I read that Banks was aiming for the best of both worlds with his latest novel; blending the two forms of his literary output – the contemporary and the SF. Each of these outputs has a distinct and loyal following that don’t mix well at parties. I align myself with the SF gang – but that’s just because, in general, his SF is better than his contemporary (thems fightin’ words). I totally dig his contemporary stuff where he explores, as a tendency, specific moral conundrums, political or social situations – shown at its nadir within the rants of The Steep Approach to Garbadale and at its heights in the likes of The Crow Road, but his SF tends towards the more nebulous quandries (pun, of course, intended) of existence, those that require a larger canvas and greater exploration, which ultimately I find more satisfying. Banks generates characters and metaphors in these SF exegeses that possess more dimension and subtlety while allowing his excellent humour and bleak darkness, in turn, to express themselves in new and wonderous ways. Plus his hedonistic civilization, the Culture, as well as being extremely clever and intelligent, is just flat out cool.
Were his two genres of novels to ever get into a fight, sure, The Wasp Factory & Dead Air would be the last to go down, but under the well aimed and devastatingly expressed blows of Excession, The Use of Weapons, Consider Phlebas and the mighty Algebraist, they would go down. Choosing a referee could be tricky, though. Certainly his contemporary books, the ones with obvious overlap into the fantastical, like Walking on Glass and The Bridge would be the logical first choices (especially as they would be next to useless in the fight, suffering the internal conflict of their competing elements) but I don’t think they’d have the sac to Judge, they just couldn’t be impartial. Which is where his new novel, Transition, steps up to the plate.
Transition is the perfect blend of his two talents, using a broader world and fantastical circumstance to bring to bear quite specific moral and political questions that not only have obvious relevance in these days of Terror wars, but also draw our eyes and minds to the historical context and origins of these renewed ideas of political will and expedience. Which sounds quite boring – but that would be me, not the novel; the novel has inter-dimensional assassins, which we all know is the total opposite of boring. Using competing though initially fractured narrative voices, Banks weaves together the face of The Concern, a group with the special knowledge and ability to move between alternate earths, a power they use, under their own moral auspices, to shape the fates of people and through them, entire worlds.
Using his natural wit and intelligence Banks explores the importance of choice and culpability under various systems of societal participation and control, from the ethics and practice of torture to greed and the nature of power with all its self-sustaining and self-destructive practices (playing nicely on Foucault’s maxim that power creates resistance, and resistance new forms of power – a maxim I’ve always regarded as super-cool). He also does a clever wee thing in the focal society he uses by inverting the ‘terrorist threat’ and, the thing I really like, goes no further into it, just allowing the reader to quietly juxtapose our contemporary assumptions with those in the book; a small but quite effective maneuver. Well played Mr. Banks, well played.
Also comfortably present is Bank’s ability to give his characters and organisations perfect names, cool but not try-hard. There’s a perfect balance expressed not only in his characters nomenclature and abilities but in their very substance, lending them, and the organisations they comprise, their remarkable place in the narrative while actually managing to keep them grounded and believable as they flit through the alternate worlds of The Concern’s broad reality.
I have a long standing problem with blurbs giving away far too much of the first 100 pages of a book – when I read a blurb I like I wait a few weeks or months, until I’ve totally forgotten everything other than the fact I want to read it. The same goes for reviews. So I’ll pretty much leave it there, hoping you’ll be satisfied with a vague thematic overview punctuated with wildly enthusiastic plaudits. Speaking of which: I absolutely loved it. Exciting, fast paced and intelligent; a wonderful demonstration of Iain Bank’s ability to be continually creative and challenging as a writer, while exuding that effortless cool of his that always leaves me satisfied. It is quite easily one of his best books, regardless of genre, and perfectly meets his intention of the best of both worlds.