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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Writing Different Versions Of The Same Events

2015 Artwork Different Versions Of The Same Events Article sketch

Even though this is an article about storytelling, writing and comics, I’m going to have to start by talking about music history again for a while. There’s a good reason for this and I’m not just rambling about music for the sake of it.

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’m still slightly fascinated by Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower“. Anyway, a while back, I read this fascinating article about how Jimi Hendrix ended up recording his excellent cover of this song. One of the really interesting things about this article was that there were something like three totally different accounts of when Jimi Hendrix first heard Bob Dylan’s original version of the song.

Of course, this is probably because of the strange way that memory, especially long-term memory, works. Although it can possibly be attributed to the old saying that “if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t really there“, it made me think about the idea of different versions of the same events.

This might just be me, but I absolutely love it when stories, comics, TV shows etc… show different versions of the same events. Usually, what will happen is that two characters will remember the same thing in wildly different ways.

Neither of these versions of the same events will be totally accurate, but they’ll usually tell us a lot about the characters in question. This can be done in a number of ways – the classic way to do this is for the character who is doing the remembering to emphasise or exaggerate any negative qualities that they think that the other characters have (this is usually done for comedic effect, but it can also be done seriously).

The other way is to show your audience how the narrator’s worldview influences how they remember things, what they notice, what they don’t notice etc… Since your audience is basically being given a look inside of the character’s mind, you can show them a lot about your character in all sorts of subtle ways.

A good “serious” example of this can be found in a comic called “Death: The Time Of Your Life” by Neil Gaiman where one of the characters called Hazel spends at least a page remembering this absolutely beautiful date that she had with her partner (Foxglove) earlier in their relationship.

However, Hazel later mentions that when she asked Foxglove about it, she had no memory of that particular day. From this, Neil Gaiman subtly shows that Hazel is a romantic at heart and that perhaps she cares more about Foxglove than Foxglove cares about her.

In addition to this, showing different versions of the same events can be an extremely dramatic thing since it makes the audience question the reliabililty of reality itself. After all, we only ever get to see this world from just one perspective. We all live our lives from a fairly limited first-person perspective.

So, the idea that different people might be experiencing different versions of reality is an absolutely fascinating one. If you want to get philosophical about it, then there are some brilliant articles by Steve Pavlina (like this one) about this subject (although I certainly don’t agree with his views about everything, his old ideas about subjective reality are absolutely fascinating).

Likewise, showing different versions of the same events can also be a sneaky way of discussing the whole concept of parallel universes in a story or comic which isn’t in the sci-fi genre.

Finally, another good reason for showing different versions of the same events in your story or comic is that it forces your audience to actually think about your story.

After all, unless you explicitly say that one version is true and the others are false, your audience will have no way of knowing which one was true. They won’t know whether the truth lies between the different versions or whether none of them are true. So, they’re going to have to work it out for themselves.

Plus, since everyone will probably come to different conclusions, your readers are probably going to want to discuss and debate your story or comic with other readers. So, including different versions of the same events in your story can be a good way to keep your fans interested in your story or comic for quite a while after they’ve read it.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

A Futuristic Way To Keep Your Fans Interested In Your Stories and Comics.

2014 Artwork Parallel universes sketch

Although I try to keep my philosophical beliefs out of these articles, I’ll have to mention them here. Don’t worry, there’s a practical reason for this and I’m not trying to evangelise in any way.

I’ve come to these beliefs through my own thoughts and subjective experiences, yours might lead to other equally-valid [in personal terms] beliefs. Different beliefs work for different people.

Anyway, amongst other things, I believe in the concept of parallel universes and a fairly new-agey version of the “many-worlds” interpretation of the universe.

In a nutshell, the “many worlds” theory suggests that, for literally every possible decision or uncertainty, all possible outcomes are played out in a variety of different parallel universes. The theories about exactly what happens next may differ slightly, but we only end up experiencing one of these outcomes – even though the others may or may not still exist or play out in parallel universes.

Yes, there are probably a couple of scientists facepalming at the screen right now and I apologise – these are personal beliefs [loosely-based on scientific theories] and not necessarily facts. I might personally see them as facts, but that doesn’t mean that you should.

So, why am I mentioning this stuff in a blog about art, comics and writing? No, this isn’t an article about writing sci-fi stories, but you can certainly use what I’m about to tell you for sci-fi stories and comics.

I’m mentioning it because, one of the most fascinating things about parallel universes is that they allow us to think about “what might have been” or, more accurately “what may exist somewhere else”. I’m absolutely fascinated by the idea of alternate versions of myself and the idea of alternate timelines where my life played out differently.

I’m sure I’m not the only person in the world who doesn’t at least have a passing fascination with this kind of thing. Some of your fans may have a vague curiosity about it too.

So, to keep your fans, interested in your work – it might be an idea to give them a tantalising glimpse into “what might have been”. No, I’m not talking about writing stories or comics that include parallel universes (although this can obviously work too). I’m talking about taking a look at all the projects you either left unfinished or the plot ideas which you eventually decided not to use.

If people are interested in your work, then they’ll also be interested in the things you could have made and the directions your stories could have gone in.

So, you can satisfy their curiosity by providing things like alternate endings for your stories. For example, I did this in my “Jadzia Strange” comic from last year – although this was only because I couldn’t decide which ending I preferred. Choose for yourself:

"Jadzia Strange (remake) - Page 60" By C. A. Brown [The "Original" Ending]

“Jadzia Strange (remake) – Page 60” By C. A. Brown
[The “Original” Ending]

"Jadzia Strange (remake) - Alternate Ending" By C. A. Brown

“Jadzia Strange (remake) – Alternate Ending” By C. A. Brown

In addition to this, it can sometimes be a good idea to release sketches from comics you decided not to continue and to release tantalising short extracts from unfinished stories you’ve written. These sorts of things make your readers start to wonder and theorise about what could have been.

These things make your reader try to complete the story in their own imagination and discuss their ideas with other readers. Hell, your fans may even bring your unfinished and abandoned ideas to life in their own fan fiction and fan art. Whatever they do, they’ll be thinking about and/or talking about your stories.

And, in keeping with all of this, here is an exclusive never-before-seen piece of art. It was the cover art to a sci-fi comic I was going to make about a month and a half ago called “Orbis Viridis”. For various reasons, I never got round to making the rest of the comic – but, for the first time, here’s the cover of it:

The cover to a comic that I never actually made...

The cover to a comic that I never actually made…

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Anyway, I hope that this has been useful 🙂