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Against a Dark Background

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She came from one of the more disreputable aristocratic families.

Sharrow was once the leader of a personality-attuned combat team in one of the sporadic little commercial wars in the civilization based around the planet Golter. On an island with a glass shore - relic of some even more ancient conflict - she discovers she is to be hunted by the Huhsz, a religious cult which believes she is the last obstacle before their faith's apotheosis. She has to run, knowing her only hope of finally escaping the Huhsz is to find the last of the ancient, apocalyptically powerful but seemingly cursed Lazy Guns. But that is just the first as well as the final step on a search that takes her on an odyssey through the exotic Golterian system and results in both a trail of destruction and a journey into her own past, as well as that of her family and the system itself; a journey that changes everything.

480 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1993

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About the author

Iain M. Banks

60 books5,359 followers
Iain M. Banks is a pseudonym of Iain Banks which he used to publish his Science Fiction.

Banks's father was an officer in the Admiralty and his mother was once a professional ice skater. Iain Banks was educated at the University of Stirling where he studied English Literature, Philosophy and Psychology. He moved to London and lived in the south of England until 1988 when he returned to Scotland, living in Edinburgh and then Fife.

Banks met his wife Annie in London, before the release of his first book. They married in Hawaii in 1992. However, he announced in early 2007 that, after 25 years together, they had separated. He lived most recently in North Queensferry, a town on the north side of the Firth of Forth near the Forth Bridge and the Forth Road Bridge.

As with his friend Ken MacLeod (another Scottish writer of technical and social science fiction) a strong awareness of left-wing history shows in his writings. The argument that an economy of abundance renders anarchy and adhocracy viable (or even inevitable) attracts many as an interesting potential experiment, were it ever to become testable. He was a signatory to the Declaration of Calton Hill, which calls for Scottish independence.

In late 2004, Banks was a prominent member of a group of British politicians and media figures who campaigned to have Prime Minister Tony Blair impeached following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In protest he cut up his passport and posted it to 10 Downing Street. In an interview in Socialist Review he claimed he did this after he "abandoned the idea of crashing my Land Rover through the gates of Fife dockyard, after spotting the guys armed with machine guns." He related his concerns about the invasion of Iraq in his book Raw Spirit, and the principal protagonist (Alban McGill) in the novel The Steep Approach to Garbadale confronts another character with arguments in a similar vein.

Interviewed on Mark Lawson's BBC Four series, first broadcast in the UK on 14 November 2006, Banks explained why his novels are published under two different names. His parents wished to name him Iain Menzies Banks but his father made a mistake when registering the birth and he was officially registered as Iain Banks. Despite this he continued to use his unofficial middle name and it was as Iain M. Banks that he submitted The Wasp Factory for publication. However, his editor asked if he would mind dropping the 'M' as it appeared "too fussy". The editor was also concerned about possible confusion with Rosie M. Banks, a minor character in some of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves novels who is a romantic novelist. After his first three mainstream novels his publishers agreed to publish his first SF novel, Consider Phlebas. To distinguish between the mainstream and SF novels, Banks suggested the return of the 'M', although at one stage he considered John B. Macallan as his SF pseudonym, the name deriving from his favourite whiskies: Johnnie Walker Black Label and The Macallan single malt.

His latest book was a science fiction (SF) novel in the Culture series, called The Hydrogen Sonata, published in 2012.

Author Iain M. Banks revealed in April 2013 that he had late-stage cancer. He died the following June.

The Scottish writer posted a message on his official website saying his next novel The Quarry, due to be published later this year*, would be his last.

*The Quarry was published in June 2013.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 496 reviews
Profile Image for Brad.
Author 2 books1,669 followers
March 25, 2008
Iain M. Banks has something prophetic in mind in "Against a Dark Background," but it may have been a bit too subtle for most of the critics to get.

Banks isn't writing a cheesy adventure story; he's not creating a science fiction galaxy for entertainment purposes; he's not playing around at all. He's offering us a warning of what's to come if we keep moving the way we are. He presents a galaxy full of technological wonders where thermonuclear war is tactical and a part of regular business, a galaxy where religions and corporations take the place of countries and legislate their desires through a world court, a galaxy where all is part of an enlightened dark age where the amazing is terrible and the adventurous is appalling.

"Against a Dark Background" is vintage Banks -- much more than it seems and well worth the read.
Profile Image for mark monday.
1,619 reviews4,958 followers
March 7, 2012
the only Iain Banks book (so far) that i couldn't finish. too shallow, too snarky, too full of confusing cyberbullshit. so many ideas (like that Lazy Gun) that seem brilliant but go nowhere. words can't express how disappointed i was with this one, it was like catching someone i worship in the middle of some brazen lie - a lie designed to dazzle its audience with a display of insouciant hipness. FAIL. but before you take this review seriously, you should also keep in mind that i am the kind of jackass who disliked the beloved Snow Crash, which i found to be equally tedious and cringe-worthy and full of opportunities for me to laugh derisively.
Profile Image for Scott.
288 reviews289 followers
February 7, 2017
I love Iain M. Banks’ Science Fiction. I have half a bookshelf laden with his Culture novels, and just panning my eyes across them gives me faint hint of pleasure, the residue of the SF ecstasies I enjoyed while pawing through each one. I don’t love Against a Dark Background in the same way. I like it, it’s kind of engrossing, but it didn’t stir me like Banks’ other works.

