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Transition
Iain M. Banks
Orbit, 404 pages

Transition
Iain M. Banks
Iain M. Banks was born in Dunfermline in 1954 and lived in North Queensferry, Fife. He was educated at Stirling University (1972-1975) getting a degree in English. He worked as a non-destructive testing technician for British Steel and later for IBM. He settled in Faversham, Kent, in 1984 and later moved to Edinburgh in 1988. Iain M. Banks (as opposed to Iain Banks, his name for non-SF fiction) is the popular author of the Culture novels, including Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games.

Iain M. Banks Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Matter
SF Site Review: The Algebraist
SF Site Review: Look To Windward
SF Site Review: Excession

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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So I'm about 50 pages into Transition, the new Iain M. Banks novel, and my wife asks me what's it about. And all I can say is, "I have no idea."

At this point, all I do know is that it's got something to do with multiple realities with multiple characters who can jump about these different universes, one of which is ours, sometimes told in the third person, but mostly in the first person. I also expect that somehow or other it's all going to come together in which the good guys (though they're not entirely good) win out over the bad guys (though it's not always clear who exactly they are, and why they are).

Sure enough in the last 50 pages or so the various loose strands are tied together, though some of the loops are a little droopy. It's not altogether clear what the confrontation between the forces of good and the forces of evil is really about (something to do with ethnocentricity, which I take as social satire, but didn't strike me as a persuasive plot point). There is, however, a nice comeuppance for one character I didn't see coming, as well as a clever conclusion. Not wanting to commit the reviewing sin of revealing spoilers, I won't get into details. Suffice it to say that the way the story resolves itself is less interesting than how it is told.

Lets back up to the beginning, which begins with the ending.

  Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator, though of course if you believe everything you're told you deserve whatever you get. It is, believe me, more than a little amazing -- and entirely unprecedented -- that you are reading these words at all… That is how unlikely it is that I am writing this and anybody is reading it, trust me.
—p. 1
 

What can we trust about an unreliable narrator? Among other things, our specific Unreliable Narrator relates his suffocation by an intruder into his hospital room. Which raises the question of how a first person narrator can relate their murder (if, in fact, that is what has actually happened, since, remember he is an unreliable narrator), unless you're reading The Lovely Bones. And then there is the subtitle -- "based on a false story." What is that supposed to mean?

My suspicion is that it's not supposed to mean much of anything, other than to have some fun to confuse the reader. After all, a tale about alternate realities should be confusing, right? At least to anyone who isn't a mental health center resident (though, these days, physicists have made the notion of multiple universes respectable as reasoned speculation as opposed to delusional paranoia).

While Banks makes literary allusions, such as the aforementioned unreliable narrator famously familiar to any English major, we're not in Borges land, or even Dick territory. More like thriller land, and certainly nothing wrong with that.

Basically, here's what we have in terms of cast of characters. Patient 8262, who is either feigning mental illness to hide out from agents from other worlds out to get him or is just a nut case. And who may also be any of the following, either actually or as part of his delusion: Madame d'Ortolan, who heads up the Concern, an organization that maintains order among the various multiple universes, frequently employing brutal "ends justifies the means" rationalization. Similarly, The Philosopher is a torturer who rationalizes satisfying his personal perversion as in the service of larger aims that benefit society as a whole, at the expense of the pain of the few. As to exactly what is the best order to maintain is, however, open to interpretation. Leading a rebellious different viewpoint is Mrs. Mulverhill (connoting Mrs. Peel of The Avengers fame), who seeks to recruit her former student and sometime lover, Temudjin Oh, an assassin who kills for the greater good as defined by the Concern, but who has gone rogue. And then there's Adrian Cubbish, rising young former drug dealer and entrepreneur, identifiably from our time and universe (or at least mine, I have no idea what universe you're reading from), who has no one's greater good in mind other than his own, put on Mrs. Mulverhill's payroll to perform one simple task when called upon, whatever that task may be.

In portraying alternate universes, Banks satirizes ours. In one such inversion of contemporary times, The Philosopher practices his craft on Christian terrorists whose zealousness targets the innocent to destabilize civilized –- or evil depending on your point of view –- society. Actually, Banks doesn't need alternate universes -- the greedy Adrian Cubbish pretty much epitomizes the self-centered shallowness of our current existence:

  If Adrian were to have a symbol, it would be a mirror. This is what he says to the mirror each morning before he goes to work, and sometimes at the weekends when he doesn't have to go to work, just for the sheer hell of it.

"The Market is God. There is no God but the Market."…

…Naked, he runs his hand through the dark curls of his pubic hair. "In the name of Capital, the compassionate, the wise," he tells himself.

He grins, winks at his own reflection, amused.
—p. 6

 

This may seem dated given the global economic recession, in which the Market God is on life support thanks to government angels, efforts by Republicans to resurrect its mythology notwithstanding. Still, folks like Adrian have hardly disappeared; we can only wish.

The titular transitions that take place are not just those of characters crossing into different dimensions, but also the transitions we all make in reassessing our positions, our goals, our expectations that change as we grow older, more experienced. As Oh puts it:

  So by the time I might have thought myself able to relinquish the role I had played, it was too late to do so. I was another person. We all are, anyway, with every passing instant, even without the many worlds, changing from moment to moment, waking to waking, our continuity found as much within the context of others and our institutions…  

But such profundity, though there is some of that, isn't the main point here. Rather it's what William Gibson on the cover blurb calls "science fiction of a particularly gnarly energy and elegance." I'm not totally certain I know what that means, anymore that I'm totally certain that Banks here is really aiming less for the philosophical than engaging entertainment (he succeeds at the latter and is hit or miss with the former), but whatever the hell it means, I certainly have to agree.

Copyright © 2010 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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