Banks Disappoints Interestingly.

Iain Banks has not written a seriously good novel since Complicity. His convoluted and often disturbing straight novels, after then, became simply essays in pretension (like The Business and Whit) or downright boring (like The Steep Approach To Garbadale). Of his science fiction novels, Feersum Endjinn was probably the last really praiseworthy one; his Culture writing staled quickly into five-finger exercises. In The Algebraist he attempted something comparatively new (although it incorporated plenty of elements borrowed from earlier Culture books) but it wasn’t wholly successful, and significantly he returned to the numb security of the Culture in Matter.
Now we have a similar single-word title, Transition. How does it shape up? Disappointingly, undeniably. The Creator set the book aside with a shrug. However, recently the Creator came across a review in Private Eye which surprised because it was so accurate (a contrast between Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood and Transition which made some intelligent observations about both books — Private Eye isn’t always intelligent, but it usually challenges the official stereotypes). It might be worth asking what’s wrong with the book, and also, perhaps, whether the wrongness which the Creator groks is in any way interesting, or is (as Private Eye suggests) due to Banks’ moral and psychological defects.
Transition is based upon a simple premise: that it is possible to “transition” between the universes called for in the many-worlds hypothesis of quantum theory. In this theory there is a near-infinity of universes, all different, to accommodate the near-infinity of ways in which the random workings of particle physics evolve. However, in this case it is a human psyche which transitions between the universes, from one inhabited Earth to another. Thus the human brain is able to break down inter-universe barriers, and indeed it can even do this for another human psyche if it is physically close to that other psyche (preferably sexually coupling with the body containing the psyche) but it cannot move bodies between universes; you go into someone else’s body in the fresh universe, while leaving behind you a body which, if your own, is essentially lobotomised, and if not your own, is recovered by a bewildered psyche which suddenly discovers that its body has been acting outside its control.
Now, this is implausible. If the human body can do these things, why should it only be able to transmit the energy patterns of consciousness — why not the whole bang-shoot? Why not the body and the outfit and the horse you rode in on? In addition, Banks says, this is only possible if one takes a tiny pill of a chemical called septus. In other words, the action (which is a physical one) is chemically stimulated by a drug. This is implausibility doubly damned. The book is fantasy. Septus is a drug fantasy, rather like some of Michael Moorcock’s early work (but much less gifted and interesting, as a fantasy, than the drug fantasies of Philip K Dick, with whom Banks is ill-advised to compete).
Yes, but such fantasies are not in themselves bad, are they? Clifford Simak’s Ring Around The Sun was rather similar (except there the transitions between Earths, only possible to mutants, took the whole body with them). In that book there was an organisation of mutants trying to save the Earth, and in Transition there is an organisation — the Concern — trying to save every Earth. (There are oddities — some of the Earths are uninhabited, in which case it would be impossible to transition into them — no bodies to transition into — but Banks blithely ignores such catastrophic logical problems because on occasion he wants an uninhabited Earth as a stage backdrop.)
The Concern claims to be trying to save the Earths from Bad People Who Might Do Bad Things If Not Stopped. Thus they send out people to assassinate the baddies, while saving the goodies from harm. A potential fascist dictator is murdered; a great novelist is rescued from rape and disfigurement in youth. Well, fair enough. This is familiar from time-travel narratives, and was well satirised by Stephen Fry in Making History (his hero triumphantly prevents Adolf Hitler from being born and emerges into a universe where the Nazis, motivated by imperialism and Aryan pride rather than anti-Semitism, have established a brutal global fascist dictatorship). It is not explained how the Concern knows the future; nor is it explained why they should desire to do these things for no obvious reward. Evidently they are the goodies, and that’s that.
