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Transition, UK cover

Transition, US cover

If I had to pick one word to characterize the new Banks it would be: tired. It is recognisably a Banks novel, and fans of Banks's fiction will find things to enjoy here; but it reads throughout as half-hearted, or perhaps hearted to a fraction with a larger denominator even than that. Various different narrators extrude a cluster of narrative lines that are tangled together into a sort-of conclusion. Much of the action and even (incongruously enough) the expository dialogue happens against backdrops of minutely delineated violence, or Club International-style porny sex. But none of it is animated by the antic, gnomish energy that elevated Banks's (and M-Banks's) classic novels out of the run of the mill into something more gnarlily potent. Transition is Banks going through the motions, somewhat groggily and to no very good pugilistic or balletic effect.

It doesn't help that the central conceit is so secondhand as to be positively clapped out. An elite corps of gifted individuals can jaunt (Banks doesn't use the term, but he might as well have done) between various alternate-reality Earths. They do this by shifting their consciousness into the bodies of individuals from those worlds, leaving behind their actual bodies as shells and overriding the consciousnesses of their hosts. To accomplish this neat trick the agents must swallow a little pill—"septus" the drug is called, which is Latin for "hedged around" (I don't know if Banks means for us to know this). There is no jaunting without the septus, we're told, although one of the storylines is about a character acquiring the Gully Foyleish ability to "transition" unaided by the drug. (Foyle's is a physical teleportation, of course, and Banks's a mental transposition; but this novel struck me as pretty much indebted to Bester nevertheless.) There's also a sinister global conspiracy, called variously "The Concern," or "L'Expédience," that orchestrates all these leapers, or jumpers, or flitters, sending agents into different timelines to avert disaster, to save significant individuals who would otherwise die, right wrongs, and so on. That, at least, is their ostensible game-plan.

It is, in other words, very Quantum-Leapish, with multiple leapers instead of solitary old Scott Bakula. It is equally derivative of, to pluck some examples from the top of my head: the agents in The Matrix, leaping bulgingly from citizen to citizen; or Joe 90; or McAuley's Cowboy Angels; or Octavia Butler's Patternist novels; or Sliders—I was especially, and indeed grievously, reminded of this latter show on more than one occasion whilst reading Transition. More, Banks himself has already covered this ground. In The Bridge, you'll remember, there's a technology (a ceiling filled with swiss-cheesy holes into one of which you stick your head) that enables people to ride piggy-back upon the consciousness of other people, an experience to which most become addicted. In that novel it works as a metaphorical gloss upon fiction itself; in this novel it feels half-baked.

Let's not even mention Being John Malkovich.

Banks fiddles the rules of his own game so as to enable his story. Most people can't transition; some can by taking the pill; others don't need the pill; others can not only transition but can take one other person with them, although they have to be having sex with that person, so that Banks can write scenes in which shagging couples (all, rather disappointingly, conventionally heterosexual) slide à deux along a whole string of just-at-the-moment-of-climax shagging couples. Except that then we learn some of these latter types can take other people with them just by holding hands and without needing to shag at all. Transitioners can't transition into the minds of other transitioners; just into the minds of civilians like you or me, except that then Banks changes this rule, and it turns out that some can.

Then, since every bizarre superpower needs its kryptonite if it isn't going to run away with the story, Banks sketches in a range of counter-agents who can limit or block this nifty power (just as some of the characters in Heroes or The X-Men exist only to make it harder for the main characters to do their superpowerful thang). We're given "blockers and trackers and inhibitors and foreseers" (p. 377) and other adepts, including one very badly written Super Blocker, a loony female character called Bisquitine, who is given to saying things like "cripes!" and "whoop, whoop! Last one in's a scallop!" and "tankums, wilcums, noddkins, hurtsies" and the like, which, to be frank, I could have done without. When events come to the pinch, Banks wriggles free of the obstacles he has himself placed in his characters' way by abruptly granting his hero even greater and hitherto unsuspected superpowers. Contrived would be one description of all this. Crap would be another.

Although Banks has given himself a literally infinite playground in which to stage his kiss-kiss bang-bang, he makes only desultory use of this potential. In one reality the security services are mobilized to counter a threat of "Christian Terrorism": but once the novel has made the rather sophomoric point that Christians—with their belief that everybody is born into original sin, and therefore undeserving of life and their sacramental cannibalism and blood-drinking—would make really committed terrorists, that world is let go, more or less. This is less novel-writing, more sixth-form debating society thought-experimentation designed to challenge knee-jerk attitudes to Islam that nobody, outside the lunatic asylum of the Daily Mail, shares anyway. Other worlds are hastily mocked-up stage backdrops: an Earth in which the population was killed by a gamma ray burst where agents of the Concern can frolic in the ruins; a world where China rules; a steampunky world. Banks's heart isn't really in the worldbuilding though. Indeed, the problem with the novel is that his heart isn't really anywhere.

