Little, Brown: 978-0-316-73108-9 $32.99
(Review first published in ASIM 42)
The Iain Banks trademark – one of them, at any rate – is to alternate the writing of SF books, most often featuring the Culture, with non-genre or literary work, with the SF titles recognisable by virtue of authorship by ‘Iain M Banks’, serving to distinguish them from non-SF novels by ‘Iain Banks’. Transition, Banks’s latest, lacks the ‘M’. So, not SF, then.
Or is it? I’d say Banks has done a spot of genre-bending here, because while it lacks the full-on gadgetry and richly alien-infused tapestry of his Culture novels, Transition certainly features as much SFnal content as, say, the ‘M’-attributed title Feersum Endjinn. But it’s also set very identifiably on Earth (or on a version of Earth, or, in fact, on several versions of Earth), and therefore shares some common ground with Banks’s early reality-fractured ‘non-genre’ work such as Walking on Glass and The Bridge. There are indeed deeper connections – incest, and a hospitalised and helpless POV character respectively – which can be drawn with the earlier works also, but it would be wrong to see Transition as Banks starting to retread old territory. There are ideas contained within which he’s explored before, certainly, but overall Transition is something new.
The crux – I suppose it qualifies as a conceit, really – of Transition is the ability of certain individuals to relocate themselves, essentially at will, from one time-stream to another. This ability requires considerable training, and the application of a tightly-guarded drug, sepsis, the dispensation of which is controlled by a mysterious and increasingly autocratic organisation, the Concern, which makes its home on a version of Earth called Calbefraques and which seeks to guide the separately unravelling histories of the many worlds into a shape which is pleasing to the Concern’s ruling Council. (Of course, Banks has treated the mysterious overseeing organisation idea elsewhere, obviously in the many Culture novels but also in the non-genre book The Business. But the Concern is painted here to be distinctly more manevolent than either of its textual precursors.)
The story centres on the Concern triangle of Temudjin Oh, rising-star field agent; ‘Mrs Mulverhill’, brilliant many-worlds theorist of questionable loyalties; and Madame d’Ortolan, the Council’s de facto kingpin. Temudjin is ordered to liquidate several of d’Ortolan’s opponents, including Mulverhill. He’s always carried out his orders faithfully in the past, but is this new wave of blood-letting really in the Concern’s, or anyone else’s best interests? And if not, how will his refusal to obey orders be interpreted? The Concern is not, of late at any rate, an organisation known for any leniency of disposition…
Banks takes his time getting started. Or, rather, the story starts in different ways, through the delineation of several ostensibly separate unfolding storylines. This, too, is a pattern seen in his previous books, wherein it can be a couple of hundred pages before the connections really begin to fall into place. This is not to say that the early stretches of the book are devoid of action, purpose, or insight; it’s that these attributes are there, but need to be taken on trust by the reader, to a degree, before the wider context accretes around them. And Banks the writer seems always at pains to depict the wider context, so far as possible. There’s much detail, much description. I’m of the opinion that the frequent focus on minutiae is generally a good thing, because it assists in building the plausibility of the story’s action, but there will definitely be readers who disagree. If it’s a full-on roller-coaster ride you’re after, this probably isn’t the book for you, although the book does indeed build to a gripping and largely satisfying climax, with some appealing grace notes.
And, purely through letting the characters speak for themselves, there’s some reasonably compelling social commentary also. One of the subsidiary characters, a sympathetically-drawn and compassionate torturer, originates from a reality in which Christianity has never progressed beyond a fringe movement, nor beyond militancy. By the transparent and almost trite gimmick of referring repeatedly to the atrocities committed in the name of Christian terrorism, Banks succeeds in encouraging the reader to question the branding and portrayal of ‘Islamic terrorism’ in our own here-and-now. It’s an obvious point, but made well nonetheless.
Does Transition work? I think, largely, this depends on the reader’s ability to swallow the central conceit, the pill that promotes travel between the realities. (A separate issue, and one into which I won’t delve further, is whether the book should be truly marketed as SF, fantasy, or non-genre. It’s an Iain Banks book – it shouldn’t greatly matter whether the ‘M’ is present or not. In my opinion.) For my money, I think the basic idea is handled reasonably well, and avoids most of the intrinsic risk of apparent flimsiness, chiefly by virtue of the seriousness and solidity through which Banks approaches the idea. It’s not, by any means, a truly new concept: other books I’ve read within the past couple of years, such as Ian McDonald’s Brasyl, Paul McAuley’s Cowboy Angels, John Barnes’ Finity and Greg Egan’s Quarantine have all explored broadly similar ideas, but I would say that Transition doesn’t really feel like a rehash of any of these. If anything, it is in several respects more reminiscent of M. John Harrison’s Light, which is thematically quite different but which similarly juxtaposes the familiar (contemporary northern hemisphere society) with the exotic, and which can similarly be seen as an example of speculative fiction comparatively likely to gain some attention from people who ‘don’t normally read that SF stuff’. Whether Transition gets the attention it ostentsibly seeks from these readers remains to be seen, but it provides a somewhat pleasant surprise for SF devotees who might well have been wondering if they were in for another eight-year wait between Culture novels. Transition isn’t the Culture, nor does it truly hit the heights he’s shown himself to be capable of, but Iain Banks is back, in speculative mode, and that has always been a good thing.