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Transition Hardcover – September 23, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Banks's latest novel opens with a warning from "Patient 8262" stating that he or she is an unreliable narrator, before the epic takes off, plunging the reader into a whirlwind of intricately constructed characters and detailed accounts of their experiences as they "flit" across multiple Earths. The cast of characters include Adrian, the greedy city trader, emblematic of the selfishness needed to become a "traveler"; the Philosopher, an assassin who despises killing; a catch-me-if-you-can rogue operative named Mrs. Mulverhill; and the imperious Madame d'Ortolan, possibly the leader of the Concern, a vast multi-world organization that claims to protect worlds from chaos, but may also hide a greater, darker purpose. Banks's prose is elegant and electric and his story dizzying, but inevitable contradictions are brilliantly tied together-the only way many characters maintain sanity is to question everything, and readers would be well-advised to do the same. Banks manages the neat feat of synthesizing 19th-century style with the cutting edge, the irreverent with the philosophical, and the intellectual with the adventurous.
** 'Baroque, digressive, kinetic, teeming with big ideas and grand theories, it's a novel to get lost in ... gripping THE TIMES ** 'One of Iain Banks's most imaginative and compelling novels yet SCOTSMAN ** 'Wildly imaginative ... A corker of a thriller, a classic good versus bad tale, and one which the author uses to tackle some seriously big moral and philosophical issues - but always in his typically light-handed and darkly humorous fashion ... A book that makes you think, one that makes you look at the world around you in a different light, and it's also a properly thrilling read. If only more contemporary fiction was like it Independent on Sunday ** 'Transition is Banks at his exuberant, flamboyant, head-spinning best Financial Times --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Although this is listed as a *Culture* series novel is really more of a vague prequel.
The way the "many worlds" hypothesis of QM is explored is fascinating, well executed, and enthralling. But again, I'm a fan.
I had to check the © to make sure this wasn't written before The Matrix (obviously wasn't) otherwise I would have thought Iain himself used some septum to travel forwards in time.
Highly recommended, stand alone novel.
The basic premise is that "transitionaries" working for "the Concern" flit their minds from their home world into the bodies of persons in various other Earths of the multiverse. The transitionary takes over the body (shutting down the mind, apparently), and uses it to accomplish whatever task the Concern has set, often including murder. Task done, the transitioner flits back home, leaving the poor sap whose body was used to deal with the consequences.
The transitionaries send only their minds (along with their flit-inducing drug, or, with great talent and effort, a somewhat larger object such as a gun). They cannot send their own bodies; they must find a host-body in the target world. And yet, partway through the book, we find Our Hero (Temudjin Oh) and the cat-eyed Mrs. Mulverhill hot-tubbing on a world on which all life has recently been exterminated. Hello? Whose bodies did they find on a sterile world? Now, Mrs. Mulverhill has many interesting talents, and Oh develops some special tricks of his own, but if their talents included bringing their own original bodies from world to world, I missed it. And in any case, this sterile world is described as "a place where privileged officers of the Concern could holiday," so it's not just Oh and Mrs M. who go there. This is so peculiar and inconsistent that I wonder if Banks is poking us in the eye, although if so I don't get the point. Perhaps we are supposed to remember that Oh (as Patient 8262) describes himself as an unreliable narrator at the beginning of the book. If he's unreliable enough to matter-of-factly describe a lengthy episode that is entirely impossible, it calls into question everything he says in the entire book. But if we're simply supposed to wonder if anything is true, I still don't get the point.
I was also bothered by the book's failure to deal at all with the plight of the hosts whose bodies the transitionaries use. Oh brings up the issue, and then drops it. This is peculiar in a book that includes an extensive and impassioned attack on the morality of those who use and justify torture. Surely using somebody's body to commit a murder, and then leaving that somebody bloody-handed for the local police to find is savagely immoral, if not quite the same as torture -- and such misuse of others happens every single time a transitionary travels. Yet Oh, and by extension the author, seem no more than mildly curious about the damage and fear the hosts must certainly suffer. (I know; it's a story about the transitionaries, not about the hosts -- but a story that explicitly takes strong moral positions, yet ignores this apparently central moral issue.)
To close on a more positive note, I need to mention a subplot - the question why, given an infinite series of Earths, no aliens seem ever to have shown up from anywhere. Perhaps, it is suggested, they might be here as (hidden) tourists watching something unique to Earth; i.e., a total eclipse of the sun, with the sun's corona showing around the edge of the moon. I loved the hints that Mrs. Mulverhill may be an alien, or part alien. I picture her looking for her alien father or grandfather during a total eclipse in Tibet, shortly after she kills Madame D'Ortolan on the train to Lhasa.
Read it, but not if you're a stickler for consistency.
The plot is clever and fun, running through different times and places with imagination. The characters feel real, you may have met someone as bewildering as Madame d'Ortolan.
I really like how the women are drawn in this story. They have their own sexual agency. And the men in the story have, gasp, moments of emotional vulnerability.
Bank's thoughtfulness on group dynamics and social heirarchy is on full display.
I wouldn't call this hard sci-fi. Not as nerdy as the Culture series. But it is fun.
My only problem, or complaint, is that it just isn't that well thought out. It's made clear early on (and in several other reviews) that this is fundamentally a Many Worlds idea. Unlike, say, the 1950s Sci Fi efforts of multiple dimensions and alternate earths, this narrative uses an interpretation of modern physics writ large by Brian Greene. For a particle in some quantum state, it may end up in state A or state B - completely at random. Many Worlds is an interpretation of quantum mechanics that says that both of these outcomes are valid and, in fact, occur - there are infinities of universes constantly splitting and spiraling off from each other in countless number, from every little event, even, say, the decay of a radioactive element deep within the crust of the Earth (or some other planet, even). Most people tend to misunderstand this idea and instead ascribe the splitting of universes to individual, conscious choices they make - not really thinking about all the infinities that precede that choice (or if indeed there is such a thing as choice!) or, even taking the idea at its face, thinking about all the choices being made all the time by all the people, animals, insects ... anyway, its an enormous landscape of infinities.
Within this interpretation Banks crafts a framework of travel across these infinities, and a group that attempts to improve the state of the world(s). To his credit he addresses briefly the futility of it all - why try to improve the outcome of this one version of reality when there are always an infinite number where they are not improved? What about the infinities of worlds where your efforts have made it worse? The argument presented in the book is basically "even though hopeless, we have to try" - almost a Spiderman like appeal.
But the main sticking point for me is within this framework he asserts a sort of unique point of view which we might call the spirit or the consciousness of the transistioner. It is this "mind" or "soul" which moves, and it goes to inhabit some other body (what happens to the displaced?) for a time but it might come back "home" at some point, or even more confusingly, to the "unique" home reality of the Transitioning Concern. As the book actually points out, once you take any kind of belief in the many worlds, and some kind of transfer between them, any idea like solipsism is immediately suspect - but this includes the entire premise of the book, this unique points of view which are the characters.
I have a lot of respect of Iain Banks and his skills, so I believe that this must have occurred to him - perhaps this is why the first line of the book is basically "I'm an unreliable narrator". But I think he was too in love with some of the ideas to come up with a solution. For me, it put a sizable damper on my ability to lose myself in the story - I kept scratching my head and saying "but what?" and hoping that in the end it would be addressed or resolved somehow.
On the whole, still enjoyable, but I would say : if you like the idea of contemporary settings and large global conspiracy, read The Business. If you like really twisting narratives and dark twists, read Use of Weapons. Both are better than this effort.
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I wish he were still around to write more of this new multiverse comprising...Read more