Transition by Iain M. Banks

December 6, 2009 at 10:31 pm | Posted in 1 star, Book Reviews | 1 Comment

I’m sure Banks has his die-hard fans, but for many of us his output is very uneven.  Just sticking to his two most recent books, I enjoyed Algebraist despite some issues with it but didn’t care for Matter.  Well, I didn’t find this to be a return to form.  I liked Transition even less than Matter.

First, let’s get the genre out of the way.  Although published sans-M in Britain, this is very much a science fiction novel.  There are a vast, possibly infinite, number of parallel Earths, but the secret of how to send human consciousness between them is controlled by a group called the Concern.  They use their power, which also includes some limited ability to see the future, to make as many worlds as they can better.  One of the viewpoint characters is a veteran “Transitionary” who goes from world to world making various interventions–a comment here, a shove there, a murder somewhere else–based on orders from above.  He has no ability to see the future and thus no way to know for sure that following his orders, which often involve hurting or killing an apparently crucial person, are producing better outcomes for the worlds he visits.

If you’re familiar with Banks at all, you might be thinking the Concern sounds a lot like the Culture.  And you’d be right, or almost right: the Concern is pretty much identical to Special Circumstances except there’s no Contact or Culture behind it.   Unfortunately, that makes it a lot less interesting.

If you’re familiar with Use of Weapons in particular, you might be thinking the character I mentioned sounds a lot like Zakalwe.  And you’d be right, or almost right: he’s an assassin instead of a general, and is vastly less interesting as a character than Zakalwe.  From another author, I think the degree of similarities here would raise some eyebrows.  The one defense against the charge is that very little of what made Use of Weapons great survives the transition (sorry).  Where Zakalwe’s story builds up to an important climax, this character is given new, unprecedented powers by the author at plot-convenient intervals leading up to the immensely contrived ending.

There are a lot of viewpoint characters, but about two thirds of the book is devoted in one way or another to this much diminished remake of Use of Weapons.  The rest is split between the life stories of two characters.  One, an over the top caricature of a hedge fund trader, is a vehicle for Banks to preach about the evils of capitalism and how they led the world to utter disaster in 2008.  The other, a torturer who has moved on to middle-management, is a vehicle for Banks to preach about the evils of torture.

You might be thinking that the evils of capitalism don’t have a lot to do with the central conflicts of the Use of Weapons rehash, and you’d be right.  That character’s connection to the rest of the novel is extremely tenuous.  You might be thinking that the discussions about the morality of torture might indeed be usefully placed within the Use of Weapons rehash, and you might well be right, but here too Banks provides only the most tenuous of connections between that character and the rest of the novel.  The book smacks of a fix-up, where after finding his Use of Weapons rehash wasn’t long enough, Banks picked two current events issues out of the newspaper and wrote preachy short stories about them and crammed it all together into a novel.

Based on this review, you might be thinking my recommendation is to read Use of Weapons instead of this book, even if you’ve read it before.  And you’d be right about that too.

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  1. […] Surface Detail by Iain M Banks January 3, 2011 at 12:48 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a Comment Tags: Iain M Banks Iain M Banks is the sort of author I like to use as a reviewer benchmark. Most people have read at least one or two of his novels, and while some are more liked than others there isn’t wide agreement on his best and worst. If you feel the same way, I’ll break it down for you: I think Use of Weapons is his best work, and indeed it’s one of my favorite science fiction novels of all time. Player of Games was also very good, of course. Consider Phlebas and Against a Dark Background were fun but a little too depressing in their nearly nihilistic outlook. Feersum Endjinn, Excession and Algebraist (at least the first two thirds of it) were fun although a little lightweight compared to his early work. I felt Matter had all the joie de vivre of Consider Phlebas without the humor and kinetic action. And Transition I found to be a complete, unmitigated disaster. […]

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