Transition by Iain M. Banks

December 6, 2009 at 10:31 pm | Posted in 1 star, Book Reviews | 1 Comment
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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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Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

February 8, 2009 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews | 2 Comments
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Note: While moving the archives from my old review site, I found that this review had somehow slipped through the cracks after being written and never made it on to the old site.  I’m not sure when I wrote it, but it was probably in 2004.  Think of it as bonus material, like a deleted scene.

Why is it that you read fiction? What do you want to get out of it? Wasp Factory is a book that has forced many to question their reasons and motives for reading, and any book that forces people to reconsider their unconscious assumptions and think about what they have otherwise taken for granted is probably close to being great literature. The fact that I strongly doubt this was Banks’ intention cheapens it a little bit but ultimately the work must be judged outside of the author’s intentions.

Perhaps I am not giving Banks enough credit, but I don’t think so. Like many of Banks’ subsequent novels the book combines a horror novel’s gore with a mystery novel’s shock ending with the quality of writing you would expect from a Serious Author. Unlike many of Banks’ more indulgent later novels, Wasp Factory features a tighly written, very personal first person narrative. Where Catcher in the Rye meandered, Wasp Factory zooms at a breakneck pace from its beginning through its story and to its conclusion. The only trouble is, where Catcher in the Rye tried to be about adolescent cynicism and coming of age, Wasp Factory tries to be about…well…

And there’s the rub. Apparently when it came out it was quite controversial as it was perceived as almost the literary equivalent of a snuff film. To my modern not-so-sensitive sensibilities, the book is certainly dark but hardly worthy of outrage. Nevertheless the critics had a point: the reader is dragged through the mud of a criminally insane mind and at the end of the journey it is not at all certain they will feel like it was worth the trip. I’ve heard it accused that Wasp Factory is outrageous because it wants to be; that young would-be authors in Britain find that being offensive is a good way to get noticed. This may be true, although Banks’ later work is close enough in tone and spirit to Wasp Factory that I doubt he was doing it just to cash in. The difference, however, between Wasp Factory and the later Banks book that it most resembles, Use of Weapons, is that where Wasp Factory exists solely to paint an image of its protagonist, Use of Weapons paints an image of its protagonist while also covering ground in philosophy, politics, and humor. It’s no accident Use of Weapons, despite being almost as dark and taking place in the distant ultratechnological future, feels much more human. This difference is exemplified in their titles. Wasp Factory‘s namesake is a macabre invention of Banks that ultimately plays no real role in the story. Use of Weapons‘ title alludes to a theme that runs throughout the book–and in particular to a macabre invention of Banks that ultimately plays an enormous role in the story.

I’ve been comparing this book to others so much one more comparison won’t hurt. Wasp Factory is perhaps most similar to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but where the latter work was both disturbing and educational because the condition described was real (and the author, who worked with autistic children, was at least qualified to describe it) in Wasp Factory the narrator’s mental state is arbitrary because not only does it seem unlikely that a real person could have such a screwed up childhood but even if someone did Banks isn’t qualified to speak to the results.

I would recommend Wasp Factory to fans of horror or amateur criminal psychology. It’s also probably worth reading for curious fans of Banks’ later work. Some people consider it a masterpiece, but I suspect most will consider it at best diverting.

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