I only picked this book up by chance, having thought that I had read all books by Iain M. Banks (the SF writer incarnation of the late writer) – until I saw this copy of Transition. I have meanwhile learned that, in most places, most editions of this book were published under Iain Banks (the mainstream novelist incarnation); except an American PB edition (which is what I have), and, I think, a French edition, too.
I guess you can rate the book as one or the other list – and I don’t think Iain had any problem with that either.
So, depending on how you look at it, either we have here a rather splendid story with secret organisation, working across the many worlds of a multiverse, with political machinations, and surprising twists and turns. Or, alternatively, we have a clever comment on the US, on rendition and forced information extraction, the legality thereof, and, as some people have pointed out, imperialism. Or maybe, if you dare, you have both. Which is rather grand, if you ask me.
Either way, the book begins with someone claiming to be an 'unreliable narrator', giving us a number of beginnings, and an ending (he gets killed), just for good measure. Thereon we follow multiple threads, all told through the eyes of the respective protagonist – some direct action descriptions, but mostly reflective, introspective, plus some confessionals; all of them under the title, er, label of the protagonist in question (Patient 8262, hiding away, biding his time. The Philosopher – ex army and police 'interrogator', now working for the Concern. The Transitioner – adept at travelling between the different worlds, and mostly working as an interdimensional assassin now. Plus some more, some of them named).
I frequently wondered who might be who in the different strands, as they don't align time or location or event wise – it's a rather convoluted, but very clever structure. The actual time line or sequence of events I found to be sometimes hard to establish amidst all these reminiscences and flash-backs. I presume this is entirely on purpose...
Especially the first third reminded me, exactly because of these only very loosely connected threads, of Grimwood's Stamping Butterflies.
One (or maybe two?) threads play in our world, during “that golden age which nobody noticed was happening at the time; I mean the long decade between the fall of the Wall and the fall of the Towers. […] One event symbolised the lifted threat of a worldwide nuclear holocaust, something which had been hanging over humanity for nearly forty years, and so ended an age of idiocy. The other ushered in a new one.”
Although, especially with one of the threads set in our world, following a Hedge Fund banker called Adrian Cubbish, I couldn't help the feeling that Banks has got something to say about bankers, the banking system, and the conductivity of our legal framework towards stratification, and letting the rich make easy money on the back of the populace who does not have the wherewithal to do so themselves.
Several of the characters came across as interesting, but at the same time unpleasant, like the Philosopher (essentially a professional torturer) or the above-mentioned thread playing in the world of finance and entrepreneurship.
“Given the unalleviatedly barbarous history of every world we have ever encountered with anything resembling man in it...” one character quips. Ouch! Touché...
There are two complaints I can make about the book – the first was that the means and practicalities of flitting between worlds (normally taking over the body of someone in the new world, including their ticks, hang-ups, sexual preferences etc) is used and shown rather inconsistently; and I found the implicit excuse that these skills are still being investigated and developed really didn't satisfy. A minor issue, maybe, but jarring to me nevertheless.
The other issue is maybe even flimsier – I really really would have liked to learn more about this Concern, about how it works, what it does etc, not just what the people enveloped in its machinations and politics think. Yes, this also is a clear indicator of the quality of the setting and the writing thereof, but still... (grumble...)
Should you read this? Unequivocally yes – this is an unusual Banks book (with or without the middle initial), and I found it hugely enjoyable. Which makes me all the sadder that he won't be writing any more of them, of course!
Author: Iain M. Banks
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher URL: http://www.hachettebookgroup.com
Publication Date: 2009
Review Date: 140326
Price: USD 14.99
Format: Large format PB
Topic: Secret Societies