2 June 1996
by Iain Banks (Orbit)
Iain Banks’s eldritch first science-fiction novel, Consider Phlebas (1987), introduced the Culture, a hedonist galactic civilization of humanoid species, spacefaring for eleven millennia, genofixed to enable them to change sex at will and “gland” recreational drugs. They lived for around 400 years and placed their faith in the Minds, the sentient machines that built and controlled their interstellar craft and artificial habitats. Here was space opera in excelsis (the generic term arises by analogy with “horse opera”, the Western movie, rather than having anything to do with divas). And yet, when most post-war American space opera dreamt pleasantly of pan-galactic capitalism, Banks’s Culture, because its technology spread infinite productive capacity evenly throughout the occupied volumes of the Milky Way, was a communist utopia.
Communist and godless: thus arises a war, in Consider Phlebas, between the Culture and the Idirans, zealous tripedal warriors with a jihad to “calm, integrate and instruct” faithless species. The Culture despises the Idirans’ brutality; the Idirans the Culture’s heretical respect for their Minds. The sly allusion to 20th-century Earth conflicts is nailed down by one of the novel’s epigraphs: “Idolatry is worse than carnage”, from the Koran. In fact, the whole war, with casualties computed in billions, is glimpsed only occasionally, and that ideological car-crash is but diverting counterpoint to the viscerally satisfying plot, which follows the attempts of Bora Horza Gobuchul, a mercenary, to kidnap a fugitive Culture Mind for the Idirans.
Horza is the last of a humanoid species called the Changers (hence the Waste Land reference), designed as a chameleon-weapon in some forgotten conflict, who can alter their own DNA; he works for the Idirans simply because they are on the side of (exclusively) biological life. Trailed by his nemesis, a female Culture agent, Horza eventually lands on the Planet of the Dead (so-called because its indigenous humanoid species wiped themselves out) where he had, years earlier, abandoned the love of his life. Witty, clever and stuffed with exuberant gadgetry, Consider Phlebas was most remarkable as science-fiction for Banks’s cruel sophistication of character and motive.
While the Culture is victorious, it fails to prove its enemy wrong. Moreover, in building a war-fleet, it becomes an image of what it despises: it is potent, but ambivalent. Banks’s subsequent two Culture novels grew in political muscle, even if they could not replicate the delicious sweep of Phlebas. The Player of Games (1988) and Use of Weapons (1990, the darkest and most formally dazzling of any of Banks’s novels) both explored the actions of the Culture’s Contact arm, its moral raison d’etre: Contact ships wander the galaxy, deciding whether or not to bestow technological gifts upon less advanced civilizations, and interfering in wars in favour of the more right-thinking factions. Though the Culture (for which some might care to read a politically-inverted America) sees such interventionism as the duty of power, the outcome is rarely optimal.
Banks had already hinted in Phlebas as to the fate of Earth: stealing the old Star Wars legerdemain of mythologizing SF by setting it in the past (“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”), the novel’s appendices reveal that the Idiran War took place in our 14th century, and that Earth was Contacted in the 22nd. Earth was central in the too-obvious novella, The State of the Art (1991), about a Contact ship stumbling upon us in 1977, which can safely be forgotten. There followed two non-Culture SF novels: Against a Dark Background (1993), a pessimistic fantasy romp, and Feersum Endjinn (1994), an impressive though obscurantist tale of a future Earth which mixes dormant hi-tech with medieval adventure (granted cyberpunk and steampunk, call it swordpunk). Expectations are therefore high for Excession, the first Culture novel in six years.
An Excession: Culture jargon for something excessively powerful. Two-and-a-half millennia ago, they found a dead star which was 50 times the age of the universe. Accompanying it was an ineffable artifact: a black-body sphere, resistant to exploratory scans, which caused an (unheard-of) engine fault in the investigating ship, and then disappeared. Now the sphere (the Excession) is back, a ship is missing, and the Culture is faced with something which promises true immortality, providing a conduit to other universes to avoid the final heat death of its own. The Affront, a vicious, expansionist alien race whom the Culture ought to have subjugated after the Idiran War (now 500 years in the past) but did not, in the face of widespread battle fatigue, are now thirsty for a brawl, and believe the Excession may help them win.
A MacGuffin-hunt, then. Banks is enjoying himself, expanding his taxonomy of Mind-controlled spacecraft (Rapid Offensive Units are divided into Abominator, Torturer, Inquisitor, Killer, Thug and Scree classes), and also his psychology of those craft – they are the major protagonists; the humans inhabit a parallel strand about a horrific but possibly salvageable love affair. The ships are variously stuffy, secretive, cavort-prone or militaristic. Banks built a logical limiting factor into the Culture’s technocracy back in Phlebas: theoretically the Culture enjoys freedom of information, but since most of that information is stored in Minds, and they have the same rights as, indeed are persons, no one can force it out of them. This, along with the Culture’s unwillingness to reveal its true might to others, was the excuse for the primacy of human action in the previous novels; here it is the enabling device for a plot driven by machine motive: the Minds too can deceive and conspire, and on good utilitarian principles justify a galactic war entailing “gigadeathcrime”.
By their names shall you know them. Culture ships choose their own names after construction, and Banks’s names have always dropped like ironic time-bombs: following the particularly apocalyptic climax of The Player of Games, for example, the survivors rendez-vous with the So Much For Subtlety. Here name, in the classical manner, decides fate and character: the Not Invented Here‘s name looks like a disclaimer of guilt (and it is guilty); the Shoot Them Later wants to cannon up (but is finally one of the good guys). Other touches go to make up the immensely fine-grained pleasures of any Banks SF work: one particularly inquisitive offshoot of the Culture glories in the pleonastic title, the Zetetic Elench. Banks does action very well, in sinewy prose that is not just a movie template. He does not write “hard” SF, the kind jammed with faux-technical detail, but has a visionary mode of explication (“Imagine a vast and glittering ocean…”) in which the success of the writing is predicated not on an appeal to reality, but on the prettiness of the metaphor.
Though gripping, touching, and funny, Excession lacks the wildness of the earlier novels, offering instead a refinement and summation of Banks’s universe, a return to the oblique worrying at morality begun in Phlebas. Here the Culture encounters its first real Outside Context Problem, defined as the moment when a society buts up against something vastly more powerful, which threatens its entire façon de vivre. “An OCP was the sort of thing most civilizations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop.” Let us hope it is only a semi-colon.