Is it only a fellow writer who, when reading a great novel, speculates how much was conceived in a flood of inspiration at the moment of conception, and how much came into being during the writing or editing process? Was it a visit to Venice that inspired Iain Banks to craft a novel partially set among those streets and waterways, or was it only when actually writing a scene in which a character takes in the view of the City of Bridges as he sits down over a dish of pasta and contemplates the tangled web of his life as a former assassin, that both the writer and the character simultaneously realise the book and the lives within resemble a tangled bowl of spaghetti?
Is this the literary equivalent of the chicken and egg question? Neither can exist without the other, yet one must have come first.
Transition was published in Britain under the name Iain Banks, as literary fiction is more highly regarded on these shores, yet with the optional “M” reinstated wherever science fiction is more profitable. A novel of character, circumstance, reflection and choice; hidden motives and outright rivalries, amongst the senior operators of the Concern – the organisation for whom the former assassin worked – and those whose lives they manipulate and curtail.
What moves this from sans-M literary fiction to something more fantastic is the twist that the Concern operates not only on the Earth we think we know, but on a multitude of parallel Earths, coordinated from their primary headquarters on the analogue known as Calbefraques.
While his last novel, the Culture set Matter, was as close to a linear plot as Banks ever approaches, this was apparently a mere passing whimsy. In Transition, most of the characters are referred to by description rather than by name – the Transitionary, the Patient, the Philosopher – and while the narrative of each character proceeds in a (relatively) chronological manner, albeit with much reflection on the past, the relation of any thread to another is obscure.
As the novel progresses, there are hints that some threads may actually relate to the same character at different points in a single life, though familiarity with Banks brings a reticence to assign them the same mental voice until confirmed by the text. When reading Banks, the obvious is usually a well laid trap.
One key difference that sets this aside from the “hard” science fiction of the Culture novels, where a vast galactic community of various species and intellects live and plot, sometimes cooperating and periodically squabbling, is the specificity with which research into the field of extraterrestrial life is suppressed by the Concern. Although it is never clear whether this is intended to hide firm evidence of the existence of aliens or confirmation of humanity’s solitude, the hidden agenda of the Concern actively silences any who would look further.
Their attention is drawn to one character by virtue of his film pitch which proposes that because the positions and apparent size of the Moon and sun are unique in our solar system, perhaps even within the galaxy, then the only place that can experience a total solar eclipse is within the atmosphere of Earth, so it may not only be humans that travel across the planet to witness the spectacle, but other tourists from greater distances. If you want to see an alien, he suggests, an eclipse may be the likeliest place to find one.
Interestingly, this character becomes a mouthpiece for Banks to discuss the state of Hollywood, where risk taking is frowned upon, and money will only be invested on product with guaranteed returns – sequels, prequels, remakes, and spinoffs. Originality and imagination are to be feared, for they may drive away desired audience and their box office dollars.
Ironically, it is not with bitterness that Banks writes this, but with quiet resignation. At the launch party for Transition at Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms, he himself commented that his Culture novels are largely unfilmable, with only Consider Phlebas taking a traditional approach to story, character and goals. And yet for all the cinematic resistance of his work, the locations the Concern operate from – a secret base atop Everest, another in the devastated outskirts of Chernobyl – may nominally be located on Earth or one of its iterations, but while the language is pure Banks, the architecture could just as easily have been described, albeit in very different words, in a James Bond script.
The repeating themes that run through the story is lack of control and power being taken away, by the operative who changes the direction of his target’s lives, from the Concern, accustomed to order and obedience, who find a conspiracy within their midst that threatens to topple them, from the mysterious amnesiac patient, hunted by an unknown enemy, restrained and helpless in the anonymity of an asylum where patients are drugged and strapped for their own protection, yet left open to the abuses of the nursing staff, and in the darkened room of an illicit state sanctioned torture chamber.
Yet for all the horror, Banks can write a very entertaining death scene. A series of assassinations are recounted, inventive and increasing ghastly, but we are assured that these were very bad people, so we can enjoy the appropriate irony of each method of disposal, comfortable in our complicity, until we question whether the validations given by Concern were in any way honest.
But for some internal candidates, the Concern has
a very different methodology, one that allows them to avoid fate. While transitions between different bodies are normally temporary, certain senior operatives are granted approval for permanent relocation.
The idea of an effectively immortal leader becoming isolated from those they are supposed to govern, lead and protect is not new. The societal impact of an extended lifespan was examined in minute detail as a thought experiment by John Wyndham in Trouble with Lichen, and most recently in Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, which used a method almost identical to the Transitionary’s to effect immortality, the privileged few selecting younger bodies and moving into them as circumstance required, or merely as they demand.
Neither the characters nor the choice they face are simple. The Philosopher recalls the abuse he witnessed and suffered as a child, yet becomes an expert at a job he hates – torture. What he does, he does with purpose, with conscience, and with regret, and he has seen far worse in random acts of unwarranted hatred. How far removed is our own Earth from that which is menaced by the extremist group the Christian Terrorists? Although they may be more overt in their actions than the Concern, which is the more powerful and insidious force?
As would be expected from Banks, the opening declaration – “Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator” – is possibly the most honest statement in the book. The pieces fall together like a mad jigsaw puzzle, a catalogue of demises and fates of various characters as yet unmet and unnamed, an entrée that teases the main dish of confusion, misdirection, ambition and betrayal, with no clue as to what the picture will be until it is complete.
The real transition in this book is for Banks himself, brining the two parts of his writing career together in to a new third identity, similar to his others, yet still distinct and unique. Whether this state will be revisited remains to be seen.