Elf M.'s Reviews > Transition

Transition by Iain M. Banks
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Oct 30, 11

Read in October, 2009

I don't think I can legitimately say I read Iain M. Banks' latest SF book, Transition. I think it's best to say that I subjected myself to it. Sometime past the halfway point, I snarked to someone that this book answered one of the burning questions of my lifetime: "What would happen if China Mieville wrote Nine Princes in Amber fanfic?" Having finished the book, I stand by that assessment.

Spoiler for the Zelazny snark: (view spoiler)

The Mieville bit comes from the fact that Transition is little more than a collection of screeds, connected together by the story, that gives Banks an excuse to rail against the evils of our world. His biggest bugaboo is The Evil Of The Limited Liability Corporation, the Social Attitudes That Allow Same, and the Corrupting Influence of Such on The Morals of Men In Government. Despite having nothing to do with the central plot, several characters wander in just to deliver a talk on the evils of "Greedist" society ("Degenerate Christian High-Capitalist worlds"), always side-characters about whom we know little and, therefore, cannot judge if they're speaking in any voice but their own.

There's also an incredible (and frankly embarrassing for a man of Banks's skill) essay-length rant on how a society that permits torture is on the Verge of Deep Doomy Doom. While I agree with Banks's politics on a number of points, the clumsy delivery is trite and frankly not up to modern sensibilities. This in 1970s-level Authorial Message In A Book crap, the kind of stuff we expected put behind us when Suzy McKee Charnas stopped writing.

The narrative layout is pure Banks: multiple narrators telling seemingly unconnected stories that all come together in one Grand Guignol scene on a crowded bridge in Venice.

Except... it doesn't. Banks doesn't deliver. It's as if he got to this scene and realized he didn't have the right pieces for his typical breathtaking twist, or even had a breathtaking twist (if you've ever read Use of Weapons, Feersum Endjiin or, cold uncaring stars help you, The Wasp Factory, you know what I'm talking about!), so he lets a deus ex machina casually whisk the pieces away, resetting the chessboard, and the book peters out without much of a satisfying ending.

Worse, Banks delivers the "this is how my universe works" info dumps during explicit sex romps between a student worldwalker and his teacher, as she grills him while trying to distract him. And he pulls this trick in multiple chapters. A more ham-handed "pay attention or you'll miss the fucking" I can't imagine.

There are moments of Banksian brilliance in this book. And there are surprises: the two-page description of a masquerade dance, the hall and its occupants, is full of pure Gothic poetry, so pretty that it again reminded me more of Zelazny in full Creatures of Light and Darkness mode than anything Banks had written before. But these are rare.

On the whole, this is the most disappointing book by Banks I've yet read. His last Culture novel, Matter, was much the same as Transition: the same narrative layout, similar rants (in this case, mostly about solipsism, a topic he touches on as well in a book about walking the multiverse), the same disappointing "time to end the book now" ending. Unless you're a committed Iain M. Banks fan, Transition is not worth your time.
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