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1 rating: 1.0
An SF novel by Iain Banks
1 review about Transition

A frustrating non-Culture novel from Iain Banks

  • Mar 4, 2011

And now, my second attempt to "get" Iain Banks...

Transition is a frustrating book.
This is my second attempt at reading Iain Banks. My first attempt at reading him, Inversions, was less than satisfactory. I have never read any of the Culture novels, despite having friends who have raved endlessly about them. 
Being a fan of Moorcock, and Zelazny, and well immersed in the idea of multiple universes and alternate histories, I thought I would try and give Transition a try, and see if I could unlock Iain Banks to my imagination at last.

The attempt was, at best, partially successful.

Told by unreliable narrators, primarily a psychiatric patient, Transition tells the story of several individuals, the identities of more than a couple are possibly the same person at different points in their personal timeline. Or are they? The problem with unreliable narrators is that its difficult to take anything said at face value or even at first reflection.

Reflections. Transition is the story of these individuals who work with, or for the Concern. The Concern is an organization that has developed a drug that allows certain sensitive individuals the ability to jump between alternate histories, between worldlines. The Concern sends out agents between these timelines for its own inscrutable purposes.

Its an old trope in science fiction--I was cutting my teeth on The Coming of the Quantum Cats by Frederik Pohl 25 years ago. There, it was technology, and not drugs that allowed it. Or, say, the sadly forgotten Mainline by Deborah Christian, where the primary character is the only one who has the ability to jump between histories, but the jumps are "small". And then there is Zelazny, and Moorcock, and H Beam Piper's universe...Banks is not precisely breaking new ground here.

So what does Banks bring to the old idea? Well, the Concern appears to be undergoing radical change within its ranks, and its time of action is, in our world, is between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers. Politics, and philosophy mix into the basic plot, making this book a very political tract. I am not sure that Banks intended the book to be leveled at specific targets, but the scaffold of a series of alternate worlds allows him to do so. For example, one of the main worlds that the members of the Concern pass through and inhabit is a Muslim dominated world where the primary threat is from CT's--Christian terrorist suicide bombers. In a world that may be our own, Adrian Cubbish, one of our narrators, is a hypercapitalist who worships the free hand of the market with a fervor that would shock the most jaded trader in London or New York. I am not sure the tribulations of Patient 8262, including attempts at molestation, are meant to evoke Abu Ghraib, but these sections were disturbing, even if we aren't sure through much of the book just how he connects with much of the events of the book. It's that unreliable narrator problem, again.

Its extremely off-putting, as much off-putting as, say, L Neil Smith's heavy handed attempts at libertarian politics in his novels. I am not saying that such politics has no place in a book, but when the politics is so integral to the novel, to the point of hurting plot and character, then I cry foul.

Even with the heavy handed political layering, there are some interesting concepts that Banks invents, or uses. For example, like in Zelazny's Amber series, amongst the sheaf of infinite Earths, there is one that is very different than the others, and unique: Calbefraques. And like the Amber series, the Concern is based on this central, singular world, and works in our more traditional world. I liked Calbefraques perhaps precisely because it was so very different than the Earths that appear to be funhouse mirrors of our own world.

Another positive is some of the other abilities that we see the Concern use. There is more to their suite of employees than simple world-jumping, and one of the books Narrators, through contact with a rebel(?) member of the Concern, learns some interesting tricks indeed. I liked how Banks described a climatic cat-and-mouse use of opposing powers in a version of Venice. After some slow going, I felt the novel really come to life in this sequence.

I did find it amusing, too, that I was listening to Palimpsest at the same time I was reading this book. Like that book, it emerges that certain talented individuals in the Concern can travel between the worlds, taking their partner along, too, by the act of sex.

So, as I have said, Transition is a frustrating book.

Can the politics and other layers things be seen through? Does the good parts of the novel outweigh the more freighted ones. Yes. But its not as easy as I would have liked--and perhaps that is precisely Banks' intention and his point.

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