It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


An Unreliable Review: Transition, by Iain Banks

“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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Pure Space Opera – Seeds of Earth by Michael Cobley

I wanted to avoid reviewing books by friends on this blog because, well, it might cost me too much in beers if I ever ran into them at a con… Then I thought, what the hell. It’s not like my friends are crap writers. So I have implemented a policy change. And the first book to benefit from this is:

Seeds of Earth by Michael Cobley.

This is the first novel of a space opera trilogy called Humanity’s Fire. I’d read in several reviews that the book was slow to start but picked up about halfway through. I’d interpreted this to mean there was a steep learning curve. It’s not uncommon in space opera. The author has to lay out their universe and it’s usually a big universe.

But those reviews were quite correct. Cobley’s universe is perhaps not that large – although he’s certainly thrown everything he can think of into it. Seeds of Earth is very much heartland space opera – in fact, it sits right on the bullseye. While this does mean there’s a lot of set-up to plough through – including a somewhat excessive use of italicised alien vocabulary – it’s not just that which accounts for the initial slow pace. However, once the villains appear on the scene the story shifts into high gear, and the book becomes a real page-turner.

Having said that, I suspect Cobley has slightly over-egged his universe. While there are definitely some interesting ideas in there – a hyperspace consisting of strata of dead universes, for example – I personally prefer stories which aren’t so inclusive and which are a little more adventurous with sf tropes.

Which is not to say Seeds of Earth is a bad book. On the contrary, it’s very good. It’s well-constructed and well-written. It’s a pure hit of the purest space opera.

So go read it.

I’m looking forward to the sequel.


Beyond the Bounds of Vengeance – Spirit by Gwyneth Jones

To date, Gwyneth Jones has appeared on the Arthur C Clarke Award short list six times, and won it once – for Bold As Love in 2002. Only Stephen Baxter has been nominated more times, and he has yet to win the award. If Jones’ 2004 novel Life had been published in the UK, I suspect it too would have been short-listed – it did, after all, win the Philip K Dick Award for that year. As David Soyka wrote in his review of the book on on

Simply, put, Life is one of the best things Jones has written. You can stop reading right now and go out and buy the book. Otherwise, you’ll have to endure yet another one of these diatribes about how science fiction doesn’t get any respect from the literary mainstream. Because you can’t read this book and not reflect on the fact that had this been written by, say, Margaret Atwood, Life would be receiving more of the widespread attention it deserves.

In other words, Gwyneth Jones is probably one of the best British science fiction writers currently being published. So a new novel by her is certain to be one worth reading. Spirit; or the Princess of Bois Dormant is her latest. It was published at the end of December 2008.

The plot of Spirit is based on that of The Count of Monte Cristo, but it shares its universe with the Aleutian trilogy of White Queen, North Wind and Phoenix Café. The universe has also featured in a number of Jones’ short stories, including ‘Saving Tiamaat’ in The New Space Opera (it can be read here); and ‘The Tomb Wife’, which has just been shortlisted for this year’s Nebula Award (it can be read here).

The shape of Dumas’ story is well-known: Dantès is falsely accused of treason, sentenced to life imprisonment in the Chateau d’If, befriended by a fellow prisoner who teaches him all manner of useful skills and knowledge, escapes, sets himself up in society using treasure whose location was given to him by his friend in prison… and subsequently has his revenge on those who conspired to send him to prison in the first place.

And Spirit does, in broad aspect, follow this. The novel’s protagonist is also unjustly imprisoned for twenty years, is educated while in prison, escapes and uses the “fortune” she was bequeathed by her mentor inside to… Not revenge, but neither is it justice. Call it a “balancing”.

Of course, Spirit is space opera – new space opera, in fact. The conspiracy which puts Dantès in prison was historical and reasonably well-known by readers. The conspiracy underlying Spirit is wholly invented; the world in which Spirit takes place is wholly invented. Which means the narrative of Jones’ protagonist – Gwibiwr; quickly shortened to Bibi – must begin much earlier than that of Dantès. It must give her origin, in fact. And the conspiracy which results in Bibi’s imprisonment must also be set up. It is not until halfway through Spirit that Bibi is actually sent to prison. This is not a criticism – Spirit is not about Bibi’s revenge, it is about Bibi. She is “the Princess of Bois Dormant”.

