Monday, November 06, 2006

the last book I read

Excession by Iain M. Banks.

I read quite a number of Iain Banks' books a while ago (just quickly, for those not in the know, the "straight" novels are written as Iain Banks, while he acquires the "M" for the science fiction ones) and thought they ranged from the brilliant (The Wasp Factory) to the pretty good (Whit, Complicity) to the pretty underwhelming (Canal Dreams, The Business). It was only a couple of years ago I got round to reading Consider Phlebas, the first of his SF novels, and I thought it was terrific. I still think, having read three others, that it's the best one he's written. The two which follow it, The Player Of Games and Use Of Weapons, are much less rollicking adventure stories and much more psychological, character-driven books, not that there's anything wrong with that. Excession, on the other hand, is a funny sort of novel, slightly uncategorisable really. Not a huge amount actually happens, and a lot of it is transcripts of electronic communication between the AI "Minds" controlling a number of continent-sized spaceships. Given that, it's amazing that it rattles along as entertainingly as it does, especially as the central plot device is one that's been heavily used in any number of other sci-fi contexts from Star Trek onwards, namely: unimaginably advanced intelligence makes tentative contact with "us", takes a bit of a sniff around, casually brushes aside various attempts at contact and/or attack, decides that "we" are as yet too primitive and savage to be integrated into their world, and then buggers off again. Er, that's it. The "twist" here, such as it is, is that the "us" in this case is the Culture, a civilisation equally unimaginably advanced compared to our own.

Nowt wrong with it, though, though I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to the Culture series (Consider Phlebas or The Player Of Games would be the best place to start). And any author who introduces a healthy dose of sex and humour into science fiction (a pretty unbearably po-faced genre a lot of the time) deserves a big thumbs-up....

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If you get a chance, grab a copy of Against a Dark Background. Theft, violence, death, sex, war, religion and taxes. Not to mention an advanced weapons system with a sick sense of humour*. Smashing.


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