Such meddling, also reminiscent of Dr. Who’s Time Lords, inevitably invites comparison with the CIA, who also interfere by killing the people they consider to be baddies and rescuing those whom they consider goodies. (It also reminds one of the Culture’s Special Circumstances, who do exactly the same sort of thing and whose behaviour sometimes goes spectacularly awry, as in Look To Windward where their bungling starts a genocidal civil war. If Banks is renouncing his earlier fantasies, he would have done so more impressively had he done so within the earlier context).
But he isn’t renouncing his earlier fantasies. His point is, rather, that the desirable activities of the C[oncern]IA have been taken over by wai unkewl d00dz like Madame d’Ortolan. She is on the secretive Council of the Concern (why it is secretive, why the whole system appears to be run along the lines of seventeenth-century Venetian politics, appears incomprehensible). Madame d’Ortolan is bribing, intimidating or murdering members of the Council in order to achieve her goal, which is to prevent humanity in every universe from ever contacting aliens.
She is doing this because she is a racist; it seems a little odd that she should be obsessed with discriminating against a race which appears not to exist. (Why the right wing in the United States wastes its time protesting against Obama’s skin colour when they could be organising marches and indignation sessions against the hypothetical aliens of Planet Pandora is peculiar.) She is concerned with protecting the purity of humanity’s blood, as if, once exposed to the Tentacled Swamp Things Of Procyon XIV, we shall immediately either spring on them with engorged phalluses or drop our undies and flop back with legs splayed. (Banks has evidently been looking at too much Japanese tentacle hentai. Also, he neglects to acknowledge the impossibility of reproduction under such circumstances. Or perhaps he is saying that Madame d’Ortolan is very dumb indeed.)
Banks is, thus, combining hostility to racism with an answer to the “where are they?” question first posed by Enrico Fermi; the nasty racists are preventing us from contacting the aliens (although it is hard to see how the racists, who are not technologically advanced, could prevent the aliens from contacting us if they wished). He is being very politically correct. Unfortunately he is not being plausible or interesting; he is merely using this as a trope to contest (without actually doing anything concrete) the ever-growing racism and religious prejudice prevalent in the world today.
He even makes a little joke about this. With so many worlds to choose from, he has no difficulty imagining a world in which Islam is the dominant religion and the authorities are regrettably obliged to stand up to the appalling menace of the Christian Terrorists. Banks has some entertainment discussing the fanaticism of this cannibalistic death cult religion of sanctified murder, extensively cribbing from the anti-Muslim propaganda of London intellectuals.
Unfortunately, this leads Banks down a well-worn rut in his overly-predictable system; violence and torture. It was quite entertaining in The Wasp Factory. By Song of Stone it had become merely distasteful. Now, graphic descriptions of horrible things being done to people, even by torturers who are deeply concerned people who agonize over their moral qualms to their girlfriends (as Douglas Adams, who had a deeper insight into the issue than Banks, put it), has become boring and repugnant. It is not even transgressive, since it is the stuff of late-night TV and internet porn. Yes, we know that this stuff happens all over the world, but writing about it with prurient attention does not stop it from happening or even change the public mind about it.
The point about torture and murder (and Banks’ hero is a murderer, and Banks invents horrid systems of hideous death here as he did in Complicity, but in Complicity the crimes weren’t committed by the hero and they were treated without glee, but rather with icy dispassion) is that they are expressions of power. You show your power over others by making them suffer. Such power is best exercised by an elite like the Concern. Therefore Banks invents mental powers for the members of the Concern — not only being able to transition, but to predict the future to a limited extent, to be able to read minds to some extent, indeed most of the “psionic powers” so dear to John Campbell’s science fiction sixty years ago, and to Scientologists today, are rolled out. With these powers, backed up by special forces in black outfits with big guns, the Concern rules all universes, or at least wants to. Their ultimate weapon is developed by torturing slightly talented people until they confess to having more talents than they have been displaying. (How this would work is impossible to speculate; Banks appears to believe that pain and madness genuinely create psionic powers, as in Charles Harness’ The Paradox Men or in Alfred Bester’s Tiger! Tiger!, both decidedly superior works to Banks’.)
