/ 20 November 2009

Transition to Greedism

Transition by Iain Banks (Little, Brown)

Fantasy — by definition — deals in improbable transitions. One bite and you’re a vampire; one wave of the wand and you’re a dragon; one moment’s incautious sleep in the greenwood and you’re trapped at the court of the Sidhe.

Iain Banks’s transitions operate differently. In the worlds of his latest novel the agents of the multiverse government, the Concern, do transition in that quasi-magical fashion through parallel realities to meddle. But they also transition through their own lives to become — a torturer, an assassin, a rebel. And worlds themselves transition: far too many of them ending up dominated by a sociopolitical system deftly dubbed Greedism.

Those latter two types of change concern Banks as much as, if not more than, the first. For this book is an excoriating, beautifully written attack on solipsism: the profound selfishness of civilisations and individuals who put themselves first and believe their lives so charmed that they will suffer no consequences.

The divide in Banks’s work between Iain (whose novels might be nominated for a Booker) and Iain M (whose fantasies queue up for the Hugos) has always been awkward, reflecting the same critical snobbery that ignores speculative fiction, and has Margaret Attwood, for example, denying she writes it. It has not always served him well: recent works such as Dead Air, deprived of the power of metaphor his alternative genre bestows, have sometimes felt verbose and didactic.

In Transition he’s chillingly back on form with a tale of how Concern assassin Temudjin Oh comes in from the cold. His settings occupy an only lightly fantasised now of ruthless mockney City trading geezers, torturers and soldiers, a few future wastelands and an almost timeless, misty Venice where a classic spy thriller finale unfolds. There’s enough sex and violence to appeal to readers of that genre too.

That much of the book riffs on the horrors of current Western foreign policy and social ideology is undisguised. But it also riffs on Banks’s own parallel fantasy universe, where the kindly, egalitarian Culture likewise meddles in worlds. In his last Iain M book, Matter, the tension between human agency and galactic totalitarianism drove the plot. In the United States publishers Little, Brown plan to market Transitions as part of the opus of Iain M. As the writer’s two worlds leak into each other, the power of the writing, and most importantly, its ethical impact intensify. There’s nothing like a multiverse for showing how what goes around really does come around.