Transition, Iain M. Banks

This is the latest from Iain “[M]” Banks, but already a year old. It’s a relatively simple romp through a multiverse where every action creates a fork between universes, and only a few elite, controlled by a shadowy organization called The Concern, are able to move among them. I wasn’t bored by the whole thing like Adam Roberts at Strange Horizons. I don’t mind that the basic multiverse concept has already been explored by (many) other writers. Even if a setting is already well-known, there can still be room in it to tell a good story.

The book largely follows the Banks pattern: The style is engaging and enjoyable; there’s a long and very readable character development section in which the plot simmers along; then, at the end, the plot just explodes in your face. The one thing lacking, or at least downplayed,  (and it may not be a bad thing) is Banks’s characteristic interludes of hyper-violence and grotesquery. There is one torture scene, largely off the stage, and a mentally deficient character who eats her own boogers, but nothing like the spectacle of the Eaters of Consider Phlebas.

The book opens with a prologue expositing on the “long decade between the fall of the Wall and the fall of the Towers”, and the “third Fall, the fall of Wall Street”. This sets the stage for the book to be a kind of anti-Heinleinian statement of Banks’s political views reflected in real-world history. And occasionally, the narrator interjects a brief comment on the relative merits of Socialism, Capitalism, and “Greedism”. But aside from these brief commentaries, the theme is never really explored. In fact, the characters, not being native to our timeline, would probably not realistically see the Berlin Wall, the World Trade Towers, or the financial crisis of 2008-9 as critical events of their lives. So did the story evolve as it was written to make the prologue setting the story in history irrelevant, or was Banks’s first draft gutted to make it more palatable to the book-buying public?

It might be more important to most readers, though, that in this book when the plot explodes in the reader’s face it doesn’t mean there’s lots of gunfire and bombs going off, it means the plot itself comes apart at the seams. About 2/3 of the way through the book, the protagonist develops a new and unheard of power that threatens the status quo of the multiverse. The would-be brutal dictator of the multiverse thus sets out to destroy our hero. At which point, the protagonist develops additional never-explained mind-control powers enabling him to escape her evil clutches.

This might not be Banks’s best, and I suspect its not the book Banks set out to write, but its an enjoyable read with interesting characters in a setting so broad there’s room for plenty more exploration, weakened by an ending that depends on deus ex machina.

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