Transition by Iain (M.) Banks
Reviewed by Adam Roberts
25 November 2009
If I had to pick one word to characterize the new Banks it would be: tired. It is recognisably a Banks novel, and fans of Banks's fiction will find things to enjoy here; but it reads throughout as half-hearted, or perhaps hearted to a fraction with a larger denominator even than that. Various different narrators extrude a cluster of narrative lines that are tangled together into a sort-of conclusion. Much of the action and even (incongruously enough) the expository dialogue happens against backdrops of minutely delineated violence, or Club International-style porny sex. But none of it is animated by the antic, gnomish energy that elevated Banks's (and M-Banks's) classic novels out of the run of the mill into something more gnarlily potent. Transition is Banks going through the motions, somewhat groggily and to no very good pugilistic or balletic effect.
It doesn't help that the central conceit is so secondhand as to be positively clapped out. An elite corps of gifted individuals can jaunt (Banks doesn't use the term, but he might as well have done) between various alternate-reality Earths. They do this by shifting their consciousness into the bodies of individuals from those worlds, leaving behind their actual bodies as shells and overriding the consciousnesses of their hosts. To accomplish this neat trick the agents must swallow a little pill—"septus" the drug is called, which is Latin for "hedged around" (I don't know if Banks means for us to know this). There is no jaunting without the septus, we're told, although one of the storylines is about a character acquiring the Gully Foyleish ability to "transition" unaided by the drug. (Foyle's is a physical teleportation, of course, and Banks's a mental transposition; but this novel struck me as pretty much indebted to Bester nevertheless.) There's also a sinister global conspiracy, called variously "The Concern," or "L'Expédience," that orchestrates all these leapers, or jumpers, or flitters, sending agents into different timelines to avert disaster, to save significant individuals who would otherwise die, right wrongs, and so on. That, at least, is their ostensible game-plan.
It is, in other words, very Quantum-Leapish, with multiple leapers instead of solitary old Scott Bakula. It is equally derivative of, to pluck some examples from the top of my head: the agents in The Matrix, leaping bulgingly from citizen to citizen; or Joe 90; or McAuley's Cowboy Angels; or Octavia Butler's Patternist novels; or Sliders—I was especially, and indeed grievously, reminded of this latter show on more than one occasion whilst reading Transition. More, Banks himself has already covered this ground. In The Bridge, you'll remember, there's a technology (a ceiling filled with swiss-cheesy holes into one of which you stick your head) that enables people to ride piggy-back upon the consciousness of other people, an experience to which most become addicted. In that novel it works as a metaphorical gloss upon fiction itself; in this novel it feels half-baked.
Let's not even mention Being John Malkovich.
Banks fiddles the rules of his own game so as to enable his story. Most people can't transition; some can by taking the pill; others don't need the pill; others can not only transition but can take one other person with them, although they have to be having sex with that person, so that Banks can write scenes in which shagging couples (all, rather disappointingly, conventionally heterosexual) slide à deux along a whole string of just-at-the-moment-of-climax shagging couples. Except that then we learn some of these latter types can take other people with them just by holding hands and without needing to shag at all. Transitioners can't transition into the minds of other transitioners; just into the minds of civilians like you or me, except that then Banks changes this rule, and it turns out that some can.
Then, since every bizarre superpower needs its kryptonite if it isn't going to run away with the story, Banks sketches in a range of counter-agents who can limit or block this nifty power (just as some of the characters in Heroes or The X-Men exist only to make it harder for the main characters to do their superpowerful thang). We're given "blockers and trackers and inhibitors and foreseers" (p. 377) and other adepts, including one very badly written Super Blocker, a loony female character called Bisquitine, who is given to saying things like "cripes!" and "whoop, whoop! Last one in's a scallop!" and "tankums, wilcums, noddkins, hurtsies" and the like, which, to be frank, I could have done without. When events come to the pinch, Banks wriggles free of the obstacles he has himself placed in his characters' way by abruptly granting his hero even greater and hitherto unsuspected superpowers. Contrived would be one description of all this. Crap would be another.
