Tainted Love: Soap Opera in Space Opera in Iain M. Banks’ Excession

Sometimes in the big picture, it’s the little detail that grabs you. Sometimes amidst the biggest imaginable backdrop of intergalactic war, it’s the boneheaded love between two people that sets events in motion.

ExcessionExcession was the fourth book released in Iain M. Banks’ “Culture” science-fiction setting. The Culture spans the galaxy, and is united by very little except for technology, and, very loosely, attitude. It’s anarchic, mostly laissez-faire, almost completely dedicated to the individual freedom and pleasure of its mostly-humanoid members. And as a result, there’s almost no limit to this freedom and pleasure: physics and biology are completely understood at the sub-atomic level. Culture citizens can change their appearance, their gender; they can live for centuries, or enter occasional “Storage” and spread their time over millennia. Fun is almost unlimited. So a decision to settle down for life and have kids means… a lot.

Most of Excession takes place in discussions between a bunch of autonomous, nearly-omnipotent space battleships, with quirky, pun-rich names like Steely Glint, Attitude Adjuster, and Serious Callers Only. Now, science fiction in the past thirty years has really stepped up the imaginary arms race. Those “planet buster lasers” you see on TV and in movies are, frankly, pretty old hat. In recent literature like the Culture books and David Brin’s “Uplift” series, literature, weapons build and improve themselves; knife-missiles the size of nickels can wipe out whole platoons of soldiers; warships can warp the structure of space itself to kick ass.

When a logic-defying hyperspace incident (an “outside context problem”) changes everything the Minds had assumed about the structure of the universe, a debate begins, bridging philosophy, war, social cliques and the space-time implications of their new discovery. But it will all come down to the of the relationship of Dajeil Gelian and Byr Genaar-Hoefen, two humans who rushed into love and spent decades paying the price.

Dajeil and Byr fell in love under the watchful, enthusiastic eye of the biggest, most powerful, most enigmatic ship in the entire Culture, the GSV Quietly Confident. Dajeil was a serious scientist guarding her heart closely, Byr an almost fanatical playboy chasing after anything on legs. Pursuing Dajeil, Byr wins her over with the commitment that they’ll both carry children to term together – remember that advanced Culture biology?

Inevitably, with both of them pregnant, Byr finds a way to break Dajeil’s heart. Things are amazingly horrible for fifty years. The Quietly Confident will not rest until both parties get closure — but its smaller brother and sister Minds, those starships so powerful they’re almost gods, teeter on the brink of tearing the entire galaxy apart while waiting for it to step in.

There are a lot of other wrinkles to the vast canvas that is Excession, but when it comes down to it, it’s important to remember: sometimes the hurt you do to someone else goes far beyond the two of you. As we approach Valentine’s day, keep an eye open for those space battleships in your life, and listen to their advice!

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