The central character of Against a Dark Background is Sharrow, a noble in a distant future star system. Sharrow is the sworn enemy of a fanatical religious sect - the Huhsz – a group who assassinated her mother and have sworn to end the female line of her family in repayment for her ancestors’ theft of the cult’s most valuable treasure - a device known as a Lazy Gun.

As the novel opens the Huhsz are on the verge of gaining the right to legally hunt Sharrow down and kill her. Sharrow sets out to reunite the fighter pilot comrades she met (and was neurologically bonded too) in a past war and discover the location of the now-lost lazy Gun that the Huhsz seek. Cue Banks' usual gonzo worldbuilding and his deft hand with characters and pacing as Sharrow and her team fly, run and fight their way around a grand and fascinating solar system.

If you’ve read Banks you’ll know to expect the weird and wonderful, sewn together in a convincing narrative that will have you turning pages late into the evening. You’ll visit a society where the inhabitants deliberately retard their technical development by giving their surplus to a ‘Useless King’ (his official title) who blows it all on pointless gadgets, keeping his nation at a near medieval level of existence. You’ll meet a religious order whose dictates command all adherents to be chained to a network of wall-rails in their monastery, the higher ranks denoted by chains of lighter and more valuable metals. You’ll become familiar with the Lazy Gun- a weapon with an apparent sense of humor that uses multi-dimensional transportation to kill its victims, for example transporting a falling anvil or elephant from another reality into being over its target. Banks fires off hundreds of great ideas, sometimes needing only sentences to convincingly illustrate concepts that lesser authors would need entire novellas to explore.

So far, so Banks, and overall Against a Dark Background is pretty entertaining. As a whole though, this isn’t Banks at his full-power, megaton-range-imagination best, as seen in his Culture novels. The story occasionally feels a tad episodic as Sharrow runs from one disaster to the next, and the ending, which doesn’t do the book’s build-up justice, left me a little disappointed. Against a Dark Background is fun, and an easy read, but it’s no Player of Games or Consider Phlebas. If you’re starting on Banks (and I envy you if you are- I would happily erase my memories of the Culture series just so I could enjoy them again) I would start elsewhere.
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 28 books13.4k followers
November 2, 2010
Inspired by Brad's recent review of Night of the Living Trekkies, I'm going to present this one in checklist form. Here we go:

• Convoluted, non-linear exposition: ✓
It's an Iain Banks. Enough said.

• Weird takes on religion: ✓
He's so imaginative at this game. I loved the church who hate God, and insult Him instead of praying to Him. Almost as much fun as Luskentyrianism in Whit.

• Badass heroine: ✓
Lady Sharrow could take on Lara Croft and Modesty Blaise together with one hand tied behind her back. But why would she bother? She's got better things to do.

• Exotic weapons: ✓
The only thing I can think of that compares to the Lazy Gun is the Bomb in Dark Star . Maybe they're cousins.

• Plot that makes sense:
... hm. Well, ah, how exactly do you define makes sense? For example, is it important to have a proper ending? No, no, I'm not trying to evade the question, I'm just trying to establish what you mean...
Profile Image for notgettingenough .
1,015 reviews1,162 followers
May 26, 2011
Let me preface slightly critical remarks by saying this is a hard-to-put-down thriller. His science fiction is so much better than his other stuff. Not for one moment do I have to consciously suspend disbelief. Never does he fall into this category which Randall puts so well that I'm just going to recyle his succinct observation yet again:



Banks makes up worlds, concepts, laws, forms of life, cultures and societies, he gives them all names and it all seems so natural. How splendid is that.

Again, I do not understand why his science fiction is not turned into films. They'd be spectacular, but they'd have plots and good dialogue and - is this the reason why?

The only thing that niggles me about this is that it was obvious from very early what the denouement was going to be. I don't suppose that matters, maybe the reader was supposed to know? But for me it made the last fifty or so pages a little disappointing.

I thought there were slightly messy aspects to the plot which may or may not matter. Considering that the Huhsz are the motivators for the story, it seemed to me they figured in an almost incidental way. Maybe I've missed something there. But with Solipsists and Useless Kings and a host of others tumbling in and out of this story, crowding it with laughs, however dark it also gets, a slightness of Huhsz is neither here nor there, I guess. I dare say something had to give. The thing is 500 pages long as it is.

