Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Book Review: Transition By Iain Banks

In June this year the world lost author Iain Banks to cancer just before his final book hit the stands. I felt an overwhelming sadness as I read peoples’ thoughts and feelings on his passing. Iain wrote wonderful novels for the sci-fi/fantasy world, but also fiction novels exploring politics and culture. He went so far as to separate his pure sci-fi works from his more accessible novels by using the name Iain M Banks for his sci-fi books.

I read the final interview ever conducted with Iain and in it he said that his new book was about a man with cancer (he started writing before he knew he also had cancer and was dying) and that although he was very proud of this book he would have liked to go out with a sprawling sci-fi/fantasy epic like Transition.

I read Transition some years back after having a chat to a work colleague and discovering the book on my desk the next day with a blue post-it note on it saying "You have to read this!"

The book was fantastic in so many ways and not so great in others and in tribute to Iain, the day after his death I picked it up for a re-read. It’s been hard to find the right words but I’ve tried my best. Follow me below the cut for a review of Transition; Iain Banks' beautifully crafted final sci-fi/fantasy epic.

Transition is told in a series of short stories by a number of mysterious characters. The prelude tells us that our narrator is unreliable. And that he dies at the end. It's an intriguing way to start a novel and to tell a story in pieces with flashbacks intertwining with the present. The reader has to work hard to keep up as the story spans worlds, times and places.

Patient 8262 opens each chapter telling the reader of their current situation; hiding in a mental facility on an unknown world from an unseen menace. The patient is subdued and talks with reverence about mundane life and reflection. The patient believes that they were part of an organisation that explored worlds and realities by inhabiting unaware individuals but as time passes becomes unable to ascertain whether this is real or not.

The Transitionary can flit between worlds using a drug called Septus and is a master assassin. Through this character’s eyes we learn about an organisation, the Concern, with operatives who are capable of transitioning to other worlds and times by taking the drug and inhabiting another person’s body. It seems that this organisation wants to improve the world by seeing what happens on other versions of the same reality and altering the one they are most invested in. For example, sending operatives to save a man who was supposed to die because he can go on to invent a new technology, or killing a maniacal leader. The Transitionary seems to be caught in the middle of a civil war within the organisation between Madame d'Ortolan and Mrs Mulverhill and their respective followers.

Madame d’Ortolan is the current head of the Concern and a ruthless woman. She believes that humanity is being set upon by some great threat and that it is the job of the Concern to protect it. Initially it seems that the purpose of her Council and indeed of the Concern is to stop bad things happening for the betterment of humanity; but in time it becomes clear that something else motivates Madame d’Ortolan.

Mrs Mulverhill is a genius and a seductress. She is an incredibly gifted scientist and teacher as well as a gifted transitioner. She strikes up a relationship with Mr. Oh (The Transitionary) and is instrumental in his break from the Concern and his motivations thereafter. It is Mrs. Mulverhill’s belief that Madame d’Ortolan is a psychopath who kills without mercy and has a hidden agenda.

The Philosopher is a master of torture employed by the Concern to extract information from various subjects. His life was a violent and disturbed one and we are offered insights into his first murder, girlfriend, the history of his family and his dislike of torture but decision that it is necessary. As his name suggests he takes a philosophical approach to the political events taking place around him as we follow him through the story.

Adrian is a guy who started at the bottom of the ladder in the world and has decided to work his way up. Brimming with ambition he moves from drug dealing and information dealing through to more complex economic pursuits and through his connections ultimately comes to meet Mrs Mulverhill and agrees to work for her.

Through these main characters we piece together a series of worlds and a story of deceit and power; the question becoming who should have the ability to do what the Concern are capable of doing and what are the responsibilities that go along with this.

As the characters begin to cross paths we see their fates inevitably tied together; Adrian starting out completely disconnected and then being brought into the fold, The Philosopher needing to interrogate The Transitionary, The Transitionary's meetings with Mrs. Mulverhill and Madame d'Ortolan and Patient 8262's reflections and fear of the organisation and its powers.

