is the fourth Culture
novel, written by Iain M. Banks
. It concerns the reactions of individuals (mostly Minds) of the Culture (and other interspatial species) to the discovery of an unknown and enigmatic artifact: The Excession.
Excession provides examples of the following tropes:
- Affably Evil: Species of sadistic card-carrying Blood Knights though they might be, it's pointed out in-universe that the Affront are disturbingly likable and fun (and funny) in spite of all that, and they're ostensibly seeking peaceful diplomatic relations with the Culture without ulterior motive. It turns out that even the Affront plot against the Culture was actually initiated as a False Flag Operation by rogue Minds within the Culture to give them an excuse to curb the Affront's horrible internal activities, since the Affront did not in fact seem to be planning a betrayal on their own.
- Anachronic Order: The book has two plot lines: One running normally and detailing the reactions to the Excession, and a second that consists of Flashbacks about Byr and Dajeil's life.
- Another Man's Terror: The GCU Grey Area uses this as karmic punishment for a retired soldier who was involved in a genocidal campaign, by making him relive the agonising deaths of his victims. He experiences days of torment, briefly wakes in his bedroom to find that mere seconds have passed, then experiences another victim's slow agonising death, over and over until his hearts finally give out.
- Appropriated Appellation: The Affront isn't their original name. They were called the Affront as a criticism of their sadism and brutality, but they took it as a compliment and started calling themselves that. At the end of the book, the Excession also announces it is adopting the Culture's name for itself.
- Babies Make Everything Better: Subverted. Dajeil has been keeping an unborn baby in suspension for years, and she's the cause of a fair amount of the Sleeper Service's drama.
- Backup Twin:
- Before it starts a suicidal attack on the hijacked Pittance fleet, the Killing Time asks various ships to accept its mind-state.
- The Elencher drone Sisela Ytheleus from the beginning downloads its mind-state into its twin as part of Peace Makes Plenty's contingency plan.
- Big Dumb Object: The titular Excession: it's a large featureless sphere floating in deep space, apparently dangerous, and has about a dozen sorts of physically impossible features (for example, it has mass, but doesn't warp spacetime).
- Blood Knight: The Affront are an entire race of them, which naturally causes them some friction with the (theoretically) peace-loving Culture.
- Blue-and-Orange Morality: The Affront are sufficiently fond of inflicting fear and pain that when other species started calling them the Affront, they took it as a compliment and adopted it as the official name of their civilization on the galactic stage.
- Boisterous Bruiser: The Affront again, and actually a bigger problem for the Culture — the Affronters have a cultural penchant for sadism and depravity that the Culture finds detestable, but unlike the Idirians, they're not at war with the Culture, and are in fact seeking cordial diplomatic relations. This puts the Culture in the somewhat awkward position of being seen as an open aggressor if they were to intervene, even if it was on a humanitarian basis.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: The Interesting Times Gang (ITG), a kind of informal think tank of senior Minds who put their figurative heads together to try and coordinate the Culture's response to the titular Excession. They're all eccentric, but they're not all Eccentric.note It Makes Sense in Context.
- The Casanova: Byr has a reputation as a ladykiller who Really Gets Around — which wouldn't be unusual in the culture except that he's a love 'em and leave 'em type who seduces women and breaks hearts, rather than engaging in the friendly, casual, open, polysexual polyamory of the rest of the Culture.
- The Chessmaster: The conspiracy's planners, very much so — they manipulate a splinter group within the Affront into attacking the Culture, thus justifying the Culture's intervention against the Affront, allowing them to step in to directly curb the litany of horrors that is Affront culture while not looking like the bad guys. Said conspirators are themselves Minds within the Culture, making the whole thing a rather convoluted False Flag Operation.
- Continuity Nod:
- There are plenty of references to the Idiran war, centuries after the fact.
- A rather subtle one: In The Player of Games, Yay (who is on an Orbital landscaping committee) expresses her desire to make floating islands on Orbitals. In this novel, Tishlin takes an airship ride among floating islands on an Orbital.
- A single line appears to reference some rules that were instituted as a result of whatever happened to Azad after the conclusion of The Player of Games:
Under the terms of the temporary emergencies, allowed subterfuges, post-debacle steering committee report following the Azadian matter...
- Continuous Decompression: On Pittance.
- Cool Ship: Most of the characters are ships, but the stand-outs are the Sleeper Service and the Killing Time.
- Death Seeker: The Killing Time, sort of, after its attempt at Heroic Sacrifice failed.
- Didn't See That Coming: No-one in the entire galaxy saw the Excession itself coming, and in particular no-one even considered that the Eccentric Sleeper Service was building its own war fleet!
- Driven to Suicide: Attitude Adjuster, Not Invented Here and the Affronter commander.