What churlish knitpicking. Reading Banks lately has made me receptive to the idea of reading science fiction again, when I really thought those days were over a very long time ago. I could scarcely be more impressed.
Profile Image for Zach.
251 reviews91 followers
November 12, 2012
This is easily my least favorite Banks novel, and the only one I seriously considered not finishing. There's a lot here to like, which is why it gets two stars and not one. But the good stuff is spread pretty thin, and on the balance it was just plain hard to read. Not "challenging," not "narratively dense," but hard to read. This book has a lot of problems from a formal perspective.

First and foremost, it's an action novel with frustratingly opaque descriptions of the action. It reminded me of Consider Phlebas in that regard. I often had difficulty tracking what was physically happening in the fast-moving scenes, who was dead or injured, what various bursts of cerise light portended.

Secondly, the narrative structure is schizophrenic. Banks relates the present-day timeline interleaved with the protagonist's back story, often in chunks of about four paragraphs. Entire chapters take this form, switching back and forth between past and present. It was often the case that I would read the first paragraph of such a section and still not know which timeline I was inhabiting. I'm sure there are people who would find such stroboscopic story telling to their liking, but it really put me off. Banks has experimented with non-linear stories to better effect before, such as in Use of Weapons, so I'll consider this an outlier.

Even worse, Banks will spend entire sections of the novel enigmatically referring to some technology or concept of the book's world -- characters will have conversations that allude to it without indicating what it is -- before abruptly throwing in the towel and spending a few pages of perspective-free exposition simply telling the reader what he's been teasing us with this whole time.

The world of Dark Background is deep and interesting, with a half-fallen technologically mature civilization sifting through the junk heaps of their ancestors looking for seemingly magic devices. No one in the novel understands how such tech works, so you won't either, but some of it is still pretty neat. But the real stars of the novel are the various cities, planets, governments and cults that comprise the Golter system. In this, I'm again reminded of Consider Phlebas. Also like that first Culture novel, Dark Background's plot comprises a series of high-stake heists and covert missions. It's a shame that it feels like such a slog for much of its length.
Profile Image for Paul.
2,306 reviews20 followers
July 13, 2016
This is my first Iain Banks novel since he passed away and I was concerned I'd be too upset to enjoy it fully... but figured it was time. I needn't have worried; this book is so much fun all thoughts of the author's sad passing were soon pushed to the back of my mind. I guess this is how writing can bestow a kind of immortality on an author.

While this is one of Banks' science fiction novels, it isn't part of his Culture series. This is a great little space opera/heist adventure/action extravaganza with some deep thinkin' mixed in for good measure. This being Banks, said thoughts are often woven into the plot with a liberal dose of humour. In fact, I'm pretty sure some of these aspects would make Douglas Adams smile.

If you're not already a fan of Banks, I'd recommend this to fans of Firefly, Killjoys, Saga and (dare I say it?) Star Wars. This certainly isn't Banks' best work but it's a Hell of a lot of fun and I enjoyed it so much I went back and re-read it from the beginning as soon as I finished it!

P.S. - Banks wrote an epilogue to this novel which he posted online but never added to any published copy of the book. It's rather nice and brings things full circle (sort of). You can read it here: Against a Dark Background epilogue
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,406 reviews301 followers
February 19, 2020
Banks' space operas repay rereading. For me, the second reading is usually better than the first. I wasn't bowled over by my first go at Against a Dark Background, but the second time really clicked. Except for his almost-obligatory Banks Tragic Ending, wherein Zefla -- and other characters I'd grown fond of (and some I hadn't) -- come to grief. Oh, weel -- lad's read his Shakespeare tragedies. Not to mention his European history.

2020 reread: I liked it less on this reread -- but it's still an IMB, and a good one. I did have some minor WSOD problems this time, and this is a very dark novel. Here's the best review I saw online: https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/reviews/...

A sample: [no spoilers]
Zefla Franck, once described as nearly two meters of utter voluptuousness with a brain, strolled along the lane, ... her long golden hair undone and straggling to the waist of her slinky dress, her shoes off and held over one shoulder .... The night was warm. The faint breeze rising from the orchards in the valley below smelled sweet.

She whistled and watched the sparkling sky, where Maidservant -- Golter's second moon -- shone blue-gray and bounteous near the horizon -- a great stone-and-silver ship escorted and surrounded by a school of flickering, glittering lights: habitats and factories, satellites and mirrors.... It was, Zefla thought, really quite beautiful... Moonlight and junklight. Junklight. Such a callous, mean-spirited name for something so beautiful....

She watched a winking satellite move with a perfect, steady stateliness across the vault.... She [put] her head down to make sure she wouldn't trip.

She hiccuped suddenly. "Shit!" she said.

Maybe it was looking downward that did it. She looked back up at the sky and hiccuped again. "Shit shit shit!"

... She was nearly home, and she hated going into the house with the hiccups; Dloan always made fun of her.

Another hiccup. She growled and fixed all her attention on the satellite. Her shin hit something hard. "Aow, fuck!"

Zefla hopped around on one foot, clutching her shin. "Ow ow ow!" she said. She glared at what she'd bumped into: ... a huge pale car, almost filling the lane outside the house. Zefla glared at the insect-spattered snout of the auto and muttered.

