Against a Dark Background
by Iain M. Banks
Cover Artist: Illustrations by Blacksheep;
Central Boat image by Corbis; water image by Imagestate
Review by Benjamin Wald
Orbit Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780316036375
Date: 01 July 2009 List Price $12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Ian M. Banks has always had the trick of mixing riveting action sequences with moments of quite introspection. This ability is displayed to particularly good effect in Against a Dark Background. Banks keeps the plot gripping throughout its more than 600 pages while painting a sensitive picture of his strong but damaged protagonist. Along the way we are taken for whirlwind tour of a fascinatingly dysfunctional planetary system and its innumerable bureaucracies, cults, wars, and so on. It's an exhilarating, and touching, ride.
The novel is set on and around the planet Goltar. The planet's history stretches back seven thousand years, but this history is full of wars, collapses and reconstructions. Currently, peace and order are precariously maintained by the World Court, but the planet and surrounding solar system is still split into innumerable unstable and factitious political units. One of these factions is the religious cult called the Huhsz. A sacred artifact of the Huhsz, one of the eight incredibly destructive lazy guns, was stolen, and the Huhsz have vowed to wipe out the female line of the thief unless the lazy gun is returned. The last member of that line, Sharrow, is our protagonist, and the story starts out with the Huhsz receiving a World Court approved license to hunt her down and kill her.
With this as an incentive Sharrow decides to set out to find the stolen lazy gun, which has been missing for decades. In order to do so she reunites the remnants of the combat team she served with during one of Goltar's frequent wars. Sharrow and her team share a bond stronger than shared experience; they have been empathy-bonded to be able to anticipate each other's actions.
Sharrow's quest leads her across the solar system and through a dizzying number of plot twists, side stories, flashbacks, and reversals that defy summary. The encounters often have a trace of the whimsical about them, like when Sharrow is kidnapped by Solipsists who are each convinced they are God, or the lazy gun itself, which is described as the only weapon ever to have a sense of humor. This whimsy, along with Banks sprightly prose style, lightens the mood of a surprisingly grim narrative, without ever slipping into farce or blunting the emotional impact of the story. In the hands of a lesser author such a complex plot could easily gotten out of hand, but Banks manages to keep the narrative moving and holds it all together so that the complexities add spice rather than confusion to the story.
The characters are what struck me most about this novel. Sharrow herself is fascinating. She appears at the start of the novel as a tough, independent, and dangerous woman. None of these first impressions are incorrect, but through the course of the novel, particularly through accounts of her childhood interspersed throughout the narrative, we come to see another side of her. She is in many ways remarkably damaged, and it is impossible not to empathize with her hardships. She is deeply flawed, and yet her strength is still impressive even after we have seen beneath the shell. In many ways this novel is an exploration of Sharrow, and she is one of the most interesting characters I have encountered in science fiction in years. The other characters around her are equally skillfully rendered, although they are more peripheral. The interactions between Sharrow and her companions are witty and well realized, and even the characters who appear for only a single scene have personality and life.
For all of its action, humor, and wit, this is a dark tale. It's about the pain of the past, how we cope with it, and what we can never escape. It's also, like much of Banks work, about the casual cruelty and greed that are responsible for so much suffering. This makes the book sound like a downer, but it's actually a fast-moving, fun read. The deeper questions the novel raises lurk in a few quite moments, and stick with you long after you finish reading. This is Banks at his best, and his best is very good indeed.