Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Review of Iain Banks' Transition: Multi-versatile work

I don't know if you can accuse a writer of plagarising themselves. I suppose it is something that is never really mentioned it is normally discounted as a writer going over similar themes and ideas developed in slightly different ways. For example there is a criticism of Philip Roth's last few novels that he has engaged in this.

But when you write in two completely different persona as Iain Banks does (his science fiction is written by Iain M Banks) I suppose the p word becomes a possibility. Iain M Banks is the name adopted by Banks (his full one!) when writing his science fiction which he has done as long as his more traditional literary fiction.

It has long been a bug bear of mine (and apparently Banks) that readers who devour his work draw a line at his science fiction. This has even been the case, in my view, when in the last few years his strongest and most inventive work in terms of style, structure and character has been his SF. And given that a few of his more recent mainstream contemporay novels although OK have been treading water a bit - I'm thinking of the Road to Garbadale and the Business.

Banks has dealt with this now in a fairly obvious way now though by transposing a lot of the themes of his science fiction directly into this work. Not completely a first - he dabbled with this a bit I think with the Bridge one of his earlier novels - but never as full on as this.

Limited to Earth (or Calbafreques!) this is no space opera. Indeed the existence of alien life or humans making contact with them form an essential question of this work. Where the sci-fi comes in is the existence of an infinite number of planet Earths and humans within them. Ones where we died when we were 4 or had coffee rather than tea this morning or have blue hair or.... So for example one of the worlds has a problem with Christian Fundamentalist terrorists, this is quite well done but draws very much on Dawkins' God Delusion. This is an actual area of theoretical physics at the moment speculating over the nature of infinity and what it means for humans - but it is purely at that level - theory which makes it ripe for fictional treatment.

There are a group of individuals structured in a bureaucratic organisation - the Concern who can travel or transition across these multiple worlds and do so by entering other people's bodies. Familiar to anyone who has seen Terminator 2 or the early 90s tv show Quantum Leap, currently on just before the Tour de France! They intervene across the world ostensibly to do good; to prevent bad things happening but at the top of the organisation there is some foul work afoot with a hidden agenda or is there?

The debate over intervention whether helping an individual to benefit society or indeed killing many more individuals for the same reasons is dealt with here. This is a central theme of Banks' sci fi particularly with his utopian space communist society the Culture who have to interact with a variety of worlds. That is where I get the idea of plagarism - accusation is not really a fair word though because he deals with these themes really well here. I just think he has done it before and with a lot more detail in his sci-fi work. I think it is telling the Concern is also a 7 letter word beginning with C - although a more exclusively human form. It criticises the money-grabbing aspect of a version of Earth which looks very much like ours.

And I suppose that is the difference the Culture doesn't engage with the planet Earth - its scale is much vaster than that. There is I think just one short story where the two interact. In contrast this is very much a human story - exploring how we would deal with these theoretical themes.

In that there are strong characters this is done well - Mr Oh, a transitioner who is used by the Concern and comes to his own conclusions over what to do, although his awakening near the end is a bit too close to the Matrix conclusion for me, Mrs Mulverhill - his lover and mentor, the Philosopher (a torturer) and Adrian (a hedge fund manager (closer than you would think in job) are all interesting creations and all drawn into the Concern.

Sometimes there is a slight tendency to crowbar a theme around a character though - the torturer (philosopher) has a dialogue with another man who has tortured for a greater good which amounts to a text book discussion of Kantian autonomy of the individual versus utilitarianism. As outlined so well in Michael Sandel's recent series on Justice. It is worthy of discussion as many of the ideas are but breaks the narrative flow.

However where the work is excellent is the study of self - what it means to be a human. It explores the vanity we have as individuals - solipsism - which suggests we are the centre of the world, bad things wont happen to us - everything revolves around us. Very much a modern Western vanity which we all suffer from including most of the characters in the book especially Adrian who really personifies the pre-2008 crash mentality of capitalism. His end though is not particularly drawn up with events around Lehman Brothers which I thought it would be. I thought these philosphical themes and their discussion show Banks at his best which he normally reserves for his sci-fi.

It also is fairly experimental in narrative structure for one of his traditional novels. The multi-narration overlaps and is difficult to keep a handle on - I think this is quite brave and well done. It dives right in so the reader will have to work, cross reference and so on. This means the conclusion could be seen as a little convaluted - I am still trying to work out if I fully understand it.
The descriptions of other worlds - which are remember essentially this one where I am typing this - also takes no prisoners in their flowing and alien detail and I wonder how much his traditional literary readers enjoyed it. The book seems to have got great reviews from the blurb though this can sometimes be misleading - because I think it shows the link between contemporary issues and philosophy which Banks expounds much more in his science fiction; but Im not sure all readers will agree.

There is more in the book, perhaps too much some times, and it takes a while to get going because of the narrative style. Sometimes Banks could be more subtle - the first line whilst great is a bit undercutting of his own strength as a writer: "Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator" It's like he doesn't have the confidence to leave this unstated and let the reader work it out - this narrative art being a central part of much of modern fiction.

My advice would be to stick with it for it says a lot about the nature of being human, sexual relations, materialism and alienation. There's even an inter-planet Earth chase culminating in a European tourist trap! A bit Bourne-esque. I liked this but I hope it doesn't reflect Banks draining the well of ideas from his sci-fi for his contemporary work or indeed vice versa.

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