The shoes she'd been carrying dropped from her fingers to the cobblestones; she hopped on top of the shoes, lost her footing, and fell with a yelp into the luminous bushes.

She lay in the shrubbery, cradled on her back by the creaking branches and surrounded by gently glowing leaves. Disturbed insects buzzed around her head and tickled her bare legs and
forearms.

"Oh, sodomy," Zefla sighed as the door opened...

"Zef?" said a female voice.

"Hell's caries," Zefla groaned. "I might have known. I suppose this is your car? ....I thought they had collision-avoidance radar."

"It's switched off, " Sharrow said, stooping to retrieve Zefla's shoes from the cobbles.

Zefla sighed. "Mine, too."

[copyright 1993 Iain M. Banks]
Profile Image for Phil.
1,489 reviews86 followers
August 17, 2022
Difficult book to review for sure. Against a Dark Background is an early science fiction work by Banks first published in 1993, but not part of the Culture series. Set in the Thrail star system, (and one without FTL and hence self-contained) our main protagonist is Lady Sharrow, an aristocrat of long lineage, but from a 'fallen' house as her father lost the family fortune via gambling; she has made her way finding lost relics Indiana Jones style.

Banks takes a literary turn here, breaking up the narrative with numerous flashbacks of Sharrow's life as the story progresses. This is my second time through this and rereading it helps catch all the nuances Banks tossed in. In any case, this is something of a thriller and a mystery in a science fiction world.

The Thrail star system is coming up on its 20,000 anniversary of civilization and has colonized most of the solar system via 'terraforming' and space habitats. At first, Against a Dark Background seems like a jumble of big ideas and indeed, throughout the novel, Banks tosses in big ideas/tech with almost reckless abandon. It reminded me of Matter, where the big ideas/tech almost make the plot superfluous, but here, the plot has a little more substance.

In a nutshell, several thousands of years ago, a machine/AI enclave in the star system build eight 'lazy guns'. The guns are relatively small and can be fastened to one's waist, but what they do is something of a mystery. Yes, they destroy what they are aimed at, but never in the same way. Shooting a person may make suddenly evoke huge jaws to bite/kill them, or electrocute between wires, or whatever. Aiming at large targets like a city often results in something akin to an atomic bomb. In any case, all eight were lost, but they have a habit of turning up again.

Before the novel started, Lady Sharrow and her team of four other treasure hunters purloined one from a temple of the Huhsz religious cult. The cult, via some arcane laws, managed to get a writ to kill her legally. The only thing to save her is to find the last remaining Lazy Gun and turn it over to them or her life is forfeit. Now, her grandfather was also something of an artifact hunter, and left some bizzare clues on where the last one may be found.

So, on the one hand, Against a Dark Background is a quest novel, where Sharrow and company attempt to track down the last Lazy Gun in the rather sensational Thrial system, encountering all kinds of trials and tribulations. On the other hand, this is really a story about family, friendship and commitment, and what some people will do to acquire power over others.

That stated, this is a hard novel to really get into and in fact, I can see why some may dnf it as I was tempted to do about 100 pages in. It is just so busy and at times rather silly, with strange tech and events right and left, so much so that I was just scratching my head, trying to figure out where this was going. Then, about halfway through, the 'meta' picture starts to form, especially with all of Sharrow's flashbacks starting to form a coherent whole. After that, I was enthralled. Would I recommend this? Maybe. If you are a Banks fan, this is a must. If you are a stubborn reader ready to put up with some hardship before a payoff, then give this a go. 4 rocky stars!
Profile Image for Caitlin.
Author 9 books62 followers
August 28, 2013
"Banks ain't kidding. He warned you up front this is a dark novel."- Norman Spinrad

I generally don't pay much attention to those back cover blurbs praising (or in the memorable case of Banks' The Wasp Factory, decrying) a book I'm reading, but this quote really stuck with me after reading Against a Dark Background. While I wouldn't necessarily call it darker than, say, Consider Phlebas, the dramatic shifts in tone Banks takes you through in this book were for me truly disarming. It's a book that begins like a light-hearted sci-fi actioner (albeit salted with darkness from the memorable prologue onward) and ends in a nihilistic explosion of death, loss, and recrimination. Imagine the novel equivalent of a film that begins like Star Wars and ends like Reservoir Dogs and you'll have some idea of the tonal shift I'm talking about.

