Ken's Reviews > Against a Dark Background

Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks
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's review
Jul 20, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: reviewed
Read in July, 2009

Iain M. Banks is one of my favorite authors, but this is not as good as the Culture novels. A main theme of the book is the "dark background" of the protagonist's (Lady Sharrow's) life, with her complex and messy relationships, and her selfishness and cynicism. The other "dark background" is the solar system Lady Sharrow lives in, where almost every social and technological niche has been explored at some point in the system's long past.

One of the book's strengths is the way Banks communicates the feeling that "everything has been tried at least once" in the last 10,000 (perhaps 30,000?) years (without actually coming out and saying so), and so everyone is on the edge of an existentialist funk. Strange religions, fashions, politics, polities, sports and wars have all been tried. What makes a person special, or significant, in the face of such a long "dark" history, where everything good or bad will be trivialized in the long run?

But this major strength is also the book's weakness. Every few pages (or even every few paragraphs) of plot are interrupted with flashbacks, which explore Sharrow and her world. Every time I got excited by the plot, it went sideways for awhile. Ultimately, all this background pays off. But only when you reach the last 100 pages or so -- when the main plot line is allowed to continue for awhile without interruption.

THE WORLD. The solar system has been thoroughly populated, with numerous terraformed living spaces. But the solar system is not in a main galaxy, and so is isolated by an impassable distance from any other stars. What would the system's inhabitants have become if they could have expanded to other star systems? They will never know, and they are conscious of that fact.

THE TECHNOLOGY. Lots of very cool weapons. A cool psychological synchronization between the 4 members of Sharrow's military team -- but that is never really developed. Some key events take place in a cool old mansion/castle, where everyone is confined to certain locations by an ingenious system of chains that are hooked in grooves in the ceiling -- only the most important can access certain areas. And of course the "Lazy Gun," a cool "magic" weapon that can destroy anything -- unless you ask too much of it, in which case it will destroy itself, which is why this book involves finding the last of the 8 original guns.

CHARACTERS. Despite all the depth about Sharrow's "dark" past, the main members of her team are bit flat (perhaps they are really just different aspects of Sharrow? her apparances?). But the two key bad guys are very fully developed. Sharrow herself doesn't seem to do much -- other people seem to do everything. She is on the verge of being a victim all the time, until the last scene when she makes life and world-changing decisions.

PLOT. The plot is quite fun, but rambling, and I lost the thread during all the flashbacks. But in the end of the book really delivers, and all of the side-tracks ultimately make the ending more worthwhile. The ending is quite ambiguous, which is a great way to end a book that is all about the "dark background" that leads Sharrow to the cusp, and then causes her to make the decisions she makes.

Well worth it in the end.
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07/07/2009 page 144
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