the heyday of the Empire, all but cut’n’pasted into place. Top chaps if you’re on their side and not one of the colonised.
October 19, 2016 @ 11:30 am
Which is to say your first paragraph is spot-on, and that’s why.
October 19, 2016 @ 9:08 pm
My original draft used the phrase “a race of General Melchetts” at some point, but I decided against it.
October 21, 2016 @ 11:06 am
More Harry Flashman: a brutal and efficient thug on behalf of the Empire, but a charming buffoon in his off hours.