By Iain M. Banks
First Published: 2010
Review © 2010 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Science Fiction, Alternate Worlds, Thriller
Transition is a terrific new science fiction novel from Iain M. Banks. I think this is the best novel Banks has written in the last decade including both his science fiction and modern literature novels. In this novel, he does a great job of combining a fun alternate worlds premise with some serious themes such as terrorism and the ethics of torture.
Most of Iain Banks science fiction works have been in his “Culture” universe but Transition goes a different direction. Instead of looking at different planets or civilizations, this novel dives into alternate worlds on our own planet Earth in contemporary times. The science fiction aspect is that there are people with the ability to “transition” between alternate realities on Earth. These people are commonly referred to as “aware” individuals and in most versions of Earth, such as our own, only a very few people are “aware”. However, in one reality, most people are “aware” and a governing council, sometimes referred to as the “Concern”, has been formed to oversee the use of transitioning as a means of doing good while preventing abuses. The whole operation seems well managed until an up and coming leader goes rogue and questions the direction the current council leader is taking as well as the whole purpose of the “Concern”. Soon, there is a high stakes game of espionage among a multitude of realities.
Transition is mostly told in first person through a number of different characters. The constant switching of viewpoints is confusing at first but things start coming together in a couple of chapters. The first chapter introduces us to a mysterious man hiding out in a medical ward for senile and brain damaged patients, a special ops agent for the “Concern”, an ambitious young capitalist who is working on moving up from dealing drugs to becoming a stock market trader, and the current leader of the “Concern” council. The tone is generally light with an emphasis on wit and humor although there is obvious tension between the council leader and a certain Mrs. Mulverhill. However, in the second chapter, the tone darkens considerably when we are introduced to “The Philosopher” where we learn about some very disturbing events from his past.
Banks is known for including dark and disturbing or shocking revelations in his literature novels with the best example being his first novel, The Wasp Factory. In Transition, the character referred to as “The Philosopher” is a professional state sponsored torturer and he gives Banks ample room to explore the darkest side of humanity, “The Philosopher” recalls events that set him on the path towards becoming a professional torturer and recalls how he earned his nickname for his thoughtful professionalism. Be warned that his past contains some of the most disturbing scenes imaginable including rape, and, of course, graphic accounts of torture.
Other than the sections narrated by “The Philosopher”, the other narratives are dominated by wit, humor, and action as we gradually learn more about the characters, their missions, and the new direction the leader of the council is taking that allows for no dissent from “aware” individuals. Tensions rise quickly when a number of the council leaders are targeted for assassination. All the characters are soon embroiled in the ensuing high stakes espionage game. The special ops agent, Tem Oh, finds himself caught in the middle between two beautiful adversaries. Amid the increasing tension and action, there is happily still time for sexual encounters as alliances are tested or reaffirmed. Throughout, Banks does a terrific job of keeping the reader guessing in regards to where things are heading.
I thoroughly enjoyed the main character Tem Oh who is intelligent, witty, and easy to like despite his occupation. The character development of the main villain, leader of the council, was also done very well as she becomes almost deliciously evil. The mixture of wit and humor with dark and disturbing scenes keeps the reader on your toes as the contrast makes the dark scenes seem even darker to the point where, in a couple of cases, it seem like Banks is on the verge of, if not past the point of, going a bit too far. However, the only real fault I could find was that during the final confrontation, the hero suddenly gains striking new powers that make things too easy. Now I could understand the first new ability that he gains due to the incredible high stress of the situation but this is followed by gaining more abilities that seem more like magical powers. This made the ending “transition” from science fiction more towards the area of pure fantasy. However, up to this point, the rest of the novel was brilliant.
Transition is a fun romp through multiple parallel worlds in an exciting thriller form that touches on serious issues such as terrorism and torture. For those that enjoy intelligent thrillers containing generous helpings of humor and can handle some very disturbing violence this novel is highly recommended. In addition, if you like this novel, you’re guaranteed to like my other two top rated novels from Banks, The Player of Games in the science fiction genre and Complicity in the general fiction area.