Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 300 (11/30) -- Transition by Iain M. Banks

I'm coming to this novel a full year after it was published, so all of the possible puns and plays on "transition" -- of phases in a novelist's career, of Banks's switching from SF to "mainstream" fiction and back again, and a dozen more -- have already been made, leaving nothing clever for me to begin this review with. Maybe I can point out that Banks, after a slow beginning of the decade (novels in 2000, 02, and 04), has now put out four novels in the past four years and that his twenty-four novels (including Surface Detail, this year's book) are now precisely balanced between "Iain Banks" mainstream and "Iain M. Banks" science fiction.

(Surely there's grist for at least one dissertation in that!)

But Transition doesn't require any gymnastics to make it interesting: it's a gripping SF novel all by itself, one of Banks's occasional one-offs unrelated to the Culture universe and a universe-hopping story of intrigue and danger in the paratime tradition of The Coming of the Quantum Cats and "His Dark Materials". Banks, however, has a new wrinkle on the universe-hopping of his predecessors: in Transition, the travel isn't accomplished physically at all. The original body always stays behind, and the mind/soul/spirit of the traveler is imposed on a body in the new universe -- usually somewhat similar to the traveler, in one way or another, but there are variations. (Some travelers can bring physical objects with them, which seems very unlikely, given any plausible mechanism for soul-transfer, and others have even more exotic sub-abilities, such as bringing a coitally-joined partner along, until the reader begins to suspect Banks is throwing these recomplications out to keep his plot humming rather than from any thought of plausibility.)

Well, anyway: there's a mechanism for traveling between worlds, and it requires unknowing targets on the far end -- one of the main precepts of Transition is that simply knowing about Transition, or being Aware, is a perfect protection. (And yet some worlds are almost entirely Aware...and yet, or thus, are hubs of travel? While reading, it was zippy and fun, but I'm afraid that pulling on the strings of Transition will cause it to fall apart very quickly.)

Transition is told from the point of view of multiple narrators, and, in a very Banksian touch, several of them (The Transitionary, Patient 8262, The Philosopher) have identifiers rather than names -- because, of course, those who travel between the worlds by hopping bodies are different people everywhere they go. All but one of them -- a yobbish banker on our Earth named Adrian, whom I'm afraid Banks means to stand in for a lot of traits he doesn't like -- are Aware, and move about between worlds, either in the present day of their narrative, or in retrospect. The complications of the story and story-telling -- with events happening on many, usually unnamed, worlds, and at different, never specified times -- combine to make Transition into a wave of events: the reader just has to let it wash over her, trusting that all the dots will join up in the end to make a picture.

And it does: there's an organization, called the Concern (or sometimes other things) that is the Paratime Police equivalent: molding the many worlds in ways they always claim tend toward peace and prosperity. Of course, there's also a splinter faction -- led by the revolutionary with the most unlikely name I've seen in years, Mrs. Mulverhill -- who are either dangerous lunatics or the last hope for the humanity of infinite worlds against the cold control of the influential and ever-more-powerful Madame d'Ortolan. In the middle of their battle is The Transitionary, who was born Temudijn Oh, and who narrates most of Transition.

There may be a writer out there who's capable of writing a long SF novel in which the forces of control and limitation win out against freedom and potential, but I can't think of any right now -- and Banks certainly doesn't disappoint on that front. For all of its literary strengths and smart writing, Transition is a very old-fashioned SF book, all about smashing the Evil Empire and one man walking free after doing what he knows is right. And, as I said above, the actual mechanisms of Transition don't bear too much thinking about -- the reader has to accept Banks's rules, as they're doled out, and not try to form any larger schemata out of them. For the reader who can do that, Transition is a high-powered story engine, driven by one of the best writers in the business -- and he comes closer to a happy ending than he's done recently, which may help win over those more traditional SF fans that like stories of body- and universe-hopping.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

No comments:

Post a Comment