This is one of my most read books. I love reading it, and enjoy it as much each time I read it as I did the first time. Not only is it my favourite book of the author's (it demonstrates what he did so well), it also illustrates what for me, makes science fiction such a fascinating genre.
My favourite sci-fi stories are built on big questions, and the core if this story is what is called an 'out of context event'. This is an event, or encounter that is so far beyond our experience or understanding that we are powerless to comprehend, let alone react to it. The Excession itself is an intriguing concept, and discovering new elements of it throughout the story was a real pull. It was also tinged with a little sadness that we will never know if there was more to tell of this event. Naturally the existence of this object draws the attention of the major players in the galaxy, and that sparks the main plot for the book.
There are other great ideas here than just the excession, one in particular is the concept of Infinite Fun, a pass time for the AI where they create universes to explore, or tweak. One of the flaws in this book is that this concept could have been developed further, but is only really introduced in this story.
For me, Ian M Banks' greatest creations were the Minds (the capital M is important! :-) ), and they are the real stars of the story. They are colossal intellects which govern the ships, and orbitals of the Culture and other races. I appreciated how the communications between them were portrayed, and he does an amazing job of showing how differently they think, not only compared to humans, but to each other. If the excession is the centre point, then the Minds are the meat of the story.
Which leads us to the human characters. They aren't quite so well drawn as the ship Minds. They provide some contrast but lack some of the depth, some of their action also feels a little contrived in how it fits along with the main action. It did illuminate a point I've considered before with the author's Culture novels in particular. His characters all tend to be quite exceptional in some manner, and it's very difficult to get a grasp of the everyday person in that universe. It no doubt says something about the Culture universe that maybe such a thing doesn't exist, but it does mean that it's difficult to place individuals within their society.
And then we have the Affront. In this story they are the quintessential alien bad-guys. But he avoids the faceless enemy trope with some fun interactions with them early on in the story. They are ridiculously cruel, but also have a certain energy about them that makes them stand out. They might not be the most imaginative aliens ever created, but they are a lot of fun!
So I've now read this book at least a dozen times, and it remains a firm favourite of mine. If you've not read any of the author's other works, then it might not be the best one to start with, buit well worth a read.
Two and a half millennia ago, the artifact appeared in a remote corner of space, beside a trillion-year-old dying sun from a different universe. It was a perfect black-body sphere, and it did nothing. Then it disappeared.
Now it is back.
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