worlds enough, and time

I think I have said here before that I don’t read much science fiction.  This is primarily because the disappointment factor is  high and it’s just disheartening to see how uninteresting most people’s imaginations are.  However, when I find something I like, I am a huge fan–things like Dune, Hyperion, the Book of the New Sun series, Phillip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury  (hell yes!) spring to mind.  A few years ago someone recommended Consider Phlebas to me.  I picked it up.  I read it.  I didn’t like it.  I finished it, set it down, and went “hmmm.”

Six months later I was still thinking about that book.  There are very few books that I remember even six weeks after I read them; it’s very rare indeed if I am still pondering their implications months after I’ve shelved them.  Eventually I realized that I actually liked the book very much and I’ve been a fan of Iain M. Banks ever since.  His more famous books are the series known as the Culture novels but he has also written science fiction set outside of the Culture as well as mainstream fiction, which he publishes under the name Iain Banks.  His latest novel is Transition; I picked it up in England over the holidays and read it when I felt I needed a little break from Genji. (In a possibly meaningless side note, the book was published in Europe under the name Iain Banks, the name he generally uses when he is not writing science fiction, but was published under the name Iain M. Banks in the United States.  Go figure.)


Transition is told from the points of view of several characters, several of which may be the same person (I was fairly convinced at one point that they were all the same person) .  One is a patient in an unnamed medical facility (possibly psychiatric), one is an operative for a large, shadowy organization, one is a state torturer, one is former drug dealer turned hedge fund manager,  one is the head of the large, shadowy organization, one is a rebellious former member of that organization.  There are additionally other characters who drop in and out of the narrative with their own points of view, including a victim of horrific human experimentation, a failed script writer, and a renegade university instructor.   There is a fairly strong suggestion that one of the main characters is not human and that another has an ability that people will literally kill for.  There is also the suggestion that repeating characters are not the same person in different parts of the book.

The main character is The Transitionary.  By using the Concern-controlled drug septus, Temudjin Oh is able to move between alternate versions of reality by briefly taking possession of the body of someone in that reality.  All the realities are basically some version of Earth; some are almost indistinguishable from our version of the world, others are nearly unrecognizable.  In his work for the Concern (also occasionally called l’Expedience) it is his job to alter the course of events to produce an outcome that the Concern has determined will be beneficial for that reality.  Oh’s duties may include assassination but are just as likely to require him to prevent a death as to cause one, although in recent times his assignments have become more and more dangerous and violent.  In general the Concern is perceived as benevolent and working toward peace and prosperity in all the various realities.   As the perspective shifts between Oh, the character known as Patient 8262, The Philosopher (who considers his job of torturer as a necessary evil), and Concern leader Madame d’Ortolan, a sort of conspiracy is gradually revealed and it becomes apparent that something other than concern for the universes’ well being motivates the Concern.  The story’s main plot is set in motion when Madame d’Ortolan orders Oh to assassinate most of the Concern’s Council of leaders, whom she claims are involved with terrorist organizations.

Although the novel is science fiction-ish it really more of an exploration into the nature of reality and the meaning of identity.   The main concept stems from the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics .   I cannot explain this to you beyond saying that in this interpretation reality is not viewed as a single linear progression but as sort a set of reality trees in which every possible outcome is realized (thanks wikipedia!).  In Transition this results in an infinite number of alternate Earths (all but one use that name) with varying degrees of similarity to our own.   The narrators repeatedly refer to “your world” (i.e., the reader’s reality) but it’s not entirely clear whether or not the primary action is taking place in our world or some other very similar Earth or across many Earths.  The Concern centers itself and its metaphysical university on Calbefraques, the one Earth on which every individual is aware that there are other Earths (a “perfectly Open world” in the language of the book) and also that it is possible to cross between them.   The story is not clearly anchored in time and although transitioning is not time travel, it is never really clear that any of the characters are operating on the same timelines.  In fact, it is likely some of them are not, which lends an extra dimension to their intersections at various places in the plot.  Many of the Earths are “lagged” relative to the others, which is what makes it possible for the Concern to alter their timestreams.  Many are recognizable SF tropes: the blasted wasteland, the steampunk pseudo-industrial society, worlds in which the religious terrorists bombing innocents at airports are Christians, worlds like ours only just a little different, so that it is possible that events that appear to be taking place at different time points are actually taking place in different realities at different points in their development.  Heady stuff.

