Intrigue, Plots, and What to Do When You Have Everything: Excession

ExcessionI’m back in love with Iain M. Banks’ Culture series.  As I noted earlier this year, I found Use of Weapons less than gripping. However, the subsequent novel, Excession, has restored my faith in Banks’ ability to weave a compelling if very complex narrative. In this novel, a strange artifact that has briefly appeared 2500 years ago and baffled the Culture’s attempts to understand it, has suddenly reappeared. There ensues a variety of attempts by different Minds to study/control/claim the Excession and a number of tangled plots unfold. While I have to admit that at times it is difficult to keep straight which Mind is responsible for what actions, this complexity does help to deepen our experience of Banks’ imaginative world. The Culture is incredibly complex in that it is “run” (or maybe a better word is overseen) by a large number of vastly intelligent, sentient AIs who live in massive spaceships. Each of these Minds has a distinct personality and, as Excession reveals, a different sense of how the Culture should conduct itself towards other species, events, and technologies. This book, more than any others I have read, puts the Minds on center stage as primary characters. I really liked it and hope that the rest of the books continue this trend because the human characters are sometimes weaker or less interesting.

This weakness may be because most of the human characters ultimately have little sense of purpose or guiding desires in their lives. They live very affluent lives with very little to fear as their genetically modified bodies can self-repair, any desires or needs are easily met by the Culture’s many technologies, and they always have the option to Store themselves  (enter a kind of cryogenic sleep) or be reincarnated into another body. Basically any of the desires and needs that guide our own lives are entirely absent from theirs. They have no need to worry about jobs, food, pleasure, or other such mundane concerns. Instead, they find various ways to entertain themselves – Jernau immerses himself in the study and mastery of all different kinds of games in The Player of Games while Cheradenine Zakalwe finds the improvising and difficult work of being a Contact agent fulfilling in Use of Weapons – with most content to live pampered lives aboard the huge General Systems Vehicles (GSV) or Orbital (massive ring worlds). What makes the two primary human characters of Excession interesting – Byr Genar-Hofoen who is a Contact agent living amongst a brutally cruel species called the Affront and Dajeil who is living a self-imposed exile aboard an Eccentric ship that reconstructs historical battles with Stored bodies – is the ways that they find meaning. Byr tries to sleep with every woman he meets while Dajeil is a committed scientist of sorts who believes in a monogamy. Their relationship becomes a key part of a plot between various ships that is ultimately secondary to the conflict around the Excession.

Now, I found this part of the book less compelling because it lacked the kind of weight that the Excession plot holds, and yet it is a crucial part of the way that Banks moves between events of a massive scale and the tiny human-scale. Banks has the difficult task of trying to keep from being caught up in the epic events of a potentially cataclysmic event and alienating readers in the process. I believe that the human plot is a way of keeping the novel more intimate. And yet, it seems a lesser part of the narrative for some reason. I won’t spoil the ending, but he does weave the two plots together in a compelling way that helps shed light on the Minds’ strange habits and obsessions.

Overall I would highly recommend this book to fans of Banks’ Culture series. However, I wouldn’t recommend this as a first foray into his world as it requires a fair bit of background knowledge to pick up some of its humor and various plots.

Banks, Iain M. Excession. London: Orbit, 1997. Print.

Space Opera Again but This Time with Less Excitement: Use of Weapons

UseofWeaponsI am not sure what to make of Iain M. Banks’ work. I loved The Player of Games and while I enjoyed Consider Phlebas I found the initial learning curve a little steep. Use of Weapons  is Banks’ third full novel set in the Culture universe and I had the chance to read it over the last few weeks. The fact that it took a few weeks rather than a few days to read should be signal enough that I found this novel less than absolutely enthralling. It might be that the central theme of Player of Games, game-playing in various forms,  is really what hooked me whereas the central theme of Use of Weapons, the place of war and violence in several characters’ lives, was somewhat less appealing. I am not quite sure what to make of this difference in reaction. One thing does stand out to me, and that is that Banks certainly does not rest on his laurels and simply reproduce similar plots/themes/motifs. Use of Weapons stands apart from the other two Culture novels I have read.

Perhaps part of my ambivalent reaction stems from the narrative structure which tells two story-lines. The first concerns the attempt by Diziet Sma, a Special Circumstances agent,  recruiting Zakalwe to do some of the Culture’s dirty work in a cluster of planets on the brink of all-out war. Zakalwe, a hardened mercenary who works for cash more than glory or prestige, accepts the job and finds himself embroiled in a seething and ever-changing world of cut-throat politics and bouts of intense physical action. The second story-line concerns Zakalwe’s past. He is enigmatic in that he comes from a world outside of the Culture’s reach but has long been a mercenary for the Culture. However, the trick is that Banks tells all of Zakalwe’s backstory in a reverse chronology of sorts, moving backwards into his earlier life. These chapters are numbered differently and are placed in between chapters of the chronologically forward moving narrative of his work on Voerenhutz. I found this structure confusing throughout as Zakalwe’s backstory is never clearly dated so that I found myself constantly trying to construct a straightforward history of his past. I’m guessing this was Banks’ intent as there are some pretty significant moments late on in Use of Weapons that hinge on understanding Zakalwe’s past. Looking back at it now, a few days after finishing the novel, I can appreciate the intricate structure and the narrative work it does. However, I’m not sure that it worked as much in the moment.

Where I think Use of Weapons really stands out to me is the way that slyly critiques our own culture. In one section, Banks suggests that Sma has visited Earth with her critiquing the use of electric chairs in a country that prevents “cruel and unusual punishments.” Overall, the entire novel itself critiques war by showing the Culture and the local oppressors using it as a means to various ends with no real regard for the human bodies involved. I think a subplot throughout the three Culture novels I have read is whether the Culture itself is good or bad as they seem variously benign and benevolent or cruel, cold, and extremely calculating (especially in the scene where Zakalwe is extracted from a war he has just managed to turn towards his side against all odds in order for a kind of deus ex machina move to keep the system’s political honchos happy). Zakalwe is a weapon throughout the novel and he ruminates on his status as such. Sometimes he seems to accept and revel in it while at other times he seems deeply disturbed by it, perhaps even ruined by the violence he has enacted on others.

Overall I would say that Use of Weapons is a very good book. I’m not sure why I couldn’t get into it, but it certainly places above Consider Phlebas for me because of its narrative sophistication and the complex thinking it does on war, violence, and morality.

I would recommend Use of Weapons for sci-fi fans, but stand by my assertion that it is probably best to start with Player of Games if you haven’t encountered Banks’ work before.

Banks, Iain M. Use of Weapons. 1990. London, Orbit Books, 2011. Print.