Banks burst into science fiction like your good uncle, bearing just what we needed and hardly knew we wanted: good writing, notable characters, impeccable technique, humor (no one will ever be able to name spaceships the same way again), a sense of enormous scale, icy plunges into the macabre, and a gleeful reversal of the usual politics of sf-- instead of peddling libertarianism or anarchism, or projecting the U.S. into the far future, Banks depicts an unabashed socialist utopia. (If that sounds grim, rest assured that the Culture is one of the few sf worlds it would really be fun to live in-- and that the "M." in Banks's name most likely stands for "moral ambiguity".)
So-- go and read them. Then you can come back here and hear about Excession, the latest Culture book. Go ahead. I'll wait.
First, Banks seems to have forgotten how to write. The prose is pedestrian and even awkward:
That there was absolutely no rapid way of telling which of these possibilities was the case was exactly the sort of trait the human found most endearing in the Affront. It was, equally, just the kind of attribute the Culture in general and his predecessors in particular had found to be such a source of despair.This is the author of the mind-bending Use of Weapons, or experimental novels like The Bridge? It sounds like the damn thing was dictated. There's hardly an interesting adverb or an arresting image in the book.
This sloppiness extends to the structure.
It's interesting to see more of the inside of the Culture, the life and thought of the Minds, and a consideration of what kind of advances the Culture might face next; but the book's use of its (and our) time is perverse. The potential of the excession is never explored-- it eventually just leaves, leaving the Culture pretty much as is. Is this really the author who destroyed a few quadrillion beings in Consider Phlebas, who turned an empire upside down in Player of Games, who killed off almost his entire cast in Against a Dark Background? The excession threatens to split the whole damn Culture wide open. Well, why not do that? Show the Culture in its ultimate crisis. If Banks is tired of writing Culture books-- and the book sure reads as if he is-- why not go out with a bang?
Instead, it's mostly just a rehash of old themes. The vigorous yet sadistic empire makes at least its third Banksian appearance here, without once sending the sort of chill Use of Weapons was packed with; by now learning the dark side of these regimes is a yawner. We see more of the Culture here, but don't learn much more than we did in Player of Games. We knew they had great parties and cool toys, man.
Most disappointing of all is simply the failure of vision.
And then when the excession finally talks, Banks can find nothing better to suggest its alienness than to write in lower case without punctuation, and no better language than the bureaucratic ("i assert hereby it fell within acceptable parameters"). Such an opportunity lost here: to see the Culture's Minds confronted with something as far beyond their own development as they are beyond a caveman or a microwave oven. But in the end all we get is the old Japanese-horror-movie motif: the gods inspect us and find us wanting, we're too violent and greedy, yadda yadda yadda.
So, is there anything good to say about the book? Hmm. Well, I kind of liked the drone in a pickle.