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The Summer of Rereading, 3: More Culture

I stayed with the Culture books, skipping over the non-Culture SF ones, Against a Dark Background and Feersum Endjinn. That brought me to Excession, in many ways Banksie’s Culture masterwork. Certainly it’s​ the first in which the ships take such central, starring roles, which makes it the defining one for me.

I remembered much more of this (I’ve definitely read it more than once before), but there were still bits that were only fuzzy at best. It is galaxy-spanning, “widescreen baroque” space opera at its best.

I hadn’t finished it by the time we went on holiday, so I had to take it with me with only a hundred or so pages to go. That was mildly annoying, but it didn’t take us over our weight limit.

The next Culture novel to be published is Inversions, but I didn’t quite feel like reading it, because I was keen to get to Look to Windward. I feel as if I’ve been wanting to reread that almost since I first read it. So I took it with me, and with only a brief interruption to finish The Magus in the appropriate country, as I’ve already discussed, I stormed into it.

And, err, it was a bit disappointing, actually.

Here’s the thing about not remembering books though: I remembered almost nothing about this. I thought I remembered it, but really I only had the setup (the business of waiting for the light from the stars destroyed in the Culture-Idiran War to arrive) and one brief scene near the end. This had the great positive that it was almost like reading a new Culture novel.

The trouble with it is that the plot is quite thin, and mostly happening off stage. And a lot of the events that happen in between​ are only really there to show off some of the fantasicness of living on a Culture orbital. In a sense it tries to do exactly what Banksie himself said you can’t really do, which is to set a story in a utopia. This is why the Culture novels general focus on someone working for Special Circumstances or at least Contact; they happen at the edges of the utopia, or just outside its fringes, where things are a lot more dangerous.

There is an ongoing threat to at least one of the main characters, but it doesn’t really engage us all that much. We don’t, perhaps, care all that much about what happens to them.

That said, there are still some great moments. But I wonder whether my expectations, set by my memory of really enjoying it, were too high. It’s often best to approach artistic works with lowered expectations.

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