The descriptive prose, for example, shows signs of exhaustion, veering from blandness to an almost Dan Brown gush of superfluous adjectives and adverbs:

A small group of partygoers stood quietly watching the snow descend against the lights of the few passing boats and the light-flecked buildings on the canal's far side. The spiraling chaos of flakes appeared from the darkness overhead and disappeared silently into the oily blackness of the gently moving waters before it. … Here, in the eternally sinking city, with that odour of glamourous savagery filtering through my mind like mist off the lagoon into a room, it all felt spent here but only paused elsewhere, like something waiting to resume. (p. 92)

This is not good writing (and that's not how you spell "glamorous"). The balustrade at this posh Venetian ballroom is described as "shaped like tears." When the chandeliers at the same location are described as "like inverted teardrops" (p. 189) you get the impression of an author who can't be bothered to rummage around for a different simile. The jokey names—a London gentleman's establishment called The Perineum Club, a character called Monsieur Pamplemouse—are unusually feeble. There's an interminable Malone Dies-y narrative thread set in a hospital that goes on and on, and another thread about a character trying to pitch ideas to Hollywood that barely gets going at all.

Nor is the characterization very good. One character, a professional torturer, explains that what tipped him over into his life of nastiness was overhearing his horrible Dad forcing himself sexually upon his wife immediately upon the latter's return from hospital, freshly stitched-up from just having giving birth. The book's grasp of psychological motivation at no point goes beyond this sort of clunky literalism. The novel's key villain, Madame d'Ortolan, is a wafer-thin agent of melodrama and decadence. Her virtuous opponent, Mrs Mulverhill, is three-quarters sex object, and one-quarter Basil-Exposition-in-a-dress. A good chunk of the novel is given over to the first-person narrative of "Adrian," who is all four quarters 1980s cliché, and grating to boot—an oiky high-earner selfish-bastard city trader whose marginal role in the novel's denouement really doesn't justify the lengthy and tonally incompetent confection of sub-Amis rambling Banks gives over to him.

Banks chucks in a number of his trademark sadistic vignettes, but these lack the ingenious elegance of his earlier books. So: an assassin kills a famous rock star by exploding his head with a focused beam weapon, the twist being that the beam thus focused is a heavily compressed MP3 file of the rock star's most celebrated song. To which the reader replies: meh. A Perón-style politician is shoved in an induction furnace to heat the metal pins in his arms and legs and cook him from the inside—he is, we are told, a motorcycle stunt rider as well as a politician, hence the large amount of surgical steel in his body. Are we really supposed to believe that? Another bad guy gets into a Jacuzzi that our man has tampered with, switching the supply of compressed air for one of pure hydrogen such that when the villain lights his cigar (we're in Cosmos Cliché, so naturally villains always smoke cigars when they settle into their Jacuzzis) he explodes, the assassin watching via satellite link from the other side of the world. These, I'd say, substitute a rather implausible intricacy for what in earlier novels is mostly slyly clever horror.

You never get the impression that Banks really believes any of it, which is a core problem: for if he doesn't then why should we? None of the characters come alive; the conspiracy behind the Concern's apparent existential benevolence is gestured towards without being filled out; the ending feels unearned. Banks can do better than this.

Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.

Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.
12 comments on “Transition by Iain (M.) Banks”

It has been pointed out to me that the Banks novel in which the swiss-cheese-hole mind-riding device can be found is Walking on Glass, not The Bridge. My mistake: sorry about that.

Nick Hubble

Club International? Interesting specificity there ...
It's not great but it still speaks to the rest of his work in some places. Perhaps the problem is a lack of interest in writing 'mainstream' fiction (that seems to be the problem: how else explain why one of the most original genre - more than just anticly gnomish - practitioners of recent years writes something which looks like mainstream-acceptable version of genre). Maybe time to just write the 'M' novels.
However, on the point of the 'lumatic asylum of the Daily Mail': if it were only those, there wouldn't be such a problem. Banks's despair is not misplaced - just the way he has let it get him down.

Bill Johnston

Wow, this is perhaps the least insightful review in recent memory. It seems Roberts felt he had to simply carp about a work he doesn't understand. Certainly there are reminders of Bester and Quantum Leap and Banks' own "Use of Weapons", along with Asimov, later Heinlein, Walter Jon Williams and even Richard K. Morgan -- yes, the rest of us can also drop SF names, Mr. Roberts -- but Banks' interest here is manifestly less about gee-whiz technology than it is about institutional malfeasance, shifting perspectives, the perils of blind obedience, the price of personal responsibility and the way we humans seek to justify our behavior. With no mention of the way different characters deliberately change their reportage, or how their worlds intersect, or that our narrator is admittedly unreliable, it seems Mr. Roberts is guilty of, at the least, shallow reading (i.e. missing the point) or even worse, authorial envy...

