More noise than signal


I’ve never been entirely sure why Scottish author Iain Banks has his science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you’re being massively pretentious about it) published under the Iain M. Banks moniker. What’s so Sci-Fi about the middle inital ‘M’? This question has haunted me for many years, ruining nights that otherwise promised a vast ocean of sleep to navigate, wrecked on the rocky shores of inponderable conundrums. I am even less sure about how on Earth Transition managed to sneak under the wire for the ‘normal’ fiction definition that allows the novel to sport the “Iain Banks” brand.

Y’see, works about people jumping between parallel worlds, occupying other people’s bodies while carrying out interventions, occassionaly fatal, into the lives of others don’t often fall into categories other than Sci-Fi. Quantum Leap is rarely found on shelves other than Sci-Fi, if indeed it is found on shelves at all. Oh, boy.

I believe any sort of plot recap would take as long to read as the book itself does, it being a many-layered and splendid thing, but I have not the writicular chops of Banks so my recap would be somewhat craptacular. Yes, ‘writicular’ and ‘craptacular’ are perfectly cromulent words. Are you doubting my vocabulariousity?

In a nutshell, this follows the activities and lives of a few protagonists, Temudjin Oh, a prime young agent for the interdimensional Concern of dubious providence, Mrs. Mulverhill, his some-time lover and full-time rebel, an obnoxious young city banker for whom the rhyming slang is entirely appropriate and a torturer, or if you rather an enhanced interrogation specialist.

Quite the menagerie of characters, especially when a number of them can inhabit entirely different bodies at points thoughout the narrative. Essentially, Mrs. Mulverhill has grown suspicious of the goals and methods of the Concern, and aims to tear them down, with Oh’s loyalty being the key to these plans.

It’s all a little wheels-within-wheels, and you’re largely left to fill in a lot of the details of the political machinations yourself rather than succumbing to lengthy passages of exposition. This is no bad thing, with Banks effortlessly weaving the threads of the story through and with the deep characterisations that all, even the somewhat bit-part, actors in the tale have.

Were I to hazard an answer to the classification conundrum posed earlier, it may avoid the nerdtaculgeekuar label of “Sci-Fi” by virtue of not attempting a description of the mechanism for all this parallel universe hopping zaniness by virtue of not going into any detail about it. There’s some people who can do it, with the aid of a special drug, and a Concern that regulates it. Everything else is left to your imagination, which is frequently the best idea in general and certainly in this specific case.

It’s not perfect, suffering from an ending that’s not quite directly an output of the deus ex machine, but very close to it, and perhaps something of a failure of point towards the end, although I concede that perhaps I’m not quite bright enough, or perhaps was not playing close enough attention, to see what’s going to be different in the novel’s world after the finale.

Regardless, it’s a roundly absorbing tale, and engagingly written. I will accept only illiteracy as an excuse for failure to read this book, although the contradictions inherent in writing that statement have made me dizzy so I shall now go off and lie down for a while before catching another jet plane. Don’t know when I’ll be back again.

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