Ultimately, Transition is a series of smaller stories in an epic sprawling tale of many worlds and realities and the various abilities of those who are trained in the arts of transitioning or who are aware of the other worlds. One could argue that many of the stories told by characters are more of an exercise in character development than in the ultimate role played by the character in the plot.

The plot itself becomes difficult to follow at times as characters interact, gain extra abilities, chase one another and come together for an ultimate show down. If you are hoping to get all of the answers by the end of the book then this isn’t the book for you. Transition certainly leaves threads hanging; some purely because the outcome should be left to the imagination and others perhaps because Banks felt it unnecessary to pursue those stories. If you can deal without having all of the answers and love sci-fi with a political edge then I recommend it.

Spoilers for the ending below.

Transition’s ending is a mixed bag and even upon second reading not everything is clear. The major players (The Transitionary, Mrs. Mulverhill and Madame d’Ortolan) all feature heavily but some of the build up leaves the reader wondering if this was really where the story was headed.

The Transitionary

Tem Oh develops a series of additional abilities, including flitting into other transitionaries bodies and seeing future outcomes, as we reach the climax. The Concern is hot in pursuit of him because they want to study these new powers and Mrs. Mulverhill was cultivating these powers all along. For what purpose remains unsolved. Tem escapes narrowly and is instructed to never make himself known to the Concern again for fear of death. It is revealed that he is actually Patient 8262, who is in hiding for the entirety of the book.

Patient 8262

Various attempts are made on the patient’s life and safety including an episode of abuse and an attempted murder. It is revealed that Tem has successfully survived and goes on to lead a full life, normal or otherwise. We are not really sure where he goes or what he does. We are also not sure what everything in the asylum he has been in means. What was happening in that silent ward? What was the deal with the patients thinking he was actually talking when he was talking gibberish? What was the episode with the patient who killed himself voodoo style while Tem had the doll? Nothing is clear. I assume the last of that list involved Tem accidentally flitting into someone’s body or suggesting to them to jump inadvertently.

Madame d’Ortolan and Mrs. Mulverhill

Ultimately, it turns out that Madame d’Ortolan has been doing what she has doing because she has seen Earth’s invasion by aliens and is trying to avert this crisis. Mrs. Mulverhill does not agree with her outlook. Madame d’Ortolan has inadvertently cultivated Tem’s abilities, which was Mrs. Mulverhill’s goal, but also created Bisquitine (Subject 7) who ultimately destroyed the Concern by flinging all aware people to other consciousnesses and away. This does not entirely make sense but following this and Mrs. Mulverhill’s apparent ability to avoid it (Tem’s too?) Bisq is taken care of by Mrs. Mulverhill. In the future, Mrs. M finds Madame d’Ortolan and disposes of her.

The Philosopher

The Philosopher is revealed to be Madame d’Ortolan’s assistant Mr. Kleist. He ultimately is thrown by Bisquitine, along with everyone else, into deserving other bodies. He is flung into the body of his first victim, unable to communicate with himself as he is killed.


Adrian’s only purpose it seems was to accept money, tell a story about how he made it into the game and then become a vessel for Mrs. Mulverhill to enact her final confrontation. In the future he does a number of stupid things and ends up dead.

It would seem that although this is a very intricate and enjoyable book there are many things that are not internally consistent upon second read, making the story fall apart and much of the plot itself and the characters in it are either superficial and accidentally there or participate in irrelevant activities to throw the reader off.

This is of course either lazy or genius story telling. Do we know all about Adrian’s life to sympathise with him merely so that it makes sense that someone like him is chosen? Does it make sense that he is used in a different battle and he is ultimately not significant? Tem is important but doesn’t know why and neither he nor the reader ever finds out why... we simply know a snapshot in his time and that he was important to other people with a higher game. We never truly find out what the story is with the alien encounters; only that it drove Madame d’Ortolan and that it is now happening with Mrs. Mulverhill’s support.

The whole book stands on the head of a pin and is very difficult to enjoy once it is over but at the same time, highly engaging and entertaining. We want more and that is perhaps what Banks was getting at. We don’t know what we don’t know, and while we might never find out, it’s important to do our best.

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