If this sounds like a hot mess, don't be fooled: by building up Sharrow's past history in flashbacks sprinkled throughout the "front story", Banks prepares you to understand the degree to which her past is driving everything that happens in the present. I found Sharrow to be the kind of protagonist you sympathize with yet dislike at the same time, and Banks does an excellent job of bringing her contradictions out in high relief throughout the novel. Some other reviewers have described her as a Mary Sue, but I have to disagree: in my opinion, a Mary Sue is a character who is not only good at everything but also has everything work out swimmingly for her in the end. Sharrow may be good at many things, but she certainly has her human deficiencies… and more to the point, she experiences loss and grief at a level that I don't think any writer viewing their character through rose-colored Mary Sue glasses would have the *ahem* spine to put her through. A dark novel? Oh yes--like dark chocolate: rich, heavy, and leaves a lingering taste long after it's finished.
Profile Image for Rob.
Author 2 books364 followers
March 22, 2012
Until I get around to any kind of real review:

Fun science fiction "heist" story. My friend likened it to Neuromancer ("...but only because of they're both science fiction heist stories") but I thought it was more like The Sting with lasers.

It's Banks, but it's not a "Culture" novel. I haven't read enough of his Culture novels to know if this is a good thing or not. Golter (the main planet in the story) is said in the text to be more/less "orphaned" -- as though it's simply too far for interstellar travel to be possible. (Which is like: "...O...K...?")

More fun than good. Which is not to say it is "bad", but in saying "good" we sometimes imply that something is not "great". Which is not what I mean. Not exactly. This book is fun.

Is Sharrow one of those ultimate Mary-Sue characters or what? Born into wealth and nobility? And then rejecting that nobility out of rebellion? Being born into prophecy? Attractive? Smart? Sharp as a whip? Good with a gun (in more ways than one)? And/but: Sharrow is part of the reason that the story is so fun...

What is it with Iain M. Banks and cousins? You know what I'm talking about? You know what I'm talking about.
Profile Image for Kevin Kelsey.
398 reviews2,164 followers
February 13, 2017
This is the eleventh Iain M. Banks novel I've read, and the first one that I've been disappointed by.

What a train wreck this novel is. It started out very strong, and then fell apart over and over again for the next ~550 pages or so. It had a few moments of brilliance, and some really great ideas (the solipsists especially were fantastic), but it just went on and on and on with diversions and then ended, never adequately pulling itself together.

If you're thinking of reading this, don't. Instead read these two excerpts-which represent the novel at its very best–and imagine something fantastic wrapped around these bits of brilliance:

"How many tyrants had begun by being charming, beguiling, attractive? Still, they all ended up the same. We are a race prone to monsters, she thought, and when we produce one we worship it. What kind of world, what translation of good could come from all that's happened here?"

"Sorrow be damned, and all your plans. Fuck the faithful, fuck the committed, the dedicated, the true believers; fuck all the sure and certain people prepared to maim and kill whoever got in their way; fuck every cause that ended in murder and a child screaming."
Profile Image for Simeon.
Author 1 book369 followers
October 17, 2011
Moments of brilliant oases amid a general drought. The first chapter alone is worth it. If you've read the book, make sure you also peruse the epilogue published separately online by Iain M. Banks, making the story's ending a lot more satisfying and less abrupt. Here's a link.
Profile Image for Adam.
558 reviews343 followers
November 25, 2008
Against a Dark Background is another wonderfully complex science fiction novel from Iain M Banks that combines Shakespeare tragedy, gritty cyberpunk thriller, treasure hunt, and comic picaresque. A rambling tour of fractured culture closer to Gibson and Sterling cyberpunk and Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius adventures than Banks’s usual milieu. His sense of absurd is as sharp as Schismatrix era Sterling and he is darker and funnier than Gibson. His culture (not the Culture though) is broken into absolutely bizarre groups; the Solipsists, a group that mutilates itself, and the useless kings(they hate books, technology, and God.) are some of my favorites. Some of the character’s motivations remain murky, the flashbacks aren’t as effective as Use of Weapons, and the complex plot is tough to keep track off but Banks’s imagination and pitch black humor makes it worth it. Sinister clones, a super weapon with a sense of humor(the wonderfully named Lazy Gun), bittersweet androids, a planet sized plant, a city of derelict ships(long before Mieville’s Armada) are among the many treats in store. Be warned this is pretty bleak with the last hundred pages being especially costly.
Profile Image for Althea Ann.
2,232 reviews998 followers
September 26, 2013
Very, very good. It's less conceptual and more an adventure story than many of his other books - but it's a VERY good adventure story! Lots of action and violence, without neglecting depth of character & emotion.... very effective portrayal of a female protagonist by a male author too! (something I find is rather rare...)
Profile Image for Ethan.
Author 2 books55 followers
December 7, 2020
First things first: this is not a Culture novel. It's neither quite as fun nor as deep as the Culture books, but it has its moments. Even a sub-par Iain M. Banks novel is above average science fiction.

But like Feersum Endjinn and The Algebraist, Against a Dark Background not set in the Culture universe (or at least not within the galactic territory traversed by the Culture). The Algebraist is probably my favorite of Banks's non-Culture SF, but Against a Dark Background has its share of Banksian brilliance.

