Tag Archives: Iain M. Banks

Is Transition SF? Fantasy? Slipstream? Philosophy? Maybe all of the above.

We work to make the many worlds better.
There. That’s the official line.

Title: Transition
Author: Iain M. Banks
Year: 2009
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

transitionAt first glance, the latest novel from Banks is a conspiracy thriller set against the context of a familiar science fiction concept: the existence of a multiverse containing infinite versions of reality. Within this multiverse (of which our own Earth is but one infinitesimal piece) operates a shadowy group called the Concern, which seeks to manipulate specific events in the many worlds in order to influence the direction of their societies. The Concern’s agents (assassins, very often) are able to flit, or transition, between worlds by taking over local bodies, and few of them ever question the organization’s assertion that what they do is all for the greater good, a mission of philanthropy. But there are those who don’t buy the official line, leading the reader to the inevitable question: what’s the Concern really up to?

However, perhaps a second glance is advisable. If you take Transition at face value you’re likely to be disappointed. As a straightforward sf novel it leaves a lot to be desired. Approached primarily on the level of plot and resolution of the conflict, it may leave you wondering just what the point was. But then, there’s much to suggest that it’s not meant to be straightforward at all. Banks doesn’t approach this multiverse idea in anything like a science fictional manner. There’s no attempt at a scientific underpinning — no discussion of physics or mathematics or cosmology, no exotic theories to invest the concept with plausibility. In fact there’s nothing distinguishing this multiverse from the way it might be used in a fantasy setting (for instance, the “shadows” of Zelazny’s Amber series, which this reminds me of in some ways). Transition might best be described by the term “slipstream” — that vaguely-defined variety of literature blurring the lines between speculative and mainstream fiction. Which is fitting, since apparently one of the motivations for this book was to bridge the divide between Banks’ two alter egos — the Iain with the “M” and the Iain without. In the words of Bruce Sterling, slipstream “makes you feel very strange,” and by that criteria the book definitely merits the label.

Indeed, this novel is so strange that by the time you’re finished reading it, you’ll find yourself questioning whether the multiverse presented therein actually existed or not. But don’t feel too bad. Even one of the main characters — a transitioner himself — can’t decide:

And I accept that all that happened happened, and I accept my part in it. I accept, too, that it is over, and that still the most rational explanation is that none of it happened, that I made it all up….

There’s a heavy philosophical slant to this book. There’s much reference to solipsism and the possibility that we create our own reality. This is conveyed by the metaphor of the magnifying glass: just as it gathers light from a certain radius and focuses it to a point, so we suck meaning from our surroundings and focus it in our own consciousness, using it for our own (usually selfish) ends — creating what is important to us while disallowing what is not. In fact Transition has a lot to say about human selfishness and our tendency to see ourselves as the center of existence, to the exclusion of everything else (especially to the exclusion of anything that might challenge our supremacy). Going along with this is the fact that we’ve encountered no alien life; Banks presents us with the strange thought that maybe this is so because we’ve created a universe in our own image, and we don’t want any competitors. Of course, this isn’t going to persuade those of us who believe in an objective reality to change our views, but it is fun to think about such weird ideas. This book would make great reading and discussion in a philosophy class.

Transition is also very political, and has some very pointed criticism of Anglo-American behavior after 9-11 regarding the “War on Terror” and particularly the use of torture. (A warning to the squeamish: torture and inventive methods for killing people play a rather prominent role in the story. I thought the death by induction heating was brilliant — and horrifying.) Going along with the selfishness theme, the book also takes a few swipes at certain aspects of capitalism (our world is one of a whole category of realities the Concern labels “Greedist worlds”). Also up for criticism is the ever-increasing concentration of authority in leaders who simply take new powers for themselves. The book’s main villain is shameless in this regard, and obviously shares this trait with America’s former president.

All in all, a very unusual book, but one worth reading for those with enough imagination to be open to some bizarre perspectives. It’ll certainly give you some of those to ponder, and that’s almost never a bad thing.

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Flash reviews — August ’09

When I started this blog I set myself the task of reviewing every single book I read. And so far that’s what I’ve done. But it’s finally time to face the fact that that’s not always going to happen. For one thing, I have some demands on my time that I didn’t have way back then. For another, there are times when, for whatever reason, I just don’t feel like writing about a particular book. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book; it simply means I can’t think of anything much to say about it. So when I get one (or more) like that, I’m going to simply pass them along with a rating and a brief comment. Here’s what I’ve got right now:

Title: Excession
Author: Iain M. Banks
Year: 1996
Rating: 3/5 stars
Another of Banks’ Culture novels, involving a mysterious object from another universe, a war with a nasty species called the Affront, and much intrigue between the various humans and Ship Minds. Interesting in parts, boring in parts, average overall.

Title: The Seven Sexes
Author: William Tenn
Year: 1968
Rating: 2/5 stars
Not as satisfying as the other Tenn collections I’ve read. Too many whimsical stories here and not enough serious ones. The best is “Sanctuary,” in which time travelers from the future come back to the present and establish diplomatic relations by setting up Temporal Embassies.

Consider getting some Culture

phlebasI have decided it’s time for me to become more cultured…. umm, make that Cultured. In other words, I have embarked on a journey into the world of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, which I’ve been hearing good things about for a long time now. It’s a journey that is sure to continue since I liked this book quite a bit and there are something like six more, if I’m not mistaken. Consider Phlebas was the first installment in the series, published in 1987, and so I thought that might be an appropriate place to start. Actually, I’ve been told it doesn’t really matter what order they’re read in, as they’re only loosely connected; but I read the first one first because, hey, I like it that way. This is a big gripping space opera that manages to be both fun and thoughtful at the same time.

