Saturday, April 11, 2009

Excession, Iain M. Banks

The Culture vs the Monolith!

This, Iain Banks' fourth Culture novel, is neither my favorite (still
Player of Games) nor my least favorite (still Use of Weapons). It's pretty great, and gave me just what I wanted right now. The Culture is Banks' vast supercivilization, run by superintelligent and superbenevolent machine Minds, the most significant of which are enormous spacecraft carrying two or three hundred million passengers (they require no crew). The Culture itself is more like a philosophy and an attitude than a discrete organization, more like Wikipedia than the Federation. Life is pretty much one huge vacation, and people have near total control over their own bodies: they have glands that can secrete drugs on command, can switch between male and female on a whim, &c. The primary occupation of sentient species is hedonism. Money is mostly obsolete, as is work.

In such a civilization, one thing that needs doing is "Contact". This is the branch of the Culture that engages younger, less civilized worlds, and gently guides them into assimilation with the Culture. The Culture is in that sense a lot like the 'Borg, except entirely benevolent. Except when they're not. The Culture will never use its irresistible martial might to cajole species into its fold, but it will use subterfuge. Dirty tricks. These are the responsibility of Contact's "Special Circumstances" division, who are in one way or another the focus of most of the books, since they're the most plot-driven citizens of the Culture. This is one of the more complicated Culture books, with a pretty huge cast of characters, a lot of them Minds with names like
Fate Amenable to Change and Not Invented Here. It is not a good Banks novel to start with. A good chunk is told through inter-Mind communiques that read like e-mails, with headers even. These vibe as sadly dated, but then it was written before e-mail became ubiquitous, in 1992.

The two main strands of plot concern the Culture experiencing its first "Outside Context Problem"--the kind of thing a civilization experiences only once, with ruinous consequences--and the Culture trying to entreat "The Affront", a comparatively un-advanced civilization based on institutionalized cruelty to its females and castrated males, into behaving better. The OCP is a stellar black body that is incomprehensible to the Culture and as far beyond their understanding of technology as their super-super-advanced technology is beyond the rest of the universe. This provides most of the book's exciting moments, as the portrayal of the Minds has heretofore been that of near-infallible godhood. And here they are confronted by something that transcends them utterly, and what the fuck is this thing anyway, and what should anyone do about it? The other strand is less successful, as the Affront is kind of a ridiculous creation, and doesn't seem ecologically
real enough. They seem too fictional for anyone to be bothered by them. Both strands, and the attendant sub-strands, weave together by the end, satisfactorily I must say, in a Vast Galactic Conspiracy.

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