Set in a planetary system a million lightyears from the closest planet where humans have had spaceflight for thousands of years, the novel explores some themes of loneliness and isolation (eventually... it takes a while to get there). The main character Sharrow is part of a noble family often involved in private wars within the system. When she was young, her mother was killed and the Huhsz religion believes their salvation lies in wiping out the female line of her family. And there's a thing called a Lazy Gun that almost sounds like something from a Douglas Adams novel. And an army of Solipsists (hilarious!). A religious sect that hates God and wants to get an outsider to be their leader. A "Useless King" that spends money excessively on useless things to avoid too much technological advancement in his country. And a lot more strange and wonderful ideas--this is Banks, after all!

While I found most of the novel interesting enough, some parts of it felt unnecessary or bloated. The almost randomly-inserted flashbacks often made it difficult to tell when everything was taking place, or even really where (some of the world building is slow dripped over hundreds of pages). A lot of the action is hard to follow. I think a chapter about a quarter of the way in was almost completely indecipherable to me. But eventually it all sort of came together. And Sharrow is great throughout. And the ending is almost as poignant, if a bit bleak, as some of my favorite parts of the Culture (almost, anyway).

A bit on the Solipsists. Solipsism is the view that only I exist (or you, and then I and this review are part of your imagination). So of course the idea of an army of Solipsists is too good to pass up. Get it? But to take it seriously (maybe more seriously than intended), it is possible! Each Solipsist thinks the others are "apparances" (or manifestations of their imagination and/or unconscious). So, for example, if you are the sole conscious being, this review was actually written by you, or some part of your mind. A bit wacky, but it makes sense.

Solipsism is a bit of a philosophical joke, but it has sometimes been taken seriously. The 11th century Buddhist philosopher Ratnakirti is sometimes read as a solipsist. I think this is a bit hasty, because as a Buddhist his point is really more that given the lack of a self, there's no fundamental distinction between self and the world. And if you really take this seriously (as Ratnakirti does!), there is no strict delineation between you, me, and the rest of the universe (a view that Yogacara Buddhists call non-dualism). So it's not that we're all one *me*, but that there is no me separate from non-me. Whoa.

Which segues, in a strange way, to the other philosophical topic I wanted to talk about: isolation. The Golter system is quite different than the Culture, but not all that different than some of the cultures the Culture encounters. Most of the system is a capitalist aristocracy where noble families fight private wars that sometimes involve nuclear weapons. The nobles have "Passports" that identify them as nobility to set them off from the riff-raff.

Add to this the fact that the system is a million light years from anywhere else (maybe even between galaxies?), and you get some pretty heavy themes of isolation, both social and physical.

In a universe this isolated, this cold, this uncaring... maybe the Solipsists have a point worth more careful consideration, at least if we took on solipsism more as a non-dualism that breaks down the barriers between us. Maybe this is reading too much into this, but given Banks's leftist/socialist leanings, maybe there is a deeper critique in Against a Dark Background of both a political and existential nature.

One (spoiler free) way to read the main character's actions, especially at the end: Our perceived isolation ought to bring us closer together--or better yet, encourage us to see that we were a lot closer together than we thought all along. But we may have to obliterate the things that keep us apart to get to this realization.

A slightly different version of this review on my blog: https://examinedworlds.blogspot.com/2...
Profile Image for Psychophant.
468 reviews19 followers
April 15, 2010
Another well remembered book that gets downgraded in a reread. It seems I look for something different than my young self.

This is a non-culture science fiction book, dealing with an isolated solar system that is not ours. There have been cycles of great technological advance and descents into barbarism. That serves as an excuse to introduce advanced technology in a magic-like way, so that the story reads more like fantasy than the usual Banks science fiction.

The biggest problem with this book, as in other early Banks novels, is that the author has more cool ideas than what fits in the page, so we got more a series of cool locales where something cool happens, before coolly moving to another weird event. The story is sacrificed to the anecdotical. A very interesting and thought-provoking anecdote, but nevertheless an anecdote.

What however makes this book different is how Banks does not fear to throw punches and make the readers suffer. Like a character? Odds are they will die, and die badly. Get your hopes up only to see them crash again. In a way the whole setting, always rising forward to crash in nuclear war and lose most technology is mirrored in the characters.