Ultimately, Madame d’Ortolan arouses opposition, in the form of Mrs. Mulverhill, who fucks her elegant way through the leadership of the Concern in order to win them over against Madame d’Ortolan (who cannot compete, despite her new Page Three breasts). Madame d’Ortolan responds with Da Bomb — namely, a psychic force named Lady Bisquitine, who is completely insane and therefore extremely psychically powerful. Unfortunately, when Bisquitine blows, she takes the whole Concern with her. The way is thus opened for the aliens to come and visit us.
Is that all? Well, not quite. Firstly, the previous paragraph reveals something striking about Banks — namely, his appalling sexism disguised as sexual equality. His strong characters are all female, with large breasts, long legs and constantly-moist, sucking vulvas. They fuck absolutely anybody and anything without reserve in pursuit of their objectives, which are usually power. Their eagerness to fuck makes them pornographic pasteboard, without any specific qualities. (Mrs. Mulverhill’s bedtime discussions with the murderous central character, interpellated with tedious pseudo-erotic activities, are the dullest part of the book and reveal her astounding lack of insight, a lack shared with everybody else in the book.) They are basically being used to manipulate the males reading the book (it is difficult to imagine a woman reading the book with any great pleasure — a fact which was certainly not true of Banks’ early work, such as Consider Phlebas). This manipulation is in any case so crass that, whatever one’s gender, one comes away from the book feeling that Banks has insulted one’s intelligence.
Secondly, another element of the book is the economic collapse of 2008. One of the main characters is a beneficiary of the bubble economy. He is no more than a stooge, too dim to realise what an unpleasant person he is, yet injected with enough inappropriate flashes of insight to be able to simulate interesting characteristics from time to time. His conversations with an implausible stockbroker who doesn’t believe in the free market provide the kind of manipulative direction to the reader which Mrs. Mulverhill’s pillow-talk offers about the Concern. (Once upon a time Banks wouldn’t have thought such explication necessary.)
Thus the background of the book is what appears to be the collapse of finance capitalism (although, as it turned out, it was regrettably nothing of the kind). The significance of this, too, is that everything has supposedly changed and nothing will be the same again. Thus, presumably, the disintegration of the Concern at the end of the book symbolises the disintegration of the Washington Consensus; from now on we shall all be free, able to realise the potential stifled since 1991 or since 2001 (take your pick, offers Banks) and all that jazz.. It is fraudulent, because it is unrealised even within the book. No aliens appear, apart from Banks’ ever-willing empowered women, who have all the genuinely human qualities of Lara Croft in a frilly frock.
No, this is not a successful book. It appears to be a book in which Banks has no idea what he is doing, as if he can simply coast along on some tropes borrowed from earlier and better science fiction, and with the brutality and excess borrowed from earlier and better books by Banks himself, trusting that the readers will tolerate this derivative and repetitive behaviour because it is all in the good cause of the struggle against racism, against prejudice against Muslims and blacks, and against finance capitalism. It does not work. Perhaps Banks does not want it to work.
But it is an interesting failure because of this; one must ask whether it is a failure because Banks has burned himself out, or whether it is a failure because conditions are too real, too painful, too harsh to make this kind of self-deluding political fantasy plausible any more. If this is the case (the Creator suspects it is not, but there is hope that the Kingdom of the Lie may yet fall) then it is almost worth buying the book just to make sure.

2 Responses to Banks Disappoints Interestingly.

  1. Very smelly cats says:

    So, you completely missed the opening part, where there is a presentation about the most likely place to locate an alien would be at an eclipse and then failed to correlate that with a certain character visiting an eclipse at the end of the novel?

    The answers ARE there in the book, if you pay attention. You clearly have not. I find it a touch galling that you would then deride Banks for his exposition of critical plot points, it seems such lampshading was required given how much has whooshed over your head.

    • hismastersvoice says:

      Congratulations on reading the book all through. Reading comprehension is all too rare howadays, however. Now try reading the post all through and, if you want to disagree with it, addressing the issues raised.

      This has been a public service announcement.

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