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Publisher: Orbit (1996)

ISBN: 1 85723 394 8

Précis: Two and a half millennia ago, the artifact appeared in a remote corner of space, beside a trillion-year-old dying sun from a different universe. It was a perfect black-body sphere, and it did nothing. Then it disappeared. Now it is back.

Silent, motionless, and resisting all efforts to make contact, the artifact waits. The Culture ships, however, cannot. For the artifact is something they need to understand first, before it falls into less understanding hands - and triggers a political and military crisis which will threaten everything the Culture has achieved.

One person who saw the artifact when it first appeared may have information concerning its purpose, but she is living out her death in the immense Eccentric ship, the Sleeper Service. The Culture ships formulate a plan to retrieve her. The Sleeper Service has other things on its mind.

Be warned! To proceed reading below here is to risk spoilers about the story of the book. It is recommended that you proceed only after having first read the novel.

Summary: While out conducting a random survey and catalogue expedition a Zetetic Elench ship, a spin off civilisation that diverged from the Culture some 1500 or so years back, is attacked and rapidly overwhelmed by a superior force - shortly after it had discovered something unusual. Barely escaping in time a solitary drone evacuates the ship, only to then be destroyed by an Affronter cruiser.

However before being destroyed, and by a clever ruse, the drone manages to get word out to the rest of the galaxy about the anomalous artifact that the Elench ship was investigating. A Culture ship is prompted into travelling out to the general area by a consortium of long thought dead ship Minds. It reports the existance of an artifact connected to the energy grid in ways the Culture had thought was impossible. It also reports signs of a battle having occured and proceeds to watch the artifact cautiously.

Meanwhile the consortium of Minds that prompted the Culture vessel to investigate begin to steer the Culture response to the artifact, much to the disquiet of a few ship minds. A conspiracy is suspected. Culture records indicate that a similar, if not the same, artifact appeared some time ago and influenced the investigating GCU and it's crew before disappearing. The 'captain' of that ship and expedition is known to have been in Storage over the intervening millenia, although her physical body has been destroyed as a side effect of the Idiran war. Special Circumstances, after finding that her personality is stored on an Eccentric GSV Sleeper Service, formulate a plan to recover the information from her, forcibly if neccesary, using Byr Genar-Hofoen.

Byr is not only working for Contact as a liason to the Affront but is seemingly one of the few people the Sleeper Service will allow onboard itself. Plans are made to bring Byr and the Eccentric GSV together.

While that is happening more ships begin arriving at the site of the artifact now suspected to be an Excession, a problem the Culture is unable to handle by conventional - or otherwise - means. Simultaneously a proposal is made to the Affront to use the Excession as way to strike back at the Culture whom the Affront feel have been interferring far too much in their ways. A plan is hatched to use an arsenal of old Culture warships stored from the Idiran conflict and this plan is put into action, aided by a seemingly renegade Culture craft.

The Affront plan succeeds in securing the fleet of old ships, but not before their plan is detected by a Culture vessel. Unfortunately the detection is too late in the game to actually position enough ships near the Excession to prevent it falling into Affront hands. The warships begin their flight to the Excession.

Back, a full month's travel at routine speeds, the Sleeper Service shakes loose from it's guard and begins a high speed race across the galaxy directly towards the Excession. At the Excession itself the extra Elench ships that have arrived succeed in making contact with the artifact, but only to be overwhelmed in a fashion similar to the first Elench ship. The Culture ship tries to make a break for it, is first rendered immobile by the artifact then is shifted, by means unknown, some thirty light years away from the Excession and a barrier zone is established around the artifact. Any ship entering the zone suffers progressive engine failure if they try to head in towards the Excession.

The Sleeper Service starts to complete it's headlong dash across the Galaxy and turns out to have been a weapon in the employ of Special Circumstances and as such contains a fleet of ships easily sufficient to deal with the armada the Affront have appropriated, by trickery, from the Culture. These ships then proceed to surrender ending that crisis. During it's mad rush across the galaxy the Sleeper Service prompted the artifact to produce a massive, but direct, hyperspacial wave that would destroy the Sleeper Service. Fortunately, for reasons not entirely clear the artifact stops short of destroying the GSV, retracts the wave and then proceeds to vanish leaving behind a confused Culture to deal with political upheal of the barely started war with the Affront, the discovery that a conspiracy of Minds has been planning to precipitate a war with the Affront and little further knowledge as to why the artifact came & what it's purpose was.

Finally a brief message, to the reader, from the artifact itself concludes the story.

Comments: The summary really doesn't do justice to the complexity of this story. In a trick used in 'Use of Weapons' Iain has at least two timelines running in the story slightly out of phase with each other and both counterpointing the other to reveal more about the artifact and it's discovery. He also has, not really mentioned in the summary, a secondary storyline involving Byr and the real reason he was being brought to the Sleeper Service.

For all of these plotlines his deft touch is not lost in keeping them quite clear and distinct so that sorting out what is going on is not an exercise in mental memory endurance that some books can be. I tend to rate this book as about the second best of the Culture novels, due primarily to the complexity of the story and way in which several deeper details are nicely hinted at but never actually stated directly. Giving the reader plenty of material to think about after reading the story.

Where it falls down somewhat is that, unlike 'Use of Weapons' which has a similarly complex plot, there is not such a strong human level interest in the story. Each of the previous stories have concentrated on one particular person for the story and tended to hint at the bigger events occuring from their perspective. (Bora Horza Gobochul in 'Consider Phlebas', Jernau Morat Gurgeh in 'The Player of Games' and of course Cheradinine Zackalwe in 'Use of Weapons'.) Here the bigger events take precendence and the human story becomes much more the secondary line. We lose the study of human motivation that the other stories gave us.

However what this wider scope does allow is a much stronger insight into what the ship Minds get up to and the intriegues that make up Culture politics and decision making processes. He conveys the long term nature of the Minds attention spans and the extreme speed of space battles quite well with a more detailed description of what combat for Culture drones and Minds is like.

For the most part all the subtlety is quite nicely understated bar the epilogue. There the tone shifts from understatement heavily into overstatement and in some ways spoils the tone of the book greatly. It feels like an after thought for the less attentive readers out there to ensure that they fully understand what is going on. Very much like it was an addition made at the editor's behest perhaps. Given that all the clues to the Excession's purpose were stated in the story itself, often quite clearly, to have it so blatantly revealed at the end does lessen the impact and enjoyment of the novel.

Finally it must be noted that, like all the other Culture books, Iain has maintained the point of the title being a cypher to deeper levels of the plot and it is, of course, a further disclosure about the Culture itself.

Philip R. Banks
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