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.