- Every One Has Standards: Manipulating organic brains as the Grey Area does is compared to bestiality as a taboo among Minds... while trying not to be openly condescending about it. It's so extraordinarily easy for an intellect on the magnitude of a Mind to read or edit the organic brain of something as relatively powerless as a human, so anything other than refraining from doing so is seen as taking advantage due to the difference in mental capacity and sheer gap in power.
- Exposition of Immortality: The Drone Churt Lyne, who accompanies Ulver Seich on her travels, is mentioned as having been a family friend for a millennia with parts of its personality dating back to ancient household computer programs from 9,000 years ago. The MSV Not Invented Here is also pretty old: Desert-class MSVs were among the original "large self-sustaining" ship designs the Culture came up with two millennia prior to the Idiran War, which itself took place 800 years before the events of Excession.
- Face Palm: The Fate Amenable to Change, metaphorically.
If the Fate Amenable to Change had been a human, at this point, it would have looked down, put one hand over its eyes, and shaken its head.
- Faster-Than-Light Travel: Taken to a mind-bending degree. To get away from its official/unofficial stalker, the Sleeper Service converts all its extra mass into one huge engine — this is a ship with an internal volume of over a hundred thousand cubic kilometers — and reaches somewhere in the vicinity of 230,000 times lightspeed. By the end, the stalker is left asking itself, "Where is it going, Andromeda?!" note
- Fate Worse than Death
- Creatures genetically altered by the Affront. Not least is that they genetically altered their own females to make sex painful.
- What Grey Area does to organic creatures it doesn't like. Also crosses over with And I Must Scream.
- For the Evulz: Affront culture. Every facet. A particularly vile example include the fact that one of the very first things the Affront did when they gained enough knowledge of genetic manipulation was to alter all their females so that they would only feel pain and fear during any vaguely sexual situation.
- Free-Love Future: Monogamy is stated to be rare.
- I Did What I Had to Do: The Attitude Adjuster.
- Informed Attribute: Ulver Seich is described in her first scene as a "famed scholastic overachiever since the age of three", but shows no particular intellectual capabilities during the story, and is characterized almost solely from that point on as a vain, spoiled, shallow Alpha Bitch.
- Knight Templar: Grey Area. May cross over with Sociopathic Hero depending on your point of view.
- Laughably Evil: The Affront, who are so innocently enthusiastic about their bloodthirsty viciousness that most higher civilizations that encounter them can't help but be amused. Not everyone appreciates the joke, though.
- The Excession drives about half the plots in the book, despite doing nothing more than sitting there being mysterious.
- Which is in and of itself fairly impressive when you're dealing with a civilization that is technologically advanced enough that there aren't a whole lot of mysteries left. See Outside-Context Problem below.
- MacGuffin Title: Also a One-Word Title.
- Macho Masochism: Affronters. Most males lose at least one limb in duels.
- Mercy Kill: The Affronter Captain that committed suicide in a particularly painful way, rather than live with the shame of defeat, was put out of his misery by the Heavy Messing.
- Mind Rape: The Grey Area. There is a reason the other Minds call it Meatfucker. Effectors are pretty much this when used as weaponry, which is doing is such a taboo for culture Minds (at least when the victim is a living creature). The Attitude Adjuster kills itself this way, after it realizes it has crossed the Moral Event Horizon and can't live with the fact.
- More Dakka: Or at least the threat of it, is how the Sleeper Service prevents the impending war between the Culture and the Affront. As well as converting much of its mass to engines, it has also spent its time as an Eccentric constructing more than 80,000 warships. These range from thousands of the smaller Thug and Gangster classes (which are still capable, individually, of killing planets) to 512 Abominator class capital ships (a single one of which curbstomped an entire battle group of warships far more advanced than those possessed by the Affront in milliseconds in Surface Detail).
- No Punctuation Period: The epilogue message from the Excession.
- Not So Different: The Mind known as Anticipation of a New Lover's Arrival calls out the other Minds for being Not So Above It All: the second a unique thing like the excession appears they all instantly fall over themselves to possess, hide it, keep it from other races and hatch plans involving pre-emptive war with a space based casus belli. Exactly like the humans they look down their collective noses at. "We've become just like the kings of old, fighting over gold and rubies".
- Obfuscating Insanity: The Sleeper Service; it's an SC ship pretending to be Eccentric.
- Oh, Crap!:
Two hundred and thirty-two thousand times the speed of light. Dear holy fucking shit.
- And then pretty much everybody when they see what the Sleeper Service has spent the rest of its time doing. See More Dakka above.
- One-Word Title: Also a MacGuffin Title.
- Outside-Context Problem: The Trope Namer, of which the Excession itself is a prime example.
