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’ExpĂ©dience, 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.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

What's in a Novel?

So what exactly is this thing called a novel?  Most of us read them, whether we go for classic literature, fantasy epic, romance, thriller, or any of the other innumerable forms, and we know what one is when we see it.  Defining what it is – that’s another matter.

It’s often said that the novel began with Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes, published between 1605 and 1615.  It’s probably true that the modern European tradition of the novel (and, by extension, those of the Americas and other areas) begins here, developing through the 17th and 18th centuries.  The novel in English, similarly, is held to begin in 1719 with Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.

Were there novels before any of this, though?  The easy answer is that there weren’t, since the word (even in its various western European forms) wasn’t used before this.  In fact, Don Quixote wasn’t described as a novel at the time of publication.  This is hardly an adequate answer, though.

Perhaps the best approach is to attempt to define what a novel is and, with due respect to a few centuries of literary criticism, I’ll venture a working definition.

A novel is a mainly prose narrative, designed primarily to be read off the page, rather than heard.  It’s substantially fictional, though it may include real people, places and events, either contemporary or historical, within a fictional framework.  It’s narrative must tell a single story, however complex and multi-layered this might be.  It must be of sufficient length that it contains numerous sequences of events within that overall story, each with its own dynamics.  It explores its themes by the use of various devices, including plot and characterisation.

This is probably inadequate.  In any case, as with all attempts to impose simple rules on art, there’ll be some great classic novel that breaks each one of those rules.  In fact, Finnegans Wake alone breaks most of them.  The novel’s also constantly changing – for instance, the rise of the audio book may start to challenge the “designed primarily to be read off the page” stipulation, although I’d say that stands at the moment.  Anyway, the definition offers a starting point.

The “read off the page” aspect means there are two main requirements for novels to take hold in a culture.  One is a means of wide distribution – preferably printing, or else a thriving copying industry – and the other is a literate middle class with enough leisure time to read.

Possibly the earliest culture that met those requirements was the later Greco-Roman world – by that stage, Greek and Roman cultures were too mixed for the distinction to mean much.  That period produced a number of works that could plausibly be described as novels, such as The Golden Ass by Apuleius and Daphnis and Chloe by Longinus.  These had an effect on post-Renaissance Europe, but the tradition died out when the decline of Roman order put paid to both distribution and leisure time.

A more fertile area is China and Japan, both of which had novel traditions well before Cervantes, with works such as The Tale of Genji from 11th century Japan or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms from 14th century China.  These, of course, developed into ongoing novel traditions as valid as the Western one, with modern Chinese and Japanese fiction developing out of it.

One of the most interesting novel traditions comes from mediaeval Iceland.  While this didn’t really have a large middle class, it did have widespread literacy – it’s estimated that in the 14th century around 70% of Icelanders could read – and enforced leisure in those long, dark winters, and it produced some of the great novels in the form of the Sagas.

Many people misunderstand what the Sagas were.  They were neither oral tradition nor in verse, and, although some retold ancient legends, the most characteristic ones were historical fiction about the early development of Iceland in the 10th and 11th centuries.  Stories like Njals Saga and the Laxdaela Saga are extraordinarily sophisticated literary works, portraying vivid, well-rounded characters who reflect and are shaped by a society moving from anarchy to order.  They fulfil every one of the criteria given above for being novels.

Not all long narratives, though, can be defined as novels.  For instance, Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory fulfils many of the criteria, but it can’t seriously be described as a single story.  Although it starts with Arthur’s birth and finishes with his death, it goes very much by the scenic route and can be better described as a series of stories.

The modern Western novel is one of the world’s great literary traditions and has produced staggering works, but it’s not the only one.  Like storytelling itself, the novel is an idea that humans gravitate to whenever circumstances are right.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Fantasy Politics Redux - What's Not Like the Real World

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about politics in fantasy stories, emphasising how writers can make their worlds more convincing by learning from the politics of history.  Though I stand by this, it’s occurred to me that some aspects of fantasy politics are very unlike anything that can be found in history books, and the attitudes of characters and nations to these situations need to be adapted accordingly.

