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Good but not his best - incompletely developed ideas
on May 30, 2011
It was well written, with interesting characters, obfuscated narration, clever tricks, flash forwards / backwards / sideways and the sort narrative twisting that reminds me of Use of Weapons. In short, it was a very Iain M Banks novel. He's a fan of complex ideas and complex narratives. To claim that his leftist politics are too intrusive on the story, well, I guess you haven't read many of his other books - he's rarely shied away from making a pointed remark in that direction.
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.