I’ve been a bit random as to which title I choose to read next from my list of favourites. I wonder if this has affected my response to the various novels? I mean, going straight from the grim and political near-future of Gwyneth Jones’s Kairos to the slight but fun space opera of Iain M Banks’s Against A Dark Background… Of course, I read other books between those two – I read seven books, in fact… including Jed Mercurio’s Ascent (expect a post on this soon), Paul Park’s The White Tyger (the third book in the series begun with A Princess of Roumania; superior fantasy), and Text:UR (a small press anthology; a mixed bag, but on the whole recommended).
So, Against A Dark Background… This was the first of Banks’s non-Culture space operas. It’s actually set within the Golter planetary system, located millions of light-years from its nearest neighbouring star. It could be a Culture novel – there’s no reason why its story might not take place in some unexplored reach of the Culture’s universe – but unlike Inversions, there are no clues in the narrative suggesting as much.
The Lady Sharrow is a noble fallen on hard times. When she was little, her mother was assassinated, and her grandfather’s vast commercial empire was broken up by the World Court. She served in the military during the Five Per Cent War, but is now a retired hunter of Antiquities (relics of Golter’s seven thousand years of technological civilisation). As the novel opens, a religious cult, the Huhsz, has received permission from the World Court to hunt and assassinate Sharrow… in revenge for an incident generations ago. An ancestor of Sharrow’s had stolen several artefacts from the Huhsz – including a Lazy Gun. Only one Lazy Gun, of eight manufactured, remains. The last-but-one was found several years earlier by Sharrow, and handed over to a university. Who promptly tried to study its interior… only to trigger an explosion which killed half a million people. The Huhsz want the last Lazy Gun and will kill her if she does not give it to them. Except, she doesn’t know where it is.
Sharrow puts together the survivors of her Five Per Cent War squadron, and follows a series of clues about Golter’s planetary system, before finally finding the last Lazy Gun. It’s plotting by coupons, of course. Sharrow is on a Quest – although unlike in high fantasies, the consequences of failure are purely personal. Sharrow will die if she fails, it’s not the fate of the world at stake. Each step of the quest is a set-piece – from the theft of the Crownstar Addendum in Log-Jam to the assassination attempt on the last of the Useless Kings in Pharpech to the final assault on the Lazy Gun’s hiding-place. It’s all typically Banksian – but you guessed that much from the term “Useless Kings”. If there’s one thing that distinguishes Banks’s novels from those of a similar ilk it’s his mordant wit.
And that wit is firing on all cylinders in Against A Dark Background. Especially since every plan put together by Sharrow and her team during their quest goes horribly wrong. In fact, by any definition of “hero”, Sharrow is a failure – she is out-manoeuvred at every turn, and only manages to reach the next stage of her quest more by accident than by design. Or by being rescued by saviours from out of the blue. Against A Dark Background could have been titled The Perils of Sharrow.
Sharrow, however, is anything but passive. She’s a strong character. In fact, there’s a bit of the Perfect Girlfriend to both her and team-mate Zefla – both women are gorgeous, intelligent, independent, strong-willed, and more than willing to dress for display. By contrast, the male characters are mostly under-written. But perhaps this is a hang-over from the book’s origin. It was apparently first written in 1975 (when Banks was 21), but heavily rewritten before publication in 1993. The character of Feril, an android, I suspect was added in the rewrite; or at least altered a great deal. Feril joins Sharrow’s team some two-thirds of the way through the novel. It is C3-PO in all but name and irritating mannerisms. Star Wars had yet to be released in 1975, of course.
Against A Dark Background is by no means Banks’s best sf novel. It’s a space opera quest, with plotting by coupons. However, it is slightly subversive in as much as Sharrow loses each coupon to other forces as soon as she has found it. And yet still the quest progresses towards its foreseen end. To have a character fail all the time would not make for an entertaining read, and so Banks livens up the story with wit and an approach to genre furniture and tropes that knows, or allows, no shame. He had fun writing Against A Dark Background, and he wants the reader to know it. Against A Dark Background is a fun book.
Against A Dark Background was one of the books on my list of favourites I’d read several times. And each time I’ve enjoyed it – perhaps because it’s hard to take seriously. That’s the book’s strength. Repeated rereads don’t spoil it, because there’s as much enjoyment in encountering remembered characters and events as there is in meeting new ones. Like AE van Vogt’s Undercover Aliens and John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline, familiarity is comfortable. It doesn’t breed contempt. Against A Dark Background is a favourite novel first and foremost because I enjoy it every time I revisit it. It will stay a favourite; it stays on the list.