A very obvious example occurs in my own novel, At An Uncertain Hour, in which a war has been going on for a thousand years (1023, to be precise).  While this isn’t entirely impossible, it far outstrips anything in real-world history.  In European history, for instance, perhaps the longest conflict that could plausibly – though only just – be regarded as a single war would be the Crusades, which lasted overall from 1095 to 1272, although it could be argued that its effects are still being felt today.

The Crusades, of course, weren’t a continuous war.  There were lulls of decades, sometimes, although a certain amount of skirmishing would have continued.  In the same way, the Hundred Years’ War – actually 116 years, from 1337 to 1453 – was actually a series of conflicts over the same ongoing issue: whether the House of Valois or the House of Anjou had the right to the French crown.  The popular perception of this being a war being England and France, incidentally, is misleading in terms of mediaeval thought.  It just happened that the House of Anjou also possessed the English crown.

In fact, the thousand-year war I created follows a similar pattern, alternating between periods of intense campaigning and long stretches of watchful peace.  However, keeping this up for a millennium is a rather different proposition than a century or two.

What makes the difference, and ensures that the same situation is unlikely ever to arise in our world, is that the two sides are led by the same individuals throughout the whole period.  Tolkien has a similar situation in The Silmarillion, where the war between Morgoth and the Elves of Beleriand lasts over five hundred years.  The difference here, though, is that not only the leaders, but their subjects too, are immortal – at least, until the arrival of the Edain in Beleriand.

What effect would an immortal leader have on the psychology of their people?  In the case of my war, one side is an alliance led – but not ruled – by the Traveller for the whole time.  He provides both inspiration and focus to the peoples in the alliance, but many of them, and even more after the war, rationalise this with the assumption that he’s actually a succession of leaders who take the same title.

The other side is an empire, ruled for the best part of three thousand years by the Demon Queen of the South, regarded by many of her subjects as being, for good or ill, a goddess.  At one point, the Traveller reflects on how differently he views these time-spans, compared with everyone else he encounters, and comments ruefully:

It was the single most powerful weapon that the Demon Queen had against us, that she was not only a fact of life but a fact of history.

This is, perhaps, not so very unlike some aspects of real-world history, where institutions, if not people, can achieve the same kind of status.  It must have seemed impossible, in the fifth century AD, that the Roman Empire could be gone.  Indeed, much of the history of western Europe since that time has been a series of attempts to recreate the great European Empire in various guises, including the Holy Roman Empire, the Third Reich and the European Union among many others.

In the same way, to the mediaeval world the Church was the one stable, unchanging reality in an uncertain world.  In fact, it was anything but unchanging, but that was how it seemed, and it’s sometimes underestimated what a shock it was to the collective psyche when the Black Death showed the Church to be as helpless as everyone against against such a terrible “Act of God”.  Although it took a while, the eventual outcome of that shock was the Reformation.

Still, the knowledge that the same specific person who was your distant ancestors’ ruler or enemy is also yours, and may still be in the same position in the time of your remote descendants – that isn’t the same as an institution.  Government will be very different if it’s undertaken by someone who expects still to be in power centuries into the future.  So too will the policies of that person’s opponents.

And suppose these people, with their kingdoms, republics, democracies and oligarchies, have to take into account dealing with not only an immortal, but a god?  In the real world, whether or not this or that deity actually exists or not, we assume their will is going to be subject to interpretation – something the politicians of every world are good at.  Suppose, though, you know for a fact that your god might come stomping down to the senate-house and say, “No, this is what I want, and if you don’t obey, I may just unmake the world.”  How might that affect the politicians who have to deal with the situation?

There are no easy answers, of course – it’s up to every writer to solve these questions as she or he sees fit – but knowing what the questions are is important.  None of this alters the fact that real-world history can offer valuable templates for the political reality of a fantasy world.  It just means that a few other things may have to be taken into account.  It is fantasy, after all.