by Iain M. Banks
Cover Artist: Photo: Shutterstock; Design: Lauren Panepinto
Review by Benjamin Wald
Orbit Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780316071987
Date: 23 September 2009 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In Transitions, Ian M. Banks explores a milieu far different from his usual far-future space operatic stomping grounds. The novel takes place across a multitude of alternate earths, which people can "transition" between under the influence of the drug septus, their consciousness possessing the body of a person in the universe they wish to travel to. Most people across the various universes are unaware of the nature of the multiverse. Only a few, the aware, possess the power to travel between the universes. The plot deals with the machinations of the Concern, a dimension spanning secret society that maintains a jealous monopoly on the manufacture of septus, giving them a monopoly on travel between dimensions. The Concern researches the ability to transition and claims to safeguard the many worlds, sending transitioning agents and assassins through the dimensions to overt disasters. However, the Concern is soon revealed to be far more sinister than its outer face lets on.
The setting allows Banks to explore contemporary events as refracted through a variety of eerily familiar or frighteningly possible alternate worlds. While all of Banks' novels contain political elements, Transitions stands out for the explicit way in which the author examines the contemporary political situation. The immorality of torture, the way that benign institutions can be corrupted by personal ambition, and effects of greed, all feature prominently in the novel.
These political and ethical issues are mixed with engaging writing and an action filled plot. The inter-dimensional assassin Temudjin Oh, an agent for the Concern, is caught between Madame D'Ortolan, the powerful and ruthless leader of the Concern, and Mrs. Mulverhill, a former member of the Concern who has discovered the increasingly sinister activities of Madame D'Ortolan and has formed a band of rebels opposing the Concern. Oh must decide where his loyalties lie, and then survive the consequences of his choice.
The main plot is a good mix of conspiracy and action, and combined with Banks' polished and beautiful writing style and compelling characters the book as a whole is a thoroughly enjoyable read. However, it feels at times as if Banks couldn't fit all of the political issues he wanted to explore comfortably into the structure of the action plot he was developing, and some of the story threads feel shoehorned in to fit. One of the point of view characters is a professional torturer who goes by the nickname the philosopher. While the characters storyline is well told and engaging, it intersects only incidentally with the main plot, and feels like it was included just in order to comment on the horrors of institutionalized torture. Likewise, another plot line follows an unscrupulous financial trader who is clearly meant as a critique, and an interesting one, of the mentality that led to the recent financial collapse, but who plays next to no role in the rest of the story. The feeling that these characters are thrown in to illustrate a point is exacerbated by the fact that both characters are killed off in instances of poetic justice that strain credulity.
On the other hand, I was fascinated by the way that the Concern functions like a dark mirror to the Culture, the far future society of altruists who play such a major role in Banks other science fiction novels. The Culture intervenes in the affairs of less sophisticated societies in order to prevent atrocities and promote social progress, and while Banks occasionally problematizes this behavior the Culture is always positioned as the hero of the story. The Concern, on the other hand, claims to pursue the same kind of altruistic interventions, but uses these as a cover for selfish and sinister purposes. I can't help but wonder if this is a sign that the author is no longer as confident in the morality of this kind of humanitarian intervention. Whether or not it demonstrates a change in Banks' thinking, the contrast is thought provoking.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, but in the end I don't think its Banks' best work. The setting and characters are as engaging as I have come to expect of Banks, and the plot moves swiftly and has plenty of action and excitement. However, some of the characters and plot lines come off as overly didactic, and the ending feels a little rushed and too dues ex machina for my taste.
Despite these flaws, however, Transitions is well worth reading, I have no qualms about recommending it.