The protagonist of the story is Bora Horza Gobuchul, a Changer — a member of a shape-changing species trained in the skills of infiltration and spying. The story is set againt the background of the Idiran-Culture War, and follows Horza’s individual part in that conflict. The view we get of the Culture is filtered through Horza’s eyes, and since he’s an enemy of that society, the view is probably incomplete and somewhat biased. Horza works for the Idirans, a race of giant tripedal warriors engaged in a holy war to spread the truth of their religion. Horza sides with the Idirans against his fellow humanoids primarily because he sees the Culture’s symbiosis with its AI Minds as a perversion of nature; and while disagreeing with the Idirans’ religious motives, he sees them as being on the side of life.

On one level, the novel is unfortunately a bit too light-hearted, too adventure-driven. Horza gets himself into a series of unlikely situations that are sometimes not very realistic, and sometimes downright comical. These mostly occur while he is part of a Free Company of (take your pick) mercenaries and/or pirates and/or opportunity-seekers, led by a captain whose incompetence is almost cartoonish and frequently leads to trouble. There are some moments that are almost painful in their silliness: the reflecting laser-bolts during an ill-fated attack on a crystal temple; the landing on a sea vessel, not knowing it’s just about to strike a huge iceberg; the ignition, in a fit of rage, of a nuclear bomb that a company member just happens to carry around in his space suit; and Horza’s lucky last-minute escape from cannibals.

On another level, though, the novel is an insightful exploration of war, the reasons societies go to war, and the way individuals get caught up in the violence for their own reasons which may or may not align with those of the larger entities in conflict. Neither the Culture nor the Idirans are interested in wealth or material resources. Rather, they both fight for principles; and that, depending on your view, might be either the best or the worst reason for war. There is certainly some ambiguity in this book about the justifications for war, about who is “right” or “wrong.” This ambiguity also exists at the individual level, as both Horza and his nemesis Balveda (an agent of the Culture) have a hard time treating each other in a ruthless fashion, as true enemies, as their superiors might expect of them. They also both display a level of uncertainty about the war, about whether it’s the right thing, about whether or not it’s worth it. They both exude a sense of regret at being spent and used up in a war that ultimately may mean nothing.

Even considering the whimsical adventure scenarios, overall there was something compelling and almost irresistible about this book. The world-building was excellent, both the physical environments and the whole social and political background behind everything. The characters were vivid and complex. And there were some cool ideas throughout; as one (rather disgusting, I admit) example, I liked the concept of the sewercell, a watertight chamber in which a prisoner is executed by drowning in the bodily wastes of guests at a special execution banquet, channeled down from upper-floor restrooms. (So OK, I have a dark and twisted mind, but so does Banks, it seems.) I also liked the idea of the Planets of the Dead, which are worlds on which their inhabitants made themselves extinct, and are kept in their destroyed condition by a super-race called the Dra’Azon as grim reminders to everyone else (sort of like galactic Darwin Awards, I suppose).

Consider Phlebas could have been better, but as it stands it is still a very rewarding read, and fairly impressive as Banks’ first science fiction novel. It certainly makes me want some more Culture.

Interesting comments on xenophobia and literary manifestos from Iain M. Banks

Peggy at Biology in Science Fiction recently asked, “Could We Evolve Into The Culture?” As in The Culture from Iain M. Banks’ sf novels (which I’ve not yet had the pleasure to read, an error I mean to correct eventually). In her article she refers to an e-mail Q&A at Banks’ website in which he answers questions from readers. One reader asks what Banks thinks is the most important development humanity could make in order to advance to a Cultured society; Banks answers:

Genetically modifying ourselves, I suspect. Finding the set of genes that code for xenophobia in general – these days usually expressed though sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, Romaphobia and so on (and on, and on) – and knocking them out. Possibly then we’ll be nice enough for the Culture or something like it.

That’s a good answer, and I can’t help but notice it nicely parallels this comment from Octavia Butler from the racism essay I posted about a while back:

Simple peck-order bullying is only the beginning of the kind of hierarchical behavior that can lead to racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, and all the other “isms” that cause so much suffering in the world.

Both authors point out that there is some general underlying facet of human nature (whether you call it xenophobia or hierarchical tendencies or whatever) that is behind a wide range of nasty human behavior. Is it something that can ever be tied to a certain complex of genes? Is it something that could be engineered out of us? I have no idea, but I suspect it’s very possible.

Another reader asks Banks about his views on literary manifestos or movements, to which he replies:

I’m always a bit sceptical about any movement or even allegedly coherent group of writers really existing for much longer than whatever lunchtime the idea of said movement was dreamt up.

Hehe… yeah, I think there’s some truth to that.

Answering the question of what kind of movement he would create if he had to create one, Banks says:

If I was going to have a manifesto – just for the sheer flipping heck of it – I’d draw up one that denigrated cliché, demanded greater realism in narrative and bound its adherents to resolutely refuse to acknowledge the existence, even as handy plot devices, of any form of supernatural or spiritual force whatsoever.

Now THAT’S my kind of literary movement! (Anyone familiar with my book reviews will know I’m usually not happy seeing supernatural elements in science fiction.) Very intelligent fellow, this Banks. And it’s now more definite than before: I WILL be reading some of his work at the earliest opportunity.