Iain Banks is one of the few living novelists whose works I look forward to reading. He is fresh, original and talented. At his best, he writes fiction that will survive him, but perhaps even the finest craftsmen should be allowed the occasional lapse. Writing under his science fiction persona Iain M Banks, he has created a patchy book which gets lost in the black hole of the universe born from his imagination. There are long, entertaining passages of scintillating prose and dialogue where Banks displays his dazzling skills. But he falls into the trap of so many sci-fi writers and gets caught up in the galaxy he has invented. At times you feel shut out and confused by the plethora of strange creatures who live under the benevolent umbrella of the Culture. The origins of the Culture are human, although over millennia it has evolved into a highly developed collection of civilisations where immortality is possible and the ultimate ambition of many is for the soul to eventually leave the body and become a Mind. Many of the Minds become ships, in effect spacecraft with personalities, sometimes with an attitude and names such as 'Serious Callers Only' and 'Jaundiced Outlook'. Although the Culture is advanced, it is confined to its own universe. When it sights an approaching monolith, it realises that here is a possible key. This key could open the door to other universes or lead to mayhem and eventual extinction. 'Excession that was what the Culture called such things. It had become a pejorative term . . . excessions; something excessive. Excessively aggressive, excessively powerful, excessively expansionist, whatever. Such things turned up or were created now and again. Encountering an example was one of the risks you ran when you went a wandering.' Banks' overall idea is interesting, one he uses as a metaphor for our own troubled world and the potential within it which we have squandered. In the Culture's domain lives an astonishing array of civilisations, some aesthetic, some barbaric. But this is where Excession's main problem lies. There is simply too much to digest and much of it is convoluted and superfluous. Like the historical novelist who has done exhaustive research, Banks does not seem to know when to stop feeding in information and return to an often absorbing plot and wonderful characterisations. To Banks' fans like myself, this is still worth reading, but judged by his own high standards, Excession is a disappointment.