"yes, the rest of us can also drop SF names, Mr. Roberts"
I don't mind you calling me 'Mr' Roberts; but I'm puzzled by your use of 'yes', there. Is it a rhetorical device to suggest that you are bravely asserting something over my intemperate objections? But I haven't the least objection to make to this. Since you are reinforcing my point about the derivativeness of the novel, why would I?
Otherwise: "but Banks' interest here is manifestly less about gee-whiz technology". My review nowhere suggests that Banks' interest in this novel is in gee-whiz technology.
"With no mention of the way different characters deliberately change their reportage, or how their worlds intersect, or that our narrator is admittedly unreliable ..."
The narrator says at the beginning that he's unreliable; but I didn't find that manifested in the text itself. Where's the evidence of his unreliability?
You liked the novel, I didn't. OK. You think the novel is about character, not about gadgetry. I agree: although my review looks at the characterisation and finds it wanting. As to whether this is due to my ignorance, shallowness, enviousness, or whether Transition just isn't a very good novel, it's possible that you and I will have different opinions. It's OK for people to have different opinions to yours, you know.

Alan Scheiner

I enjoyed this book but agree its no "Use of Weapons." I noticed an apparent exception to the "rules" of flitting that was either a mistake by the author (perhaps some other version of the novel where the rules are different) -- which seems highly unlikely with Banks -- or a clue to some meaning that escapes me: all characters agree that you have to flit into someone else's body, yet Concern agents flit to at least one planet with no human life (the deserted "gamma ray burster" planet) and Mrs. M refers to others without humans that have been "found." Also, Mrs. M oddly often looks nearly the same wherever she goes and Oh flits into a naked man inside a deserted Palazzo in venice. Was the man already there, or did Oh create/bring that person? If he was there, what in the world could he have been doing there? Maybe these questions are too simplistic and show that I am taking the book too literally -- but they bother me and detract from what I thought was fairly entertaining piece of science fiction. I'd appreciate any interpretations that could clear this up.

Robert McKinlay

I enjoyed the book but yeah, the lack of rules is a flaw in the transitioning process. The backstory could've done with a fair bit of tightening up in that regard.

Since it is now out in paperback I've just read it and although you say Banks can do better than this I would question this. Rather, I would say that Banks has done better than this but that isn't quite the same thing.
When Nick says "it still speaks to the rest of his work in some places" I take that to mean it is an ungodly mash up of his earlier novels. In many ways it is a sub-Use Of Weapons plot with added Earthly politics courtesy of Complicity, The Business and Garbadale.
I like the idea of restricting him to only M books with perhaps a newspaper column to allow him an outlet for the other side of things. The whole Adrian Cubbish section is just utterly dreadful, right up until the ending when it gets even worse.

The Adrian Cubbish narrative was the worst of the lot, wasn't it?
Re-reading my own review, I find myself doubting myself. To be precise, I find myself doubting whether there is such a word as 'gnomish'. Don't I mean 'gnomic'?

You probably did, but there is such a word.

Good. I also stand by 'gnarlily'.

Oh. I had assumed you were going for "impish" but more chthonic and, er, ceramic.

E. L. Wisty

Actually, what this book reminded me of was a blatant rip-off of Michael Moorcock, minus every iota of his sense of fun. The Dancers at the End of Time are superpowered aristocrats with silly names who can flit through time, space, and endless parallel universes but are ultimately so bored with their own immortality and omnipotence that they spend most of their time having fabulously elaborate parties which, if he's feeling a bit lazy, Moorcock describes in loving detail. But his characters are meant to be ludicrously surreal, whereas I think Banks wants us to take these people, nearly all of whom are both ludicrous and horrible, seriously. I'm not absolutely sure of that, though, because I certainly couldn't.
It's also pretty obvious that the idea of a mainly antiheroic secret agent who effortlessly zips between parallel universes, turning into variations on himself, owes rather a lot to Moorcock. Though at least the ridiculously contrived murders were pinched from somewhere else - presumably those old Hammer movies in which Vincent Price committed themed serial killings based on Shakespeare or the Ten Plagues of Egypt. Judging by the way Vincent played those parts, I've got a nasty feeling that Banksy believes these sections of the book to be humorous.
Adrian Cubbish is incredibly irritating and totally irrelevant. And the endless subplot in which one character sits in a room in a mental hospital doing pretty much nothing only works if the reader cares which major character the unnamed nutter will turn out to be, which I didn't. Not that it was difficult to guess. And the lengthy descriptions of weird interdimensional sex are simply cringe-inducing.
The plot device of having the characters gain increasingly ill-defined and seemingly unlimited superpowers by taking pills whose origin is never explained in any way is incredibly lazy, and profoundly unsatisfying to the reader - it's like a kids' game in which every so often somebody yells: "Let's make it that..." But even worse, this is obviously an excuse to create a whole new fictional universe - nay, multiverse! - now that he's bored with the Culture.
We're clearly going to be treated to further novels in which these utterly uninvolving characters return and jump through the same hoops as before, only this time we'll be supposed to spend at least one entire book trying to care about the hero's quest to find out who makes some silly wee pills! If volume two is as short of original ideas as volume one, my money's on the Reptoids.
Not that I'll be bothering to find out. If there are going to be more like this, maybe he should publish them as "Iain Z. Banks" just so that most of us know which ones to definitely not read.

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