Iain Banks writes two kinds of fiction under two different names: as Iain Banks he writes literary fiction and as Iain M. Banks he writes science fiction. The split enables him to access both markets and it also keeps his readers happy. After all, the thinking must go, if you like literary fiction you won’t like science fiction and vice versa. From a publicity and marketing point of view, readers know exactly which Banks they’re getting just by the inclusion of, or absence of, an ‘M’. In his latest book, though, there’s a change – a transition, if you like. Banks removes the ‘M.’ and melds his split writer’s brain into a single, yet schizophrenic whole to create a weirdly complicated fantastical literary fiction. In Transition, when someone says, “it felt like my head turned inside out”, it actually happens, maybe.
There’s no term in gaming to describe ‘virtual life’. When you’re online ‘RL’ [‘real life’] is the alien, parallel existence that takes you out of and away from virtual reality. The two worlds exist simultaneously yet separate and only human interaction can change the course of both. Taking this simple premise to its extremity, in Transition, Banks creates multiple worlds existing around, above and below the known Universe. Only when these worlds connect through ‘transitionaries’, agents who use the drug ‘septus’ and the bodies of ordinary people to move between dimensions to intervene in events, are they revealed. The ‘transitionaries’ work invisibly, slightly changing the course of history so that serendipity, coincidence and accident are deliberate acts of will performed unobtrusively, such as “the delivering of objects, the couriering of people […] the pointed conversations, the leaving of pamphlets or computer files, the tiny, usually mundane interventions made in a hundred different lives.” Set during the “golden age […] the long decade between the fall of the Wall and the fall of the Towers” the ‘real’ world of twentieth-century Earth is a foil to the fantastic as the parallel worlds collide.
Transition is a demanding read, narrated through multiple view-points, one of which, we are warned/reminded is ‘unreliable’. With typical Banksian dark humour and sarcastic irony the convoluted plot turns, twists and back-flips and involves shape-shifting, Machiavellian duplicity, torture, multiple murders, Christian Terrorism, and mind-control. The mysterious ‘Patient 8262’ provides a tongue-in-cheek nod to the comatose protagonist of The Bridge, Banks’s earlier foray into literary science fiction, only this time, the patient in hospital, waiting, out of time as worlds collide, is brutally aware of his surroundings not just the fictions of his imagination. Everyone in Transition has the potential for violence and cruelty, although it’s annoying that the female leads are horrendous harridans. Madam d’Ortolan, a scheming bitch of the first order is matched in duplicity and double-dealing with Mrs Mulverhill, a rebel agent attempting to undermine the ‘good work’ of the ‘Concern’ at the heart of ‘l’Expedience’. Both are contrasted with twentieth-century characters, like Adrian Cubbish, boyishly charming and ruthless, a greedy trader who daily chants his mantra, ‘the Market is God. There is no God but the Market’ and refers to women as ‘bints’. Only Iain Banks (with or without the ‘M.’) could get away with such ballsy, phallocentric prose.
Transition attempts too much. It’s too fantastically implausible to work as general literary fiction and too contrived to succeed as science fiction. It begins several times over, taking the reader down numerous rabbit holes that lead to nothing as it attempts to set up a narrative ideology of philosophical musing on life, death and ultimate truth. Except we don’t learn anything meaningful. There’s a half-hearted rant at Thatcherism and single market economies interwoven with a half-baked Christian Terrorist plot. Instead of building on one of these ideas the story concentrates on its own cleverness in the idea that the transitionaries are controlled by powerful women competing to set worlds to right in their own image. It’s about 100 pages too long so that by the time we get to the final clever plot twist that zips us back to one of the numerous beginnings it’s neither an exciting turn of events nor a shocking revelation. By that point the reader has given up hope of any conclusion.
It’s interesting to find that, for American readers, Transition is published under the sci-fi brand of ‘Iain M. Banks’. The problem is, I’m not sure whether it will sit more comfortably on the sci-fi shelf.