Although Banks has given himself a literally infinite playground in which to stage his kiss-kiss bang-bang, he makes only desultory use of this potential. In one reality the security services are mobilized to counter a threat of "Christian Terrorism": but once the novel has made the rather sophomoric point that Christians—with their belief that everybody is born into original sin, and therefore undeserving of life and their sacramental cannibalism and blood-drinking—would make really committed terrorists, that world is let go, more or less. This is less novel-writing, more sixth-form debating society thought-experimentation designed to challenge knee-jerk attitudes to Islam that nobody, outside the lunatic asylum of the Daily Mail, shares anyway. Other worlds are hastily mocked-up stage backdrops: an Earth in which the population was killed by a gamma ray burst where agents of the Concern can frolic in the ruins; a world where China rules; a steampunky world. Banks's heart isn't really in the worldbuilding though. Indeed, the problem with the novel is that his heart isn't really anywhere.
The descriptive prose, for example, shows signs of exhaustion, veering from blandness to an almost Dan Brown gush of superfluous adjectives and adverbs:
A small group of partygoers stood quietly watching the snow descend against the lights of the few passing boats and the light-flecked buildings on the canal's far side. The spiraling chaos of flakes appeared from the darkness overhead and disappeared silently into the oily blackness of the gently moving waters before it. … Here, in the eternally sinking city, with that odour of glamourous savagery filtering through my mind like mist off the lagoon into a room, it all felt spent here but only paused elsewhere, like something waiting to resume. (p. 92)
This is not good writing (and that's not how you spell "glamorous"). The balustrade at this posh Venetian ballroom is described as "shaped like tears." When the chandeliers at the same location are described as "like inverted teardrops" (p. 189) you get the impression of an author who can't be bothered to rummage around for a different simile. The jokey names—a London gentleman's establishment called The Perineum Club, a character called Monsieur Pamplemouse—are unusually feeble. There's an interminable Malone Dies-y narrative thread set in a hospital that goes on and on, and another thread about a character trying to pitch ideas to Hollywood that barely gets going at all.
Nor is the characterization very good. One character, a professional torturer, explains that what tipped him over into his life of nastiness was overhearing his horrible Dad forcing himself sexually upon his wife immediately upon the latter's return from hospital, freshly stitched-up from just having giving birth. The book's grasp of psychological motivation at no point goes beyond this sort of clunky literalism. The novel's key villain, Madame d'Ortolan, is a wafer-thin agent of melodrama and decadence. Her virtuous opponent, Mrs Mulverhill, is three-quarters sex object, and one-quarter Basil-Exposition-in-a-dress. A good chunk of the novel is given over to the first-person narrative of "Adrian," who is all four quarters 1980s cliché, and grating to boot—an oiky high-earner selfish-bastard city trader whose marginal role in the novel's denouement really doesn't justify the lengthy and tonally incompetent confection of sub-Amis rambling Banks gives over to him.
Banks chucks in a number of his trademark sadistic vignettes, but these lack the ingenious elegance of his earlier books. So: an assassin kills a famous rock star by exploding his head with a focused beam weapon, the twist being that the beam thus focused is a heavily compressed MP3 file of the rock star's most celebrated song. To which the reader replies: meh. A Perón-style politician is shoved in an induction furnace to heat the metal pins in his arms and legs and cook him from the inside—he is, we are told, a motorcycle stunt rider as well as a politician, hence the large amount of surgical steel in his body. Are we really supposed to believe that? Another bad guy gets into a Jacuzzi that our man has tampered with, switching the supply of compressed air for one of pure hydrogen such that when the villain lights his cigar (we're in Cosmos Cliché, so naturally villains always smoke cigars when they settle into their Jacuzzis) he explodes, the assassin watching via satellite link from the other side of the world. These, I'd say, substitute a rather implausible intricacy for what in earlier novels is mostly slyly clever horror.
You never get the impression that Banks really believes any of it, which is a core problem: for if he doesn't then why should we? None of the characters come alive; the conspiracy behind the Concern's apparent existential benevolence is gestured towards without being filled out; the ending feels unearned. Banks can do better than this.