No matter how advanced a civilisation may be, there’s always a chance it will encounter an Out of Context Problem: something so far beyond it that it may accidentally – or intentionally – destroy everything. When an impenetrable black-body sphere appears in Culture space, factions scramble to take advantage – if they can work out how to do so.

Book cover: Excession - Iain M Banks (a spaceship silhouetted in front of a star)

Ah, Excession, our love/hate affair continues. This was the third time I’ve read it, and after hating it the first time and loving it the second, this time I’m just split down the middle: I hate the humans and love the Minds.

Reading the Culture novels in close succession this year, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed seeing the progression from Consider Phlebas as I’ve worked my way into Special Circumstances book by book to Excession (and I’ll admit that from this point onwards I’m into books I’ve only ever read once and don’t really remember, which is quite exciting) – but it has left me utterly despairing at Banks’s vision for humanity.

The problem with a post-scarcity future of complete excess and hedonism is the vapidity that goes with it. This was less obvious in the younger Culture: we met a single SC agent in the Idiran war in Phlebas, and as an agent infiltrating a hostile vessel Balveda couldn’t afford to be vapid; Jernau Morat Gurgeh in Player of Games was a wildly clever bloke who was despairing of exactly the same traits in his society that are annoying me; and we got only a brief glimpse of Sma’s hedonistic excesses in Use of Weapons.

In Excession, it’s clear the Minds are pulling all the strings – implicit in every book to this point, but now underlined – because the humans couldn’t find their way out of their navels with a map and a ball of string. Unfortunately for me, they get a lot of page time.

I’d cheerfully skip the lot of them and just read the Minds. They give us politics, acerbity, convoluted ethics, self-reflection, poetry, horror and glimpses into the intellectual hierarchies at play within the Culture. Lucky humanity, allowed to play in a future they long since abrogated all responsibility for, because – thankfully – their ancient creations have souls and consciences (of sorts; here we see that even the Minds are far from incorruptible, and that one Mind’s necessary outcome is another’s black-souled conspiracy).

The distinctions between one Mind’s conscience and another’s (most notably the Attitude Adjuster, the Killing Time, the Grey Area and the Sleeper Service) are fascinating, as are the carefully drawn lines of their monumental egos. The Sleeper Service keeps Dajeil aboard in a sense because it is playing God – however much it shies away from direct interference (which it can afford to do, without any real time constraints). The Grey Area plays God more directly, sampling the minds of entire planets to pass judgement on unContacted wrongdoers.

I’ll admit to struggling to keep track of which Mind was part of what conspiracy, but… I’m only basic human.

The only interesting aspect of the human storylines (which I’m serious; I’ll just skip in any future read – especially Alicia Silverstone Ulver Seich) was the denouement of the Dajeil Gelian / Byr Genar-Hofoen plot. After 40 years of pregnant sulking, Dajeil finally has the opportunity to see her former lover and is unexpectedly reluctant to do so. We’re set up to sympathise with Dajeil (although you may have spotted this didn’t exactly work on me).

However, the slow reveal of the Dajeil/Byr storyline makes it clear that he didn’t really just abandon her one day; and while he may have cheated on her, she then assaulted him when he was female and sort-of pregnant, killing Byr’s baby and nearly killing Byr. When Byr – understandably – leaves, Dajeil puts her own pregnancy (and life) on hold for the next 40 years – regularly accused of sulking, but possibly wallowing in remorse, or traumatised and hoping for Byr’s return to achieve some sort of closure.

Either way, I find 2 things intriguing and whispered rather than shouted through the narrative: Dajeil would have killed Byr permanently. It becomes clear at the end of the book that Byr has never been backed up and lives on the principle of only getting one shot at life – and Dajeil was aware of this when she stabbed him.

In facing death a second time, Byr comes to terms with that assault, and in facing hers (and losing control of her pregnancy), Dajeil comes to terms with giving birth at last. Both are able to move on. These very human notes are quieter refrains of pathos that cut across the huge operatic chaos going on ship-to-ship around the Excession. They’re at odds with the portrayal of humanity in general, and offer something almost more recognisably human in terms of relatable tragedy (and yes, I sort of hate myself a bit for thinking that, but there you go).

Looked at from this perspective, the Sleeper Service‘s actions make a huge amount more sense – it feels responsible. It’s not just playing God, it’s trying to make amends (and not necessarily to Dajeil) – which is why it can’t take its sensors off the human action even while it tries to figure out what to do with the Excession.

So I can respect the outcome of this plot line, but oh, I didn’t enjoy the journey. And it takes the gloss of the epically entertaining AI narrative. In the end, it’s 3 stars – I’d give it a begrudging 3 and a half if I was doing halves, but I can’t go to 4 – because flipping back and forth between a slog and a romp is intensely frustrating.

*** (1/2)