|Ever since the publication of The Wasp Factory in
1984 (that auspicious year) Iain Banks has been a leading light of British literature. Fay
Weldon called him a great white hope, whatever that means, and in novel after novel he
never ceased to delight, amuse and entertain. He also published many science fiction
novels under the transparent pseudonym Iain M. Banks. I suppose that's analogous to Graham
Greene dividing his books into novels and entertainments; though to be fair to both
writers and both divisions, Greene and Banks have never been less than entertaining, even
in their darkest and most serious moments. Such divisions are seldom meaningful or useful.
I have always found Banks' science fiction novels to be somewhat bland and unmemorable
(though not everybody would agree with me). I much prefer his mainstream novels.
Interestingly, these have always been chock full of science fiction references, all of
which the critics dutifully ignored, because everybody knows that science fiction is
rubbish, don't they?
Well now the critics don't have a choice. Iain Banks' latest novel is Transition.
It is published as a mainstream novel and it is simon-pure science fiction. Take that, Fay
Transition is narrated by several characters who work for and against the
Concern, a shadowy organisation that oversees many alternate Earths in many parallel
universes. Operatives of the Concern can travel between these worlds and they make it
their business to guide each world's history into directions of greatest benefit to the
Concern. For example, in one world an operative saves a physicist from certain death by
engaging him in conversation and thus preventing him from entering a lift which plunges
out of control down the shaft, killing all its occupants. What will the physicist do with
the new lease of life granted to him? The operative does not know, but hopefully the
The structure and narrative style of Transition reminded me very much of
Michael Moorcock's novels of the multiverse. Even the characters have their analogues in
Moorcock's stories. Mrs Mulverhill, who roams the many worlds recruiting agents for her
rebellion against the Concern is surely Una Persson and Madame d'Ortolan, scheming to take
over the Council that governs the Concern embodies many aspects of Catherine Cornelius.
Temudjin Oh, the assassin, could be Jerry Cornelius in a skin. Even the eternal city of
Tanelorn is reflected in Calbefraques, the unchanging city of the many worlds.
Such echoes are probably impossible to eliminate, given the structure both authors have
chosen to adopt, and I don't want to give the impression that Transition is
a derivative book simply because it follows Moorcock's lead. Anything but! Iain Banks has
been genuinely imaginative in the worlds he creates and the complex plot (and its ultimate
resolution) owes little to Moorcock.
Banks has always been a political writer and some of his recent novels have been marred
by diatribes. He falls too easily into polemic. In Transition he continues
to address the same issues that have preoccupied him elsewhere, but this time they are
much more comfortably embedded in the structure of the story than has sometimes been the
case in the past. For example, we have fanatical Christian fundamentalist terrorists
blowing themselves up in suicide bomb attacks. The utterly unforgiving nature of
Christianity, a religion where even new born babies are condemned to eternal torment
should they die unbaptised, makes it an ideal philosophy on which to build a terrorist
structure. The (sometimes Muslim) authorities find it hard to cope, coming as they do from
a gentler tradition.
The multiverse hangs between triumph and catastrophe. Cynical financial dealers lurch
between collapse and temporary wealth. Walls are destroyed and towers fall. Political
terror runs riot; torture and interrogation is all too often the norm. Does the Concern
have the best interests of the multiverse at heart? There are those who do not think so,
and from this comes our story.
Transition is Iain Banks' best novel in years. It is, quite