Sunday, May 27, 2012

Transition by Iain Banks reviewed

The first interesting thing about Iain Banks’s 2009 novel Transition is the name on the title page.  Banks famously publishes mainstream fiction as Iain Banks and SF under the cunning disguise of Iain M. Banks, and Transition might very easily have had an M, dealing as it does with alternative realities.  Probably: it’s just possible it’s all the psychotic delusions of a patient in a mental hospital, just as the exotic settings in The Bridge were the dream-life of a man in a coma.

Transition is a bizarre book, and sets out its stall from the start.  The novel (described as based on a false story) begins with the announcement 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 proceeds with point-of-view sections from a number of characters, varying between first and third person, and between past and present tense. 

The premise is, initially, a familiar one: there exists an almost infinite number of alternative realities of the Earth, some more like our own than others.  An organisation, variously called the Concern or l’Expédience, has developed a way of transitioning (or flitting) between these realities by taking over a body in the target world.  It uses this ability to adjust events to their liking on the basis of how they’ve seen similar events play out in other realities, a little like a non-time-travel version of Asimov’s The End of Eternity.

Out of the many POVs, “the Transitionary” is perhaps the most central character, a man usually, though not always, called Temudjin Oh.  An operative of the Concern, he nudges, encourages and assassinates those he’s told to, but is caught between the ruthless ambition of Madame d’Ortolan, the leading figure of the organisation, and the schemes of the mysterious rebel, Mrs Mulverhill.

As the conflict proceeds, other characters gradually find their places – the Philosopher, a torturer by taste and profession, and Adrian Cubbish, an obnoxious drug dealer turned hedge fund dealer, as well as the most colourful character of the lot, Bisquitine.

The whole set-up is very dubious ethically, and even the “good guys” like Temudjin treat the bodies they flit into and out of with utter disregard, often leaving the host either dying or caught red-handed for murder.  Nevertheless, an author whose debut drew us into the viewpoint of a psychopathic killer has little trouble making the reader feel attracted to certain people, while never ignoring the moral issues.

The story is told across many worlds and in the series of nested flashbacks and flashforwards characteristic of Banks, and at least half the book has gone by before it’s possible to get much idea of what’s going on.  It hardly matters, though: as in all Banks’s novels, it’s an exhilarating ride as we’re buffeted between vivid characters and fascinating ideas, ranging from an examination of the economics of greed to the notion that, if aliens are going to visit our planet, it’s most likely to be as tourists to view our unique solar eclipses.

Like many writers in total control of what they’re doing, Banks breaks “rules” of good writing left, right and centre, with total success.  One of the most notable cases is Bisquitine, a character introduced briefly in the prologue and then utterly ignored until about three quarters of the way through, after which she comes into her own.  She’s an absolute tour de force, a character who must have been as much of a delight to write as she is to read, but Banks’s instinct is right: enough is enough.  To have her as a main character throughout the book would be a bit like making the whole of Waiting For Godot centre around Lucky.

Oh yes, and that Unreliable Narrator.  Part of the story is about a mental patient who claims to be in hiding from the Concern, but may actually be making the whole thing up.  The ending suggests not, but inconclusively, and it’s interesting that Banks leaves one glaring inconsistency in the novel, which just might be a deliberate clue.  I’ll leave each reader to spot it – let’s say that it comes when the story’s at its peak.

Transition isn’t an easy book, and I’m not sure it’ll displace my favourites by Banks (currently a photo finish between The Crow Road and Whit) but it’s a fascinating read and well worth persisting through any initial difficulty.  I’d definitely recommend it to hardened readers of Banks, though perhaps not as an introduction – for which my recommendation would be The Crow Road for mainstream and The Player of Games for SF.

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