Another important theme involves solipsism, the philosophical position that only one’s own mind can be known for certain to exist.   Everything else must be inferred and may in fact be an illusion.  As characters are able to move into and out of other people’s lives, as the perspective changes from person to person and world to world, any connection to a linear plot line, the static identity of characters, or a fixed outcome becomes suspect.   Transitioners are specially chosen for their strength of self-identity; it is the only way they can survive moving from identity to identity psychologically intact.   While they are transitioned they are both themselves and someone else, the person whose body they are borrowing.  Oh has a little ritual wherein he immediately checks his watch, determines what languages he knows, figures out what he looks like, and decides whether or not he has symptoms of OCD, and he is generally comforted to find that he does.   It is a common but unexplained side effect that the body one ends up in usually has the same gender, general age, general physique, personality quirks, sexual preferences, etc. as one’s own body and if one transitions into an incompatible body it can be both physically and existentially uncomfortable.   It is also the case that transitioners never transition to anyplace other than a fairly recognizable version of earth and it is suggested that even with an infinite number of universes and limitless potential for development, we are capable of envisioning only a narrow slice.  Thus, the transitioners have never found a universe populated with alien lifeforms because they are too wed to their own identity to think outside the box.   Yet despite this apparent rigidity no one actually seems to have a set identity or to be grounded in place or time.  After just a few chapters of this fluidity one begins to consider that perhaps the entire thing is taking place in the addled mind of Patient 8262, who has either cleverly escaped to a distant reality or who has escaped reality entirely.  Or perhaps it is the constantly evolving screenplay, being reworked by the screenwriter to be more “accessible.”   Or a story made up by The Philosopher’s victim to make the torture stop.   These all seem like fairly plausible explanations.

Like nearly every Banks book I have read thus far, the book stimulates a lot of thought.  It is well written and assumes the reader is intelligent and interested in a challenge.  The plot moves along fairly quickly and although it is disorienting at first you eventually get used the change in perspective as the story shifts among the various characters.   Unfortunately, though, by the end much of it is just confusing.   The multiplicity of characters and the shifting realities lead to plot lines that apparently go nowhere and seem unconnected to the larger story.  Several of the major characters in the book never actually do anything.  The torturer storyline seems promising but never really gels and I could never figure out why Banks  spent so much time developing the drug dealer/hedge fund manager character when that character’s sole purpose in the plot was a single delivery.   On the other hand, characters that pass by so briefly that you don’t remember them later turn out to be important plot hinges.  More than once I found myself paging back through the book after muttering “where did SHE come from?”   Many of the characters are cut out of cardboard; both Mrs. Mulverhill (the renegade professor) and Madame d’Ortolan are cartoons.  A multitude of interesting ideas are just sort of dropped into the mix and go undeveloped (fundamentalist Christian terrorists, for example) but are brought up often enough that one expects them to be more important to the story than they turn out to be.  The book reads as if Banks stirred together a whole lot of compelling ideas he’d been stewing on for awhile without really melding them into a coherent whole or deciding how he wanted them to work into an overall theme.   It’s scattered enough that he occasionally has Oh and Mrs. Mulverhill sit down and engage in long philosophical discussions about identity, multiple universes, ethics,  the possibility of alien worlds, good and evil, the Concern, power, and ulterior motives.   Although Banks spices up these lectures with acrobatic sex the long expository talks tend to bog the narrative down.

Still, this is a Banks book and I am plagued by the suspicion that there is something going on that I missed, some kernel of a really mind-blowing idea buried among the world-jumping and political intrigue.  I suspect it will benefit from another reading.  So, more than a month after I finished it I still find myself thinking about it.  And I guess from an author’s perspective, that’s a good thing.

Score:  meh.


~ by gun street girl on May 4, 2010.

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