Once again I've read a Culture novel, and this time, it deals with an incident in which the Culture encounters an Outside Context Problem – an Outside Context Problem, of course, being "the sort of thing most civilisations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop". Have I mentioned that Banks' humour reminds me of Douglas Adams?
In this case, a splinter group of the Culture has discovered a Big Dumb Object - a large, perfect black-body sphere which happens to be about 50 times older then the universe itself. Needless to say, this completely turns the tables on the Culture.
In most of their stories, the enlightened, anarchist, post-scarcity, sexually liberated utopian Culture citizens are pitted against various hostile alien civilizations that are by far their technical and scientific inferiors — and which also happen to often be almost cartoonishly cruel, sadistic and stupid. Excession does, in fact, also include such a rival civilization — one which refers to itself as The Affront, and which takes such a delight in causing suffering and misery that their domesticated animals are genetically engineered to suffer more and be more acutely aware of their suffering. Their society is a strict patriarchy, in which a small ruling elite of elder males brutally oppress a large population of females and castrated lower-caste males.
One might wonder how such a ridiculous society could ever rise to the point of mastering long-distance space ﬂight and genetic engineering in the ﬁrst place — and the answer, of course, is that they didn't. They were uplifted by an elder species.
Right, so we have the Culture, a bizarre alien artifact that's older than the universe, and a murderous villain species. How do all those pieces ﬁt together? Well… here's where it gets complicated. The story follows many plot threads, and unfortunately quickly gets rather confusing. The major thread deals with the discovery of the Excession (aforementioned artifact), and with how the Culture and the Affront both want property rights over it. However, what is happening behind the scenes is at least as important: A cabal of Culture Minds (the AIs that manage their entire civilization) have decided to exploit the discovery into goading the Affront into declaring war on the Culture — in no small part because that particular conspiracy of Minds want nothing more than to overthrow the Affront. And thus, in this story, most of the major characters are AIs with rather silly names. The primary biological character is an insufferably smug diplomat who represents the Culture on the Affront homeworld, and who idealizes his hosts.
It's a weird story. Of the Culture books I've read so far, it is the one that most effectively gives me an insight into the Minds of the Culture — to the extent that it's possible to convey what a being a trillion times more intelligent than me might be like.
Although I liked it overall, I unfortunately found the many separate plot threads confusing and mostly unnecessary. Still, I'd definitely recommend it.