Little Brown £18.99
Transition, By Iain Banks
Iain Banks' assassins are simply out of this world
Sunday 30 August 2009
The absence of the middle initial M in Iain Banks' name on the front cover suggests that Transition is being sold by his publisher as one of the author's mainstream works, as opposed to his equally successful science-fiction books.
In fact, this 24th novel from the critically and commercially successful writer makes that distinction almost completely obsolete, its complex and wildly imaginative storyline ostensibly set on Earth, but infused with such mind-boggling phenomena as to make that setting seem stranger than any alien planet.
Banks begins in deliberately obfuscatory fashion, with half-a-dozen disparate narratives very gradually filling in the blanks in a very odd universe indeed. The crux of Transition is that the world we live in is one of an infinite range of parallel worlds, and that, for the best part of a millennium, certain individuals, called transitionaries, have been able to flit between physical bodies in these different worlds using a drug called septus.
These agents are under the control of the Concern, a secretive organisation that guides them to intervene in particular societies, executing pre-emptive strikes on people who would otherwise have gone on to have a very bad influence on that world.
The central narrative is delivered by Temudjin Oh, a skilled assassin carrying out the Concern's orders but beginning to worry about the moral consequences of his actions. Dancing around that story we also get the lives of Madame d'Ortolan, a powerful and possibly ill-intentioned member of the Concern's higher echelons; Mrs Mulverhill, a renegade agent bent on rebellion; the Philosopher, an enigmatic, state-sponsored torturer; Adrian Cubbish, a greedy and ambitious City trader; and Patient 8262, faking a mental disorder in a state institution to escape the world of transitionaries for a while.
Fans of Banks' previous work won't be surprised to hear that over the course of the book, these narratives snake around and through each other, gradually coalescing into a corker of a thriller, a classic good versus bad tale, and one which the author uses to tackle some seriously big moral and philosophical issues – but always in his typically light-handed and darkly humorous fashion.
As Temudjin Oh becomes increasingly doubtful about the work he's doing for the Concern, the real purpose of that organisation comes into question, and the emerging answers are sinister in the extreme, leading to a climax that has the fate of the entirety of humankind hanging in the balance.
As always with Banks, the imaginative detail is frequently stunning. By creating a universe of infinite different but related worlds, the writer has given his mind free rein to create and describe all sorts of weird and wonderful alternatives to our society. With the abilities he has given his transitionaries and other similarly gifted individuals, and the power they have bestowed on the Concern, he tackles the issues of the responsibility of power, the moral implications of intervention into other societies, and even the philosophical conundrum of what constitutes life itself.
All of which will be familiar to fans of his Culture sci-fi books, but which carry more gravitas here, being an integral part of the world we see around us. Despite their extraordinary powers, the likes of Temudjin Oh and Mrs Mulverhill seem all too human, lending vital reader empathy to the nerve-shredding climax in the streets of a Venice that may or may not be in this world.
Transition is a book that makes you think, one that makes you look at the world around you in a different light, and it's also a properly thrilling read. If only more contemporary fiction was like it.
Final Top Gear reviewTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
- 2 James Blunt was special guest on the highest-rating Top Gear episode ever
- 3 People all over the world are getting semicolon tattoos to draw attention to mental health
- 4 Van driver who comforted Clark Carlisle and called 999 after suicide attempt dies age 24
- 5 Baby rescued 1km out to sea after parents forgot about her
Bad luck, One Direction: Paul McCartney doubts success of The Beatles will ever be matched again
This is surely the best way to watch Jaws
The Crystal Maze: Richard O’Brien confirmed to return as more details revealed about show's rebooted format
James Blunt was special guest on the highest-rating Top Gear episode ever
Guillaume Tell's gang-rape scene caused uproar at the Royal Opera House – but the portrayal of extreme sex and violence on stage is nothing new
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture