Review: “Transition” By Iain Banks (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a slight break from detective fiction and read an interesting-looking literary sci-fi novel from 2009 (that I found in a charity shop in Petersfield last year) called “Transition” by Iain Banks.

Although I’d heard of Iain Banks before, I’d never actually got round to reading anything by him before, so I was kind of curious. Plus, this was a novel that was about one of my favourite sci-fi subjects – parallel universes 🙂 Not to mention that one of the early segments talked longingly about 1989-2001 (eg: the 1990s), so naturally I was curious.

So, let’s take a look at “Transition”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2010 Abacus (UK) paperback edition of “Transition” that I read.

The novel begins with a narrator mentioning that he is an unreliable narrator, before musing about the time between 1989 and 2001 – when the world was a bit more innocent and optimistic. The narrator then explicitly tells us the story’s ending, where he is suffocated by a mysterious assailant. He then shows the reader something that hasn’t happened yet, an armed man entering a train carriage.

Then, after this, we get to see glimpses of the lives of several different characters such as an ambitious social climber and drug dealer called Adrian Cubbish, a man called Mike Esteros pitching a film to a Hollywood studio, a mysterious patient in a psychiatric ward called Patient 8262, a mysterious traveller called The Transitionary, a rather bitter and bigoted character called Madame D’Ortolan, a creepy torturer known as The Philosopher etc…

Needless to say, all of their lives will collide in all sorts of intriguingly strange ways…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, if you can understand it, then it is an absolutely gripping and brilliantly well-written sci-fi thriller. Although the novel’s plot becomes more streamlined (it’s a classic “evil despot vs. plucky band of rebels” story) as the story progresses, this is one of those novels that will require you to think and pay attention whilst reading it. In other words, like with Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” and Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall“, this novel isn’t meant to be relaxing easy reading.

Yet, despite containing numerous things that would usually annoy me (eg: the story isn’t told in chronological order, there are multiple narrators etc..), this novel remained fairly gripping throughout. In part, this is due to the quality of Banks’ writing and, in part, is due to the fact that some of the more “confusing” parts of the novel are fairly well-handled.

Not only does the story tell you who is narrating whenever the narrator changes but, even though the novel’s numerous flashback scenes aren’t explicitly signposted, you can usually tell what chronological order things are supposed to happen in if you pay attention to the rest of the story. Although, again, this is one of those stories that will either leave you feeling really confused or really delighted.

Still, this is a novel that you’ll get the most out of if you’ve read more experimental or avant-garde fiction beforehand. In other words, some parts of the story are deliberately meant to be confusing and disorientating – and you’ve just got to let the words wash across you until you can work out what is going on. But, given that this novel is a story about jumping between universes, timelines and bodies – this confusion is an integral part of the story and, once you get used to it, it works really really well 🙂

The novel’s sci-fi elements are pretty interesting too. Although some elements of the story are left deliberately mysterious, the mechanics of jumping between parallel worlds are explained reasonably well and will usually follow a fairly consistent set of rules. Likewise, the parallel worlds themselves also allow for a few interesting alternate histories too (although this isn’t explored as much as I’d hoped). The novel also contains a few other sci-fi elements too, although I won’t spoil the most interesting one of these.

Thematically, this novel is absolutely fascinating. In addition to exploring the topic of parallel universes, multiple timelines etc… it also covers a lot of other topics too. For example, it is a fairly grim novel about how violence begets violence, it is also a novel about the greed that led to the 2008 financial crash, a scathing criticism of the post-9/11 use of torture by some governments, a novel about the nature of evil, a story about the value of good in an indifferent multiverse and a novel about the dangers of things like authoritarianism and solipsism too.

This is also a novel which, whilst not “laugh out loud” funny, certainly has a gleefully dark sense of humour about both itself and the world. Everything from the narrator telling the reader the ending very early in the story, to the ironic deaths of several characters, to countless other satirical and/or ironic moments have a wonderfully twisted sense of humour to them that really helps to keep the story interesting.

One interesting thing about this novel is that it’s also something of an “edgy” novel (and isn’t for the prudish or the easily-shocked). For the most part, the “edgy” elements of the story work reasonably well (such as the disturbing scenes that explore what makes people become evil etc..). However, the novel will occasionally do fairly silly things like including exposition-filled dialogue segments that take place whilst two characters are making love.

In terms of the characters, this novel is fairly good. Although all of the characters are fairly stylised, they have distinctive personalities, backstories and motivations. Plus, since this is a novel where people can inhabit the bodies of people living in parallel universes, there’s a lot of interesting stuff about how much of a character is their real self and how much belongs to the body they’ve jumped into.

In terms of the writing, it is brilliant. Although the novel does use multiple first and third-person narrators, this is never too confusing thanks to the fact that the changes between narrators are clearly signposted (by both a mention of who is narrating and, sometimes, a distinctive change in the narrative style) . Likewise, the novel is written in a way which is both intellectually, descriptively formal and refreshingly informal. Seriously, this is one of those novels where the writing itself is one major reason to keep reading it.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is something of a mixed bag. At 469 pages in length, it’s a little bit on the longer side of things and would have probably benefitted from some trimming.

However, although the novel can be a little slow-paced at times, the pacing is reasonably good – with the story moving along at a fairly moderate pace most of the time, with some more fast-paced and suspenseful moments at various points too. Even so, working out when many of the novel’s flashback scenes (which aren’t always in chronological order) take place can slow the story down a little at times.

All in all, this is a really good novel. Yes, some parts of it are deliberately meant to be confusing and it is the kind of novel where you will need to pay attention. But, this is one of those deep, interesting stories that is worth sticking with. It’s a complex, intelligent, moderately-paced literary sci-fi thriller that slowly gets more gripping as it goes along.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four.

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