Saturday, April 10, 2010

Culture reread V: Excession


-This was one I've been dreading rereading, having quite disliked it the first time through, and made me put of the larger project of going through the series again for a bit. My objections to Excession were various, and a number of them are recorded above in this thread: the arbitrary non-consequential plot, the uninteresting and unsympathetic characters, the iritating pace, thorough underuse of the whole idea on an OCP. Having reread it, I believe I was wrong with most of that, and find Excession to be a great novel. Unique and absorbing science fiction, showcasing many of Banks greatest talents and making for a recognizably different type of adventure story.
-There's definitely a shift here from the earlier volumes to the later of the series. For all their variety, they were ultimately intense character studies of some figure with the ethic of the Culture's intervention in another civilization. Here there's a greater variety of viewpoints and the focus is a lot more interior--the setting becomes a lot more significant and the Culture's interacts more peacefully with groups near their tech-range. And above it, of course, in the case of the titular Excession.

-The Excession as an artifact is still rubbish. It's interesting to have the Culture face something far above them and be so uncertain, but there needs to be a sense of something interesting in its own right, some civilization with ideals and norms. Instead, all we're given is an extremely powerful scout that does nothing for its default, is reactive to events, and shows its power by breaking physical laws that Banks himself set up, and hasn't greatly emphasized before this novel.
-I don't see this lack of creativity as a dealbreaker this time because the Excession is just there to push things around. Like the Inhibitors from Revelation Space, its an external presence that generates movement around the setting and different reaction to it. The setting that comes into focus is fantastic--amusing, grotesque, optimistic, tragic and creative in different measures. Part of what I liked in Excession was how it addressed a number of my earlier criticisms. I mentioned previously with The Player of Games how the Culture seemed a bit too conventional, mono-formed, and assuming that its generally niceness with AI was a simple inevitability. Here, we're given a look into some other groups basically Culture-level in tech, are clearly fairly ethical unlike the Idirans and Homoda, and constitute a viable alternative. The peace faction and Tendency feature here, but more especially the Elench. Their focus on remaking themselves rather than ameliorating others makes for a nice contrast, and is in many ways a more appealing goal. Diversity and self-transformation, with the expectation that two Elencher ships that separate will meet later having diverged yet sharing still the memetic pattern for alteration. It's definitely a less imperialist view than the Cultures, and while it also arguably does less in the way of working to improve bystanders, it also sounds the more dynamic standpoint. As well, the status of Elench Minds and that the whole faction split from the Culture makes for a kind of subversive counterpoint to them, and makes the whole setting a lot more interesting. One doesn't generally see in space opera the good polities fragmenting benignly in that way, and it's a lot more dynamic to have splinter groups forming, reabsorbing, diverging further, then to just have individuals leave the Culture. Particularly when those that leave have horrible fates as an indication of why they were wrong to go against hedonism, see A Gift From the Culture and State of the Art.
-It's a pity that Banks undermines the Elench in the course of his narrative. There are some pretty intriguing philosophical arguments they make that aren't really addressed, but the way events play out the Culture perspective is validated and the Elench get seen as second-best. The Elench's desire to poke the Excession is shown as reckless, while the Culture's comparative paranoia seems the more sensible if less potentially rewarding one (ignoring the status of the conspiracy that gets involved with this, see bellow). Much as with the Morthanveld latter--their ideology being shown as too cautious to face the Iln--there's a sense that Banks gives his civilization a narrative justification that's a bit contrived.
-It's even more of a pity that, to my recollection, the Elench are never mentioned in subsequent stories.

-Still, for all the contrast isn't ideal, the initial setup made with the Elench ship's takeover and flight of the drone is very tense. It's intense, distinctive and helps make for an effective launch to the novel. Connected with that, I had a much more favorable impression of the Affront--exaggerated hyper-masculinity, casual good cheer, utter sadism. In many ways they make a more effective counterpart to the Culture than the Idirans' flat fanaticism or Azad's decadent court with sadistic underpinnings. There's something oddly disarming about how open they are with their cruelty--human heads off to the side, attempted anal rape on Affronters being a casual greeting--it doesn't in itself lend to great depth, but it makes for a fun and disturbing society. Reminded me a lot of the Dwellers, of course, but in some ways they're more effective for ultimately taking place in a moral universe. I still think it would have been a lot more interesting if the Affront had had the tech/resource edge over the Culture.

-Characterization also plays a lot better than I remembered. Genar's not nearly as engaging as Gurgeh, for instance, but he's vibrant enough for his subplot to hold up, and has a strong introductory scene that provides reasonable interest. Ulver's kind of entertaining in how immature she is, although her great intelligence seems to remain an informed attribute, and why she specifically was necessary seems inadequately cleared. It feels a lot like characters are there just to move along the focus to different parts of the setting, but unlike Consider Phlebas the connection is tight enough and the prose sufficiently vibrant to make it worthwhile.
-As well, more attention is given to the Minds overall. On one level this is a bit problematic, as they seem too pedestrian, too human. The speeds of their actions are extreme, but at times we seem their mental processes and they appear a bit conventional. On the other hand, they are made forceful personalities, a number of unique character types coming across well.

-The notion of Eccentric ships is an interesting one. In reflection at one point the Sleeping Service mentions the charade as liberating, being able to indulge its full whims and desires, in a way that's theoretically allowed but custom frowns on for regular ships. I'm reminded of Orwell's comment that an anarchy, in principle a complete free society, could easily become one of the most coercive ones because of the power placed by custom and unwritten consensus.

-Following all the twists of the conspiracy is pretty interesting, and the ultimate intent makes it both somewhat sympathetic and another mildly dystopian edge for the Culture. There's a bit of a plausibility factor, though. As things go, the notion of the Attitude Adjuster and others wanting to force the debate and have the Culture roll over the Affront is understandable. It seems a bit much to have them just hand over the Pittance fleet to them, though--it makes it obvious there's been internal subversion, and aren't Minds supposed to be more subtle than that? As well, the decision to active all this in the context of the Excession seems rash--it's a convenient excuse in some ways but is toying with things they'll obviously be unable to control.
-In another matter the society seems better at stretching the borders. Genar's desire to be an Affront (even if treated as very strange), the Tendency person with wings--it makes for a stranger feeling, one reinforced by having Minds be so prominent. I still think the sexual differentiation are too conservative though. There are these binaries of male and female, and people routinely go from one to the other--something halting in the middle, but no typically. It's pretty drab, really. Again on Reynolds, I seem to recall Revelation Space being more creative with these notions.

-There's something kind of satisfying about the ending, where what seemed initially as the setup for explosive space opera turns out to derive more drama from a character moment, the meeting and discussion of two past lovers in the context of the Sleeper Service's obsession. In contrast the Excession just leaves. It's a satisfying final tone in a number of ways, but it definitely makes for less edge to the finale, a weaker final punch. The lack of anything that happened having a real impact on the setting is a bit of an drag. Interesting as the survey is, if Banks is going to invest so heavily in threatening the normal state of Involved in the Cultureverse, it would be worthwhile for him to do something to actually shift it.

Similar to and better than: Jack Vance's The Five Gold Bands

Similar to and worse than: Alastair Reynolds' The House of Suns

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