The usual example [of] an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative... and you were busy raising temples to yourself and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass... when suddenly a bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.
- Planet of Hats: The Affront, an entire race of cheerfully sociopathic Boisterous Bruisers. Deconstructed somewhat, in that they have exactly the sort of international standing one would expect given their behaviour.
- Proud Warrior Race Guy: See Planet of Hats and Mercy Kill.
- Punny Name: While all the Culture Minds have Meaningful Names, they also had double meanings to their names in this novel. The list goes on, but a few of the more notable and spoiler-worthy cases:
- The Sleeper Service is mainly populated by people in voluntary suspended animation, therefore it serves sleepers. A sleeper service train pulls sleeper cars, providing room and board to passengers on long, multi-day trips — the latter being ironic, since the Sleeper Service's only waking, human passenger is Dajeil (who herself has been keeping her unborn child in a state of suspension for decades), while the Mind poses its other passengers into elaborate tableaus of everyday life while still keeping them in suspension. At the same time, the ship is pretending to be an Eccentric while staying ready to react to SC orders, so it's serving as a sleeper agent — having built up most of its interior with faster-than-light engine (like a sleeper or Q-car, a car designed for performance far above what its exterior would indicate) and a whole fleet of warships kept dormant, or asleep, until called into action by the events of the book.
- The Grey Area is (notoriously) the only Mind that manipulates organic brains directly, specifically in memories stored in the grey matter of the brain. Interfacing with human brains is seen as a great taboo among the Minds of the Culture, for which the ship has earned the nickname "Meatfucker", with some of its fellow Minds arguing over whether it should still be considered part of the Culture at all, thus falling into the "Eccentric" classification — ships neither fully inside the Culture nor fully out of it, a grey area. But the ship only does what it does to dispense justice to war criminals who have otherwise escaped justice, therefore it operates in a moral grey area.
- The Attitude Adjuster is a warship and a spaceship — an "attitude adjustment" often refers to disciplining someone in an unpleasant way, while the attitude of an aircraft is its orientation or angle in reference to the ground. Also a crucial part of the Culture plot to manipulate the Affront, "adjusting" their attitude from open, exuberant aggression toward something closer to a Proud Warrior Race, which is at the heart of The Conspiracy.
- Really Gets Around: Byr is infamous for this even by the standards of the sexually liberal Culture, along with a reputation for not getting along with his exes. Dajeil's desire for monogamy, on the other hand, is specifically called out as very unusual by Culture standards. Byr's inability to keep it in his pants after promising not to sleep around while he was with Dajeil, despite her being absolutely clear what she was asking and what it would cost him, is what ends up having caused the rift between them and leads to her seclusion aboard the Sleeper Service in the first place.
- Scarred Equipment: The Affront deliberately tweak their ships' self-repair systems so that repairs to battle damage leave superficial marks on the hull.
- Sealed Evil in a Can: The Excession. Maybe. If you get in the road of the damn thing.
- "Shaggy Dog" Story: In the end, the Excession disappears without a trace, reporting back to its unseen allies that the universe is "unready" to meet them. The Affront is allowed to continue existing in its present state, and the conspiracy of Minds is apparently punished, having failed in their efforts. None of the characters seem to experience any sort of change; Byr is still enamored with the Affront, Dajeil shows no remorse for killing Byr's child or isolating herself for 40 years, the Killing Time, Attitude Adjuster and Not Invented Here all succeed or fail at their tasks with little impact on anything. Even characters initially introduced as potentially major figures, like Zreyn and Gestra, have almost no presence in the plot. Things continue as usual for the Culture, in other words.
- Space Is Cold: Gestra's death.
- Spikes of Villainy: Affront ships. It's intentional, of course.
- Subspace or Hyperspace: The Excession, which shocks every AI Mind which sees it as it is somehow connected to Infraspace and Ultraspace simultaneously, acting as a bridge between three universes at once.
- Techno Babble: A lot. They're Minds. It's expected.
- Testosterone Poisoning: Affront culture. Every single aspect thereof.
- Torture Technician: Grey Area. It actually carries a huge museum of torture devices, complete with demonstration videos. Its most efficiently painful device? A neural-lace. You know, that one thing that practically everyone in The Culture has.
- Never mind the library of atrocities committed by various pre-spaceflight races and the Grey Area's penchant for do unto others retributions
- Vigilante Man: The Grey Area is an AI-controlled starship but otherwise fits the profile; using illegal methods against Asshole Victims which everyone else regards with disdain but not to the extent of actually trying to stop it.
- The Virus: The Excession.
- Was It Really Worth It?: A crucial question.
- Zero-Approval Gambit: What the Attitude Adjuster thought it would be doing.
- Zero-G Spot: There was that one unusual docking incident...