As a plus, there are lots of imaginative gadgets, turns, surprises, triumphs, defeats... A very entertaining read, but despite some meaningful reflections, they are lost in the background, so after finishing it you are left almost as you were before.
Profile Image for Kevin.
134 reviews39 followers
April 24, 2018
This is the second non-Culture but still Sci-Fi book from Iain M. Banks that I have read. Even though it is not set in the Culture Universe, the basic outline and tenets are the same regarding the Culture novels; sentient AI, Droids, obscure planets, high paced adventure (well, towards the last 120 pages it really starts to remind me of his first Culture novel- Consider Pheblas, but to get there I was beginning to get slightly 'bogged down', with the flashbacks that the main character, an aristocrat called Shannow has, who has issues about her past and family). However it all makes sense in the final, fast past action-orientated chapters (which remind of Consider Pheblas due to the, umm, high body count. Do not become attached to the main characters). Banks was great, he had some amazing, literate story-telling ability with a kind of skewed oddness and weirdness (along with humour) that made him such a unique author who was taken from us far too soon, but did leave behind such a volume of literature, no small feat. It is a good read, one of the best Sci-Fi novels I have read (still wading through his Culture series) of his, but independent of that series. All his books are good; I believed that Feersum Endjinn was an intelligent book, but 'Against a Dark Background' now takes lead - much more in depth. 4 stars.
Profile Image for Kolya Matteo.
63 reviews7 followers
January 12, 2013
This may be my favorite book my Iain M. Banks. It's more fun to read than some, thanks to some larger-than-life Dickensian characters that leave lasting impressions: The blowhard old scholar Travapeth on Miykenns, the barbaric King Tard the 17th, the smugly ambitious bureaucrat Lebmellin, and above all, the solipsist Elson Roa. This kind of hamminess can be grating if done badly, but here it's a lot of fun. The main characters are, fittingly, more complex. Mr. Banks does a great job of letting you get to know them on your own. Each character is complicated, yet completely believable - these are full people, with inconsistencies and foibles, but not all riven by some all-consuming internal strife like so many postmodern protagonists. I didn't notice such superb characterization in Mr. Banks's other books, possibly because people from the Culture never grow up and so don't actually become real people.

I also found the ending less depressing than most of Mr. Banks's books, although this might just be from acclimation. It helps to read the epilogue, which wasn't included in the book. Certainly, there is far more death and destruction than seems necessary, but hey: more than one person is alive at the end, which seems positively upbeat from Mr. Banks. I begin to suspect that he just doesn't know how to end a story with living characters. "They are still doing things," he thinks, "so I have to keep telling about them. But geez! We're past 600 pages! I'd better off them all!" Iain, I have a tip: the classical alternative to a funeral, when it comes to ending stories, is a wedding. Perhaps that will work for you!
Profile Image for Mark.
728 reviews56 followers
June 16, 2012
Reading Iain Banks often gives me the feeling that maybe I'm missing something sophisticated he is trying to do, but I'm never quite sure. Maybe I'm missing things in Against A Dark Background. But as far as I can tell, the book just doesn't work.

There are loads of technical quibbles I could make. (Flashbacks that are out of order, flashbacks that serve no purpose, people who randomly shift between being major and minor characters, cool characters that don't seem to serve any role, prominent SF ideas mentioned but unused, a protagonist who is neither sufficiently likable or interesting, etc.) However what really bugs me is that while there is a story, and this story has a beginning and an end and events happening in between, I have no sense of what the story is about. The important elements in the beginning seem meaningless in the end, and the important elements in the ending seem meaningless before the ending. Or another way to put it, the story seems a bit like showing the play Hamlet without the character of Hamlet, so what you're left with are a bunch of deaths that happen for no apparent reason.

Oddly enough, I'm still giving this three stars. I prefer this pointless narrative containing some original thoughts to something completely generic. But I totally understand why people would rate it lower, and I don't recommend it even to fans of Banks.
Profile Image for T.L. Evans.
Author 5 books10 followers
April 4, 2013
Against a Dark Background was Iain M. Banks' fourth Science Fiction Novel, and his first not explicitly set in the Culture universe. It is a marvelously interesting read, with strangely dark humor and filled with wonders from Banks’ vivid imagination. While not as dark as The Use of Weapons or Complicity, it certainly has its fair share of grim humor and deep overtones.

The plot revolves around Lady Sharrow and her hunt for the last remaining Lazy Gun, the only weapon ever invented that demonstrates a sense of humor. Created by a lost civilization, no one understands how these guns work, only that when fired they frequently destroy their target in a random way whose ridiculousness is inversely related to the size of said target. Thus, target a city and it will probably just blow up, but shoot a person and it will probably kill them in a manner more commonly seen in Bugs Bunny. Prepare for anvils from the sky, giant electrodes popping out and electrifying them, or the like.

Funny, dark and thoughtful, this is an excellent book for anyone who likes science fiction.


For a full review go to www.sophyanempire.wordpress.com or shortlink straight to the article at: http://wp.me/pWa2h-cn
Profile Image for Raj.
1,358 reviews29 followers
March 7, 2010
Sharrow is being hunted by a religious order who are convinced that she must be killed in order to bring about the coming of their messiah. Her only hope is to find the last of the apocalyptically powerful Lazy Guns.

Although packed full of Banks' trademark huge ideas, this non-Culture novel fell entirely flat for me. I think it was that the pacing of the book was entirely wrong and it just felt plodding. Despite the fact that Sharrow was constantly on the run and being hunted, there was no sense of urgency about the chase at all; the sub-quests that she and her team embarked on seemed somewhat artificial; a set of twins who constantly shadow and manipulate her are annoying rather than mysterious; and you can figure out who the Big Bad is without much trouble.

