Saturday, April 20, 2013

Transition, by Iain M. Banks

Rating: 4/5
Publisher: Orbit
404 pages
Source: My collection

Description: There is a world that hangs suspended between triumph and catastrophe, between the dismantling of the Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, frozen in the shadow of suicide terrorism and global financial collapse. Such a world requires a firm hand and a guiding light. But does it need the Concern: an all-powerful organization with a malevolent presiding genius, pervasive influence and numberless invisible operatives in possession of extraordinary powers?

Among those operatives are Temudjin Oh, of mysterious Mongolian origins, an un-killable assassin who journeys between the peaks of Nepal, a version of Victorian London and the dark palaces of Venice under snow; Adrian Cubbish, a restlessly greedy City trader; and a nameless, faceless state-sponsored torturer known only as the Philosopher, who moves between time zones with sinister ease. Then there are those who question the Concern: the bandit queen Mrs. Mulverhill, roaming the worlds recruiting rebels to her side; and Patient 8262, under sedation and feigning madness in a forgotten hospital ward, in hiding
from a dirty past.

There is a world that needs help; but whether it needs the Concern is a different matter.
(From the back cover.)

--> I was somewhat confused when I read this book, since I knew it had been published as one of his non-science fiction books in England, but was published as SF in the US. The Wikipedia article on it offered a possible explanation, in that he was trying to do something similar to one of his earlier books, The Bridge, which wasn't SF. I don't think he managed it, but I think it works pretty well as SF.

I did enjoy the book, despite it's problems.

The most obvious problem is it's heavy handedness in certain areas. The most glaring is the introduction of “Christian terrorists” to the various worlds. It's an extremely obvious way to comment on current Western fears of Muslims, but he doesn't actually do anything with it. They exist and occasional are referenced as killing people. It doesn't really add anything to either the book or reality.

The other major problem I had is the seemingly inconsistent rules on how characters shift from one alternate Earth to another. Occasionally, characters shift without seeming to change bodies and appear in worlds where the narrative mentions humans were wiped out. I suspect this isn't so much an error, but an attempt to recapture some of The Bridge's unreal, hallucinatory quality. It doesn't really work here, in my opinion, simply because he fails to really set up an adequately similar narrative reason.

The Bridge is probably the best book out there, told from the perspective of a person in a coma. As such, it's narrative comes across as clearly a dream state or flashbacks.

This book attempts to set up something similar, with being apparently told from the point of view of a man hiding out in a hospital somewhere, pretending to be crazy. He even announces he's an unreliable narrator at the beginning. Unfortunately, unlike The Bridge, we get parts of the story told from the perspective of other characters. So, either we buy that all these points of view are the product of one disturbed mind, or we take it at face value that all these wildly improbable things are occurring in our world. I found the second idea easier to believe.

Not his best work, but enjoyable as somewhat flawed science fiction.

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