Thursday, 3 December 2009


As you may know I love reading although at times other things seem to get in the way and I don't get through books as fast as I'd like. I've had this experience over the past couple of months but a couple of days ago I finally finished Transition by Iain Banks - here's a brief review:

14 years ago, I read "Complicity" by Iain Banks. It's a darkly comic novel about a journalist who is drawn into investigating a series of bizarre (and graphic) tortures and murders. So began my love of Banks' general fiction. (For those who don't know, Banks writes contemporary fiction as Iain Banks and Science Fiction as Iain M Banks).

I followed up Complicity with The Wasp Factory (Bank's first novel, and a very highly recommended read) and gradually worked through the rest of his books. Having caught up and read them all, I'm now re-reading them, slotting in his new works as they come. And so to Transition...

My anticipation for this book was tempered with some trepidation. Banks' last two fiction books - 2002's Dead Air and 2007's The Steep Approach to Garbadale had failed to impress me. The latter was particularly disappointing as advanced publicity seemed to suggest he was back on form. Had the magic touch deserted Banks for good, or could he produce something in keeping with his reputation?

Transition is set on a series of parallel worlds, all of them earth-like, some more developed than others. An organisation known variously as The Concern or l'Expedience has discovered and harnessed a drug-induced ability to "transition" between these realities. As many of the realities are slightly more developed versions of others, the effects seen on the leading Earths can be averted by changes in a lagging versions. The Concern exists to manage these benign interventions.

At least, that is the message given to those in "Open" worlds where most people are aware of the multiple realities and existence of The Concern. Those in Closed worlds have no such awareness and are therefore at the whim of the decisions of the central council.

The novel revolves around a power struggle between Madame d'Ortolan and Mrs Mulverhill. d'Ortolan is the dominant figure on the council and has her own ideas about the purpose and intent of The Concern. Mulverhill was a senior member in the Transitionary Office who feels The Concern has gone to far. The central narrator is former pupil of Mulverhill's who acts as a Transitionary acting on orders from the council. His interventions range from saving lives to taking lives.

As with some of Banks' best works, he is not afraid to play around with the conventional structure of a novel. The story is told through a series of different narrators, who by turns advance the story and relate the history of the concern and the central characters. Gradually these come together, although as with the best books and films, there are still some questions at the end.

So, what did I think? Well, it isn't the perfect novel; there are some ideas that are introduced and not developed - one of the realities is in the grip of a threat from Christian Terrorists. There are also, perhaps, too many narrative strands. The character of Adrian, who is in some ways a standard Banks' character, could have been introduced through the narrative strand of Mrs Mulverhill, for example. While it does have flaws, though, none of these are fatal.

Overall, it is an enjoyable read set in a series of strange, yet often familiar, realities. Once the book establishes it's rhythm of alternate narrators, it is also an easy read (albeit with some uneasy passages). While some of the political and social issues may not be explored fully, the book does, ultimately, have a satisfactory feel of justice prevailing.

When I read a novel, I would normally decide on completion whether it is a book I would want to re-read, and therefore keep, or whether it is bound for Oxfam. Had this been a novel by any other author, I suspect I would keep it, which is not something I'd have said for either Dead Air or The Steep Approach to Garbadale. On that measure, therefore, I am happy to recommend it.

Where does it come in relation to Banks' other work, though? Well, laying aside the question as to whether this belongs in the Iain Banks or Iain M Banks canon; I think it's his best book since A Song of Stone, and possibly earlier. It's certainly an easier read than A Song of Stone, which is written entirely in the third person.


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For more about Iain Banks see here.

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