cover image Excession


Iain M. Banks, I Banks. Spectra Books, $12.95 (400pp) ISBN 978-0-553-37460-5

Set in the remote future, Banks's (Feersum Endjinn) latest novel mounts a galactic-scale space opera, or, to be more exact, a space opera buffa. The Culture, a ""pan-civilization, pan-species grouping"" dominates the known cosmos, while the borders of unexplored space are probed by its Contact ships, intelligent, witty and fully sentient beings tagged with names like ""The Anticipation of a New Lover's Arrival"" and ""Serious Callers Only."" Of course, every opera needs a crisis, and the sudden appearance of an alien artifact that can seemingly travel between universes sends ships from the Culture and its competitor, the Affront, on a race to investigate the potential invader. Meanwhile, handsome young Genar-Hofoen is dispatched on a separate mission to discover what he can about the anomaly, only to find himself buffeted by decaying Culture-Affront relations. Banks fills the supporting cast with appealing but tart-tongued heroines, cute but droll droids--the conversations between the ships alone reveal that one doesn't have to be flesh-and-blood to be neurotic, bitchy or thin-skinned--and enough sputtering politicians to keep readers smiling. Although the narrative pace occasionally drops below warp speed, he provides enough hard science to provide credibility to his fantastic, far-flung society. In short, this is a riotous space swashbuckler, a lighthearted, light-years' romp. (Feb.)