Sunday, December 03, 2006

Book Review: Excession

The other night I finished an Iain M. Banks book that I've been reading on the Metro. This was, in hindsight, perhaps the worst way to read this particular book; by breaking my encounters with an already-fragmented narrative up into twenty-minute chunks, I lost some of the nuances. But it was nevertheless a pleasurable, if flawed, read, and I'd recommend it over Banks' more recent release.

I found myself wondering whether, in a novel that focuses like no other on the role of the artificially intelligent Minds of Banks' Culture universe, the author deliberately chose to make the human characters flat, unsympathetic, and uninteresting in an effort to accentuate our identification with the Minds as protagonists. The best passages of all deal with a doomed drone who dies in the first few chapters. I was especially bored by the story about two humans, one promiscuous and one determinedly monogamous, who had a unsuccessful romance and are brought together again by a fit of conscience by the Mind who facilitated their liaison. To sum up (spoilers): Byr had sex with everyone but couldn't have Dajeil without commitment; after deciding to start a family together, Byr slept with someone else; Dajeil attacked Byr with a knife, killing the fetus. Byr left town and Dajeil spent forty years dwelling on Byr's betrayal.

Perhaps commenter Still Closing was right to recommend Bloom on love to me: I could not align myself with Dajeil, who understood Othello's jealousy a bit too well. But neither am I aligned with Bloom's straw-students who are perfectly content to end an affair with a handshake and regard sexual infidelity as a manifestation of another's feeling that must be respected. (These students are, incidentally, unlike almost every young person I have ever met; I wonder whether Bloom had an odd sample or if he just wasn't the sort of person you'd open up to about homicidal feelings you had about an unfaithful former lover.) When confronted with a lover's betrayal, isn't there some middle ground to be trod between murderous rage and studied apathy? Is it impossible to recognize that one has been injured, and deeply, by the abrupt end of a romance without lapsing into rights-violating behavior?

Perhaps the real taming that has taken place is not our ability to love but our ability to refrain from hurting others. Surely a grand and intense perspective on love is not always incompatible with an otherwise modern view on sex and relationships. I'm sure many of us are living proof that what separates the young people Bloom didn't see from the more dramatic characters of literature is, more or less, self-control.

In any case, Banks' story peters out without really shedding much light on these issues; perhaps it's easier to forgive such things in a society where medicine can heal nearly any wound. Then again, I'd be a lot angrier about dying prematurely if I had thrice the lifespan to look forward to, so maybe that's a wash. Why Dajeil feels the way she does (which appears abnormal for her society), why Byr would forgive her revenge, why we care about either of them: it's all left blank. My advice to readers of this book is to focus on the clever machines and skim over the parts about the uninteresting humanoids.
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