I think this is the weakest Banks book I've read to date. His Culture novels, and indeed, his other SF books, take the same dizzying scales and ideas but the writing is so much better. There's a great book in here trying to get out, it's a shame his editor didn't push for another draft.
Profile Image for Rachel Brown.
Author 18 books160 followers
July 25, 2012
This starts off promisingly, with a woman on the run and on a quest for a bizarre weapon called a Lazy Gun, but devolves from there.

All sorts of intriguing plot points are set up, such as the fact that Sharrow, the heroine, underwent a procedure to create a sort of psychic bond between herself and her military unit. Cool! Except that the nature of the bond is never made clear, and nothing in particular comes of it. This sets the tone for the whole book: neat ideas that are introduced, then never explored. Finally, everything is abandoned at the conclusion in one of those aggravating "it doesn't end, it merely stops" endings.

A lot of individual scenes are excellent, but they don't hang together, and I found myself putting it down often. The villain was stock and predictable, too. Also, awesomely depressing.

All build-up and no pay-off.
Profile Image for Thomas.
47 reviews7 followers
January 4, 2017
Wow, what a roller coaster. This book has got it all. Thrills. Spills. Chills. Strong women characters. Exotic interstellar locales. Rabid psychotic religious cults. Sex. Tense heists. Double-crossing. Double-double-crossing. Chases. Quiet introspection. This is Banks, so a lot of wonderful dialogue. Sets so intricately woven together they must be re-read in order to re-appreciate. Colourful characters. Exotic beasts. A hefty brutality permeating the entire story; there are real consequences, and each and every action produces a realistic and thoughtful reaction.

Seriously, I've no idea why I haven't read this before when (ostensibly) I began it back in 2013. But why not sooner? This is quite seriously up there with China Miéville's "Perdido Street Station" insofar as sheer inventiveness and enjoyability goes. I fucking loved every second of reading this book.
Profile Image for Stephen.
550 reviews
August 27, 2019
This is a book with a slow build. At first the world of Golter seems like it could be Earth, not too far in the future. But as we see more of Golter, and of the worlds in its stellar system, things just get weirder. Not just weirder though, but a regular warning of some futures to worry about. And Sharrow (and some of the other characters) also build as Banks interweaves backstory into the mainstory. I'm not sure if I ever will, but this would be a good book to reread. We learn so much about Sharrow's relationship with her sister and her cousin that would change the understanding of the book from the first scene.

Banks tries to warn about many futures, though there's also a present that makes Banks seem prescient--or really just aware of his time. He takes aim at paternalistic men, the same ones who think they know what's best for society and also think they know what women want and won't take no for an answer because they think they know better. It's brief, but ends up underlying a lot.

And, just a brief honorable mention in the weirdness--that religion that hates god just tops this book off.
Profile Image for Nic Margett.
95 reviews41 followers
January 28, 2017
The annual Banks re-reads continue!

I'd forgotten just how good this book was. A great and thrilling adventure with some superb world-building. It's easy to forget that Banks' SF output wasn't all just about the Culture, and I'd definitely class this as one of his finest works. I can see why he chose to write this one outside of the Culture, using aristocracy in place of utopianism gave the characters a necessary privilege, and the Lazy Gun stinks of Douglas Adams, which isn't really suitable for the more hard science setting in which the Culture sits. It's a shame the Lazy Gun wasn't used a bit more really, it would have made for some interesting scenes. I particularly enjoyed the android, Feril. I read this not long after seeing Rogue One and I pictured it to be very much like K-2SO; very different from the usual Culture drones.
Profile Image for Anny.
262 reviews28 followers
August 16, 2019
Great idea, lackluster character and execution, just like the other Culture books.
Profile Image for Stanislav  Kravchuk.
13 reviews5 followers
February 27, 2019
Nope, can't do it. I thought the overwhelming amount of names and detailed descriptions would fade, but it only increases. A simple action of the protagonist is accompanied by tons of unneeded info. After 5 pages you get lost and have to go back, to recall what happened before. And I can't say, that main story captivated me somehow...
Conclusion: I wouldn't recommend to read this story before the sleep - the book would last forever)))
Profile Image for Camille.
121 reviews1 follower
January 3, 2023
If you're looking for a chunky-but-fast 1970s-style sweeping-epic interplanetary treasure hunt, here you go.

The opening scene: a 5 year old girl, her mother, and their security guy are in a lift riding up a snowy mountain when the lift stops. Shooting starts, and the mother kicks her daughter out and down several meters into the snow. That daughter is the protagonist, who predictably is some combination of badass fighter pilot and guerrilla antiquities hunter; also a mess by most measures, and still evading the same assassination plot from that opening scene.

Laggy in parts? Maybe. Populated with a dated-feeling supporting cast whose motivations seem to be sufficiently explained by a combination of "Sharrow is great" and "arbitrary military-medical stuff"? Well. Yeah. Not counting the requisite robot. Campy? That too. But this was a lot of fun.

I think the last time I enjoyed this kind of craziness I was 13 and the books in question involved a religious order of mice who fought off murder-weasels and held epic vegetarian feasts.
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