In the Aleutian trilogy, aliens arrived on Earth and precipitated a crisis. This led to the Gender Wars and, eventually, a World Republic. In Spirit, Jones has expanded this universe into an interstellar Hegemony of five worlds, ruled from a space station in the Kuiper Belt called Speranza. Each of the five worlds is the home of an “alien” race, although there is sufficient biological commonality between the various races to suggest Earth as a common home world in the ancient past. This is known as “having your cake and eating it”. A major theme of the Aleutian trilogy was colonialism, and Earth was the colonised; but in Spirit the humans – or “Blues”, as Earth is known as the Blue Planet – are the colonisers. The Hegemony also allows Jones to spread her commentary on gender and gender roles across societies that are very much other.

And there is plenty of cake to eat in Spirit. Not a Black Forest gateau or the like, not some fancy confection covered whipped cream and chocolate shavings. But a strong English fruitcake, steeped in brandy. Perhaps that’s too silly a conceit. Certainly Spirit contains plenty to chew on, not just the themes carried over from the Aleutian trilogy.

Admittedly, those themes strongly season the book, making Spirit very much a thematic sequel to Phoenix Café. But there are other ingredients: the opening section, in which Bibi grows up in semi-feudal Baykonur, has a flavour of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The sudden decamp to Speranza, and the explanation of the workings of the Hegemony’s interstellar transit network, contains pieces of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway. When Bibi is on Sigurt’s World as part of a diplomatic mission, and it all goes horribly wrong, Spirit tastes almost Banksian. And there’s a soupçon of Samuel Delany in the section set on Ki/An.

Also present are small nuggets of Jones’ earlier works: Escape Plans – the distributed systems of that book have become virtual, or 4-Space; and Kairos – travel via Buonarotti transit-pod mimics in some respects the effects of that novel’s eponymous drug.

All this is mixed in with The Count of Monte Cristo. And layered with new space opera as a mode of science fiction.

It makes for a rich and complex story; a story which, no matter how well stirred, can sometimes overwhelm the palate. As each new flavour or tang rises to the surface, so the focus of the story shifts. Bibi is not always there. At one point, for example, the story breaks away from her, simply so we can experience her ex-boyfriend laying another brick in the conspiracy which will condemn her. And in the final section of the book, the Princess of Bois Dormant has taken Bibi’s place entirely.

It is in fact that last section where Spirit becomes less the dish of its ingredients. Dumas serves this dish cold, but Jones is less focused on revenge. The Princess of Bois Dormant sets out to redress the wrongs done to her, but also to right the wrongs done to those who suffered because of her. Chief among the latter is her son, a prince of Sigurt’s World. This leads to an odd detour, following the prince’s holiday on Ki/An, his trip into the marshes, and his kidnap. Later on Speranza, the prince and his companion help rescue a pair of young women from the Traditionalist roles their family intend them to play. Both women are the daughters of Bibi’s enemies. Those enemies, of course, get their compeuppance, although Bibi seems to have little to do with it. One has a stroke, another is killed while trying to escape. It all seems a bit… incidental.

Not everything in Spirit works. I don’t understand Jones’ decision to pepper the names of the natives of Sigurt’s World with apostrophes, such as her alien prince D”ffyd. If it’s a joke, it soon wears thin. The many references to the French Revolution also seem to add little – despite the novel’s template, The Count of Monte Cristo; despite the novel’s title, Spirit, also referring to the Princess’s Aleutian transit-pod, Spirit of Eighty-Nine (1789, that is). And speaking of French… Sleeping Beauty in French is known as La Belle au Bois Dormant. Perhaps my French isn’t as good as it should be, but I thought the dormant (sleeping) referred to the belle (beauty) and not the bois (wood). La Princesse au Bois Dormant makes much more sense. And is especially ironic as the Interplanetary Prison Moon of Fenmu is a rocky inhospitable place, and Bibi spends twenty years there underground…

Spirit is an excellent novel. I’d have expected no less of Gwyneth Jones. I fully expect it to appear in my best novels of the year list for 2009. However, I suspect Spirit will not be on the short list for the Arthur C Clarke Award next year. It is too rich and complex a novel, and the Clarke seems to prefer works of a much stronger and more distinctive flavour. But I do think it will be on the BSFA Award short list – literate sf novels by British authors do well with the BSFA Award. And so they should.

Incidentally, 2009 should prove a good year for Jones. Spirit may have been published right at the end of 2008, but due during 2009 are a short-fiction collection from PS Publishing, Grazing the Long Acre; and a “Conversation Piece”, The Buonarotti Quartet, and a non-fiction collection, Imagination/Space, both from Aqueduct Press.

(Ah well. The cake-thing seemed like a good idea at the time. But never mind…)