Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Realities Check [Review: Transition]

As Iain Banks’ novel Transition opens the reader is presented with a series of different narrators in quick succession. I was initially confused – were they the same person at different times, separate narratives linked only by theme, or would the link between them be a metaphysical one? Iain Banks’ novels are mostly thrillers and while there are plenty of plot twists they are still easy to follow. An exception is The Bridge, which is more complex, and like Inception or Life On Mars it takes place on different levels of consciousness. My first, misguided impression was that Transition was heading somewhere similar.

This opening makes for a difficult, off-putting first third of the novel and some readers may not pass this stage. I therefore feel I am performing a public service by broadcasting the fact that this is not randomness or surreality but the opening gambit of an extremely well-planned novel - soldier on and much will become clear.

It gradually becomes apparent that the narratives are the voices of separate people, all employed in some capacity by the shadowy Concern. As with much of Banks’ writing there are parallels to be drawn with American interventionalism. Concern agents travel across alternate realities and make changes to the course of local events. Ostensibly the Concern’s mission is the greater good of humanity, but the agents are assassins and torturers while the leadership is, naturally, all about personal power, privilege and immortality, while the layers of the Concern may hide a darker agenda.

There are no thoroughbred heroes in Transition but amongst the ranks of villains and antiheroes there are insiders questioning their loyalty to the Concern or their understanding of its' mission: these insiders, like double agents, make for interesting stories driven by character development and change.

Transition is one of Banks’ best and freshest novels for a long time and if it’s not shocking compared to, say, Complicity (aww bless, he’s writing about torture and orgies again…) it’s gripping and satisfyingly complex. In the UK the book has been presented under the name Iain Banks rather than Iain M. Banks – the Earth(s)bound setting may mean this novel is more accessible to readers who are not already Culture citizens, although as onesuch myself who am I to say?

However, while Transition is not a Culture novel, it’s built on similar themes of power, abuse and politics, and on familiar sci-fi concepts: Quantum Leaping into the minds of others, Sliding across alternate realities. In addition to the basic skill of transitioning, Concern agents may have a range of other psychic powers: Tandemers can take passengers with them – for some agents this can only be achieved during sex – Trackers can track other agents through transitions, Blockers block other agents’ powers, and some agents have a limited form of foresight. Similar psychic powers turn up in the film Push, although exploding fish seems beyond the reach of the Concern.

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