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Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Transition" by Iain M. Banks (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Iain Banks Website
Iain Banks at Wikipedia
Order "Transition" HERE

INTRODUCTION: Iain M. Banks' early Culture books, "Use of Weapons", "Consider Phlebas" and "The Player of Games" as well as the standalone "Against a Dark Background" are among my top sff books of all time, with "Use of Weapons" still at #1 after 17 years since first read and many re-reads in the meantime.

While his mainstream non-M books have been less of a hit with me since they combine horror and "Englishness" and both are very hit-or-miss for me as opposed to space opera, I got all M book as soon as possible and read them on arrival for 17 years now.

So I was a bit in a conundrum with "Transition" which is billed as a non-M book in the UK, but an M book in the US and while very excited by it from its description, I was not sure what I will get. On first read I still kept being puzzled, since the book combined both mainstream elements (superb style, psychological depth) with core sff ones (larger than life characters, Multiverse and travel in between alt-Earths) in a multilayered tale of extraordinary sophistication, but one I was not sure till the end how it will mesh.

However once I finished the novel and I started understanding its nuances, I immediately got back into it and read it twice again and it was worth, Transition becoming indeed my top sff novel of the year and one of top two overall 2009 releases so far. I will explain why in the following and argue that you definitely need at least one re-read to fully appreciate the subtlety and depth of the novel.

: The main conceit of "Transition" is that our and many other Earths are part of the Multiverse in which special people, "Transitioners"- usually of the assured, selfish type - can travel in between by temporarily occupying the bodies of unsuspecting persons with the help of a drug called "septus" which is native to Calbefraques, the one special, "Platonically perfect", totally open Earth where everyone knows about the possibility of transition and the "Speditionary Faculty of the University of Practical Talents" delves into the mysteries of the Multiverse as does the associated "L'Expedience" aka "The Concern" which tries to influence - to the good as it claims - other "Earths".

"Cal­be­fraques was the ul­ti­mate Open world, the mir­ror im­age of one of the num­ber­less per­fect­ly Closed Earths where no­body knew about the many worlds; a place where pos­si­bly ev­ery sin­gle adult soul who walked its sur­face knew that it was mere­ly one world with­in an in­fini­tude of worlds, and a nexus at that, a step­ping-​off point for as much of that in­fini­tude as it was pos­si­ble to imag­ine.

And a world, an Earth that was close to unique. Log­ical­ly there had to be oth­er ver­sions of this Earth that were close to the Cal­be­fraques that we knew, but we seemed to be un­able to ac­cess them. It was as though by be­ing the place that could act as a gate­way to any oth­er ver­sion of Earth, Cal­be­fraques had some­how out­paced all the oth­er ver­sions of it­self that would oth­er­wise have ex­ist­ed. It seemed that in the same way that the true con­scious­ness of a tran­si­tion­er could on­ly be in one world at a time, there could on­ly be one world that was per­fect­ly Open, and that world, that unique Earth was this one, called Cal­be­fraques."

The above quote from the book clarifies the key core-sf element of the novel, while the intricate interlinked tales of the various characters both explore it and connect it to "our" Earth on which a good chunk of action happens.

Ostensibly there are five threads in the novel, following one Transitioner agent, one unreliable narrator who is a mental patient on an obscure "closed" Earth but believes himself to be a former agent of the Concern on the run, a philosophical torturer from an alt-Earth with some twists, the current CEO of L'Expedience and the one up-to-no good character from the first pages, Madame D'Ortolan, and finally on our Earth, social climber, former drug runner and current hot shot financier Adrian Cubbish of "The Market is God. There is no God but the Market" refrain...

Hovering over everyone is the mysterious Ms. Mulverhill who claims to have proof of dark deeds and intentions at the heart of The Concern and is on the run from its agents while recruiting allies to her cause. At least this is how the novel starts and what we are led to believe at the beginning...

Transition can be read in a dual way - as core/adventure sf with the Multiverse, assassins, conspiracies, The Concern and its research and purposes - and as mainstream novel about the abuse of power, the nature of morality, drugs, torture, greed and money, subjects which are always omnipresent in the IM novels but here they are directly related to our world and analogs with some twists. As mainstream it probably tackles more than in such ten novels, and in a very energetic, take no prisoner ways familiar from his sf novels, so it will administer a jolt to unwary readers...

As core sf, its subtlety will be appreciated only on the reread when much more will make sense, though the novel raises more questions than brings answers and offers a great opportunity for a Culture-like cycle of novels in this extraordinary milieu.

For veteran IM Banks readers there are a lot of allusions to his Culture novels and their themes, and you will re-encounter Diziet Sma's arguments with Zakalwe about the "morality of intervention vs non-intervention" from Use of Weapons, or GCU's Grey Area' sense of justice and its implacable execution from Excession as well as quite a few other similar tidbits.

The one major negative of the novel are
the "let me show how clever I am" moments that jar in their (multiple) Earth context, including the references to momentous events in our history like the Fall of the Berlin Wall or 9/11 which have no particular significance in the novel and could have been skipped without missing a beat.

I loved the ending, though in the usual Banks' style, you better re-read at least the prologue at the end since like in "Use of Weapons", the prologue will not make real sense at the beginning since it's actually the first part of the epilogue....

Superb, deep, and a great absorbing read I strongly recommend "Transition" both for veteran IM Banks readers and as an introduction to his work.



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