Book cover of Excession.
Book 5 of the Culture series


Excession is the fourth novel and fifth book in the Culture series. It follows the reaction of the Culture and other civilizations to an “excession”: an “Outside Context Problem” that is mysterious and enormously powerful.

The best part of the novel was getting to see how the Culture works: how the minds think, communicate with each other, make decisions, retreat to “infinite fun space”, and interact with an “Outside Context Problem”1. The worst part of the book was the human characters, who were shallow and uninteresting. Ulver Seich—the airhead socialite—is a slightly more interesting and better-written take on the “hot girl who sleeps her way through the narrative” trope that Peter F. Hamilton loves to write, such as Mellanie Rescorai in Pandora’s Star, or to a lesser extent, Kysandra Blair in The Abyss Beyond Dreams. Nonetheless, I dreaded the human chapters. Culture books are carried by their human characters, who bring scale, emotion, and stakes to the drama, and Excession’s humans fall short.

The story wasn’t what I expected. I anticipated a book about how the Culture deals with something—the excession—over which they have no control, but the plot was actually about how they would exploit it for their schemes. The book is rife with schemes: one to disguise the nature of the Sleeper Service; another to set up a false-flag operation to build support for a Culture war against the Nazi-like jellyfish race, the Affront; a third to reunite Dajeil Gelian and Byr Genar-Hofoen and reconcile their relationship; and a fourth to intercept Genar-Hofoen with Siech and prevent him from rendezvousing with the Sleeper Service.

Even after reading such “tricky” books as The Quantum Thief and The Shadow of the Torturer, I found Excession a little challenging, mainly because of the numerous ships to keep track of while also trying to discern which ones were the conspirators.

Some aspects I loved:

Overall, Excession is still a good book, but weaker compared to The Player of Games and Use of Weapons.

  1. An Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilizations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop. The usual example given to illustrate 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 neighbors were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass… when suddenly this 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 all 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.