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An Unreliable Review: Transition, by Iain Banks

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“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.”

So opens Iain Banks’ Transition. It is a science fiction novel, set among and across many alternate worlds; but it has been published in the UK without the defining “M”. Transition is ostensibly about the Concern, an organisation from an alternate Earth which operates an undefined number of agents who have the ability to “transition”, to travel between alternate realities. In order to further an agenda which never quite becomes clear. Chief among these operatives is Madame d’Ortolan, who heads the Concern’s Central Council and so runs the organisation. Set against her is the rebel Mrs Mulverhill. And caught between the two is Concern agent and assassin Temudjin Oh.

The novel comprises a number of different narratives, none of which progress in chronological order. One featuring “Patient 8262″ does very little until the epilogue, which gives his identity without actually explaining it. Another narrative is that of a Yuppie barrow-boy-turned-trader, who is peripherally involved. And there’s another, which appears only a handful of times, about an American film producer trying to get a project green-lit.

There is little that is actually unreliable about the story of Transition. Perhaps there’s a vague possibility that it is all confabulation, but if there are clues suggesting as much I missed them. In fact, other than the bald “I am an Unreliable Narrator” which opens the book, there’s very little in the way of narrative games in Transition. Structurally, yes – the plot is a collage of related vignettes and episodes from life histories. But that’s nothing new for Banks – his Use of Weapons is justifiably known for its innovative structure. But the structure of Transition does beg the question: is it greater than the sum of its parts?

And… I don’t think so. Banks has never been a great prose stylist – good, but not great. But his fiction has always been characterised by great imagination. Even as Iain Banks, the mainstream writer, there has been bleed-through from his science fiction persona, Iain M Banks. And while Transition is certainly not a M book in feel or presentation, it is coloured by his sf far more than any of his other mainstream novels. It’s not a M book because it is low-residue, low-profile science fiction. It’s not the in-your-face space operatics of the Culture novels.

The central conceit, the travelling between alternate Earths, is certainly science fiction; but it is never explained or rationalised. There’s a drug, septum, and a certain small percentage of the population has a talent… There’s a vague nod in the direction of the Many Worlds Hypothesis, but no real attempt at depicting the phenomenon realistically. If anything, it’s simply a device to allow Banks to present different worlds – which are constructed with much of the invention and excess of his science fiction. Sometimes too much, in fact…

The Culture at least provides Banks with a framework for his invention. And he needs it, otherwise he has a tendency to over-colour his worlds. The chief villain of The Algebraist, the Archimandrite Luseferous, is such a pantomime figure, all he is missing are twirling moustaches. And the same is true of Madame d’Ortolan in Transition. She’s not real. Neither, for that matter, is Mrs Mulverhill. They’re comic-book characters – in fact, you can almost imagine them in some brightly-coloured hyper-real graphic novel. Adrian, the 1980s trader, is more real, but even then he’s something of a cliché. And, it has to be said, yuppie excesses are an old target. Today it is the bankers, especially the incompetent CEOs who get to walk away from the wreckage with millions.

In fact, there is a sense throughout Transition of old battles being dragged back into the light. Banks has never been one to shy away from a fight, and we get the usual well-worded attacks – on libertarianism, religion, the rich, military adventurism, the ends justifying the means, torture…

The religion one is especially interesting. There have been many mentions of the novel’s assertion that Christianity is a perfect religion for terrorism.Which may be true considering its creed. But terrorism is a secular activity, and Islam, unlike Christianity, is not simply a creed and a moral framework. It is a political and judicial system, it is more tightly-interwoven into the lives of its followers than Christianity. And, it should be pointed out, all studies on suicide bombers and terrorists to date have demonstrated that they are driven more by nationalistic and political motives than they are religious.

In total, it’s hard to know exactly what to make of Transition. The total doesn’t quite add up. The Concern’s secret agenda – which is the hidden engine of the plot – is not properly geared to the story. The low-profile sf which permeates the novel gets inexplicably thrown away at the climax and replaced with, well, magic. If the villains are comic-book characters, then Oh only wins through at the end because he turns into a superhero…

On reflection, seen in that light – Transition is a hyper-real graphic novel in prose – then perhaps things begin to make sense. The need to atone for the 1980s. The brightly-coloured and highly-detailed backgrounds. The ungrounded inventiveness. The larger-than-sf characters. The way in which each vignette or episode must be treated as complete in and of itself, and yet must also be taken as a part of the greater plot. Transition feels as though Banks has adopted comic-book story-telling techniques to a prose novel. And disguised it as science fiction.

Has Banks has created a novel which can be read in three modes – mainstream, science fiction, and comic-book? Possibly. Because reading Transition solely in one of those modes renders it an unsatisfactory read. It never quite convinces as science fiction; it becomes increasingly too fantastic to work as mainstream; and its narrative is perhaps too complex to succeed as a comic-book. But it certainly makes for a (mostly) interesting read.

Someone once said of Anthony Burgess that he was a great novelist who never wrote a great novel. I’m beginning to wonder if we should say the same of Iain Banks…

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4 thoughts on “An Unreliable Review: Transition, by Iain Banks

  1. Great review Ian. Not sure I'll be rushing out to read it but it does sound interesting.

  2. Perceptive and articulate as always, Monsieur Sales. But I take exception to the notion that Burgess never wrote a great novel–you know my feelings re: EARTHLY POWERS and need one namedrop CLOCKWORK ORANGE? Banks has written some terrific SF and one smashing fine mainstream novel, WASP FACTORY, which is one of the best debut novels I've read. You're a demanding reader with a sharp mind, which makes your reviews, agree with them or not, always worth the investment of time and thought.

  3. I think Napoleon Symphony is a great novel. I concede I'm in a minority on that, though.I've reviewed this Banks title for SH and, if possible, I liked it even less than you did, Ian. Of course, not being called 'Ian', I have less basis on which to judge.

  4. Pingback: I am not a book blogger… « It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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