Excession, first published in 1996, is Scottish writer Iain M. Banks's fourth science fiction novel to feature the Culture. It concerns the response of the Culture and other interstellar societies to an unprecedented alien artifact, the Excession of the title.
The book is largely about the response of the Culture's Minds (AIs with enormous intellectual and physical capabilities and distinctive personalities) to the Excession itself and the way in which another society, whose systematic brutality horrifies the Culture, tries to use the Excession to increase its power. As in Banks' other Culture novels the main themes are the moral dilemmas which confront a hyperpower and how biological characters find ways to give their lives meaning in a post-scarcity society which is presided over by benign super-intelligent machines. The book features a large collection of Culture ship names, some of which give subtle clues about the roles these ships' Minds play in the story. In terms of style, the book is also notable for the way in which many important conversations between Minds resemble email messages complete with headers.
1 Plot summary,
2 Outside Context Problem,
3 Literary significance and criticism
3.1 Banks' view of the Culture,
5 External links,
The Excession of the title is a perfect black-body sphere that appears mysteriously on the edge of Culture space, appears to be older than the Universe itself and resists the attempts of the Culture and technologically equivalent societies (notably the Zetetic Elench) to probe it. The Excession is what the Culture's social scientists describe as an Outside Context Problem, one which a society cannot foresee and is often fatal. A metaphor to help explain this phrase is that of a successful aboriginal culture suddenly finding ocean-going vessels on its shores for the first time.
A group of stereotypical bureaucrats tries to manage the Culture's response to the Excession but is brushed aside by the Interesting Times Gang, an informal group of Minds some of whom are veterans of the Idiran-Culture War, to try to deal with what is by far the most serious challenge the Culture has faced.
Meanwhile a rapidly-expanding race, which the Culture calls the Affront (because of its systematic sadism towards subject species and its own females and junior males, despite being relatively advanced), tries to exploit the Excession by infiltrating a store of mothballed Culture warships and using them to claim control of the mysterious object.
It turns out that the Affront have been manipulated into their grab for power by another Culture faction which thought it was morally imperative to curb the Affront's cruelty by any means, and intend to use the Affront's theft of Culture warships as an excuse for war.
The GSV Sleeper Service eventually takes control of the situation. Its name is the most meaningful pun in the story: outwardly it is an Eccentric (drop-out from the Culture) which dedicates its enormous resources to presenting tableaux of historical events (mainly battles) populated by passengers in suspended animation; but in fact it is a sleeping member of Special Circumstances (SC), the Culture's covert operations organisation. The name of Sleeper Service is thus double-pronged--it is a Sleeper Service to human beings in Storage, and a Sleeper Service within SC, as it has produced a massive war-fleet during the 40-year period it has spent behaving as an Eccentric. It prepares to deploy this fleet during transit to the Excession.
But Sleeper Service has an unresolved issue. Until a few decades previously, the ship operated under another name as a normal GSV, providing a habitat for a vast number of Culture citizens. Two of its passengers, Dajeil and Genar-Hofoen, had had an intense love-affair and, after a series of sex changes, had each become impregnated by the other until Genar-Hofoen was unfaithful and Dajeil attacked Genar-Hofoen, killing the unborn child. After the break-up, Dajeil froze her pregnancy and withdrew from society for 40 years while the ship changed its name to Sleeper Service and started acting as an Eccentric. It carried only one conscious humanoid passenger, Dajeil, for which it considered itself partly responsible.
As a result, when the Culture asks Sleeper Service to help in dealing with the Excession, the ship demands that in return Genar-Hofoen must be handed over to it. Genar-Hofoen is lured to Sleeper Service on a pretext, and only later told that he is there to work with Dajeil to help her recover from her psychological trauma.
Sleeper Service then unloads the passengers who had been part of its historical tableaux. Having converted a large percentage of its internal structure into engines, it easily outruns the very fast ship which other elements of the Culture had asked to keep watch on it. Once it is beyond the watching ship's sensor range, Sleeper Service changes course and heads towards the Excession. When it arrives, it deploys in the region of 80,000 remote-controlled warships. The Excession unleashes a vast energy weapon which threatens to obliterate the Sleeper Service and its entire fleet. In desperation, the Sleeper Service transmits a complete copy of its personality, its "Mindstate", to the Excession, which immediately calls off the attack. The Minds controlling the ships which the Affront stole from the "mothball" find themselves outnumbered more than 130:1 and refuse to fight. The Affront fleet's commander and the Culture ship which led the conspiracy commit suicide. A prolonged war is thus averted. At the same time the Excession disappears as mysteriously as it arrived.
Meanwhile, the rush of events, combined with a conversation with Genar-Hofoen, results in Dajeil deciding to complete her pregnancy. Genar-Hofoen returns to the Affront, having been rewarded by being physically transformed into a member of the Affront species (whose company he finds more stimulating than that of the Culture's people).
The book's epilogue reveals that the Excession is a sentient entity which is currently acting as a bridge for a procession of even higher beings which travel between universes. It also assesses whether the species and societies it encounters are suitable to be enlightened about some unknown further existence beyond the Universe. As a result of events in the story the Excession concludes that the civilisations it has encountered in our universe are not ready for this enlightenment and hides itself so that it will not cause any further disturbance, hence its disappearance at the end of the book. It also takes the name given to it by the Culture - Excession - as its own.
Outside Context Problem:
This novel is about how the Culture deals with an Outside Context Problem (OCP), the kind of problem "most civilizations would encounter just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop."
This is a problem that is "outside the context" as it is generally not considered until it occurs, and the capacity to actually conceive of or consider the OCP in the first place may not be possible or very limited (i.e., the majority of the group's population may not have the knowledge or ability to realize that the OCP can arise, or assume it is extremely unlikely). An example of OCP is an event in which a civilization does not consider the possibility that a much more technologically advanced society can exist, and then encounters one. The term is coined by Banks for the purpose of this novel, and described as follows:
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 neighbors 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.
Banks has noted that he spent much time playing the Civilization computer game (appearing to refer to the first version of the game series) before writing the book and that it was one of the inspirations for the concept of the 'Outside Context Problem' central to the novel. In an interview, Banks specifically compares this to having a Civilization battleship arrive while the player is still using wooden sailing ships.
Literary significance and criticism:
Banks' view of the Culture:
The book, more than any of the other Culture novels, focuses on the Culture's Minds as protagonists.
When asked about his focus on the possibilities of technology in fiction, Banks said about the book:
You can't escape the fact that humanity is a technological species, homo technophile or whatever the Latin is. Technology is neither good or bad, it's up to the user. We can't escape what we are, which is a technological species. There's no way back.
Also significant within the Culture novel cycle is that the book shows a number of Minds acting in a decidedly non-benevolent way, somewhat qualifying the godlike non-corruptibility and benevolence they are ascribed in other Culture novels. Banks himself has described the actions of some of the Minds in the novel as akin to "barbarian kings presented with the promise of gold in the hills."
Most reviewers praised the book's ideas and witty writing, but some complained about its complexity. A few who praised it commented that Excession's complexity and frequent use of in-jokes make it advisable for new readers of Banks' Culture stories to start with other books.