Michael Dirda Book World: Review of 'Transition' by Iain M. Banks

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, October 1, 2009


By Iain M. Banks

Orbit. 404 pp. $25.99

Iain Banks is well known for one crotchet that every reviewer of his work is obliged to mention: Under this name, the popular Scottish author writes edgy mainstream fiction, often psychological thrillers such as his unsettling first book, "The Wasp Factory" (1984). But as Iain M. Banks he produces science fiction, usually glorious space-operatic science fiction involving a future civilization called the Culture. In these latter books, human beings and sentient AI machines coexist as equal citizens of a pan-galactic utopia, one that has eliminated want, disease and other common social ills. The first two novels in the series are the evocatively titled "Consider Phlebas" -- a two-word quote from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" -- and "The Player of Games."

So, given the presence of that middle initial M., Banks clearly signals that "Transition" should be regarded as a science-fiction novel, even if it's not part of the Culture universe. Yet in Britain "Transition" was published sans M., as a literary thriller or apocalyptic fable, with contemporary social and political commentary attached. It is certainly that, too. In whichever edition you read it, though, Banks's new novel is wildly entertaining, albeit a bit confusing at first.

The confusion initially arises because the narrative shifts among several voices and points of view. To all appearances the book seems to be juxtaposing at least four unrelated stories. In the sections labeled "Patient 8262," a man is being cared for in a hospital where the staff speaks a language he doesn't understand. He believes himself to be some kind of super-secret agent, now in hiding from his enemies. In those sections titled "Adrian," we follow a smart, ambitious young drug dealer as he climbs to social and financial success in contemporary London. From the pages assigned to "The Philosopher," we learn about the early years and background of a professional torturer.

Only in those sections titled "The Transitionary" and "Madame d'Ortolan" does the novel grow clearly science fictional. Using the common sci-fi notion of the multiverse, Banks posits that there are an infinite number of parallel Earths. Our world -- the world of the Twin Towers and the Wall Street meltdown -- is one of them. But on another Earth, Christian Terrorism poses a serious threat to Western civilized values. There, public outrage at airport bombings has actually led to the socially condoned use of torture on prisoners. It couldn't happen here, of course.

Still, the myriad Earths are superficially similar if hardly equal. On the all-important one called Calbefraques certain people have developed the power to shift their consciousness from one body to another. By taking over the "husk" of a person living in an alternate time-stream, a specially trained operative can "transition" between worlds.

Obviously, such power must be controlled and carefully safeguarded by the Concern. This governing body -- helped by "foreseers" -- aims to do good for the various Earths, to nudge history down one path rather than another, to benefit multiple societies by carefully timed interventions in people's lives.

In short, the body-snatchers "fix what is broken" or "stop things about to break from breaking in the first place." A brilliant young doctor halts to listen to a colleague's suddenly odd remarks -- and isn't killed when the elevator he was about to enter breaks free of its cables and plunges 20 stories to the ground. A mysterious stranger saves a Latin American teenager from being raped -- and thus she will grow up to become a world-renowned professor of psycho-semantics rather than commit suicide before the age of 20. Sometimes, though, the Concern decides that the only useful adjustment is "elision," i.e., the murder of a brutal dictator, for example, or the elimination of a fanatical billionaire with plans to start a political party to rid the United States of non-Aryans.

For the most difficult or highly sensitive of these operations, the Concern relies on Temudjin Oh. Of Mongolian extraction, Oh lives, as he says, "an orderly, even quiet life, as entirely befits somebody who spends potentially highly disorienting amounts of time flitting between one world and the next, too often for the unfortunate purpose of killing people."

One day Oh is called to a special meeting with Madame d'Ortolan, who countermands his most recent instructions with verbal orders to "elide" (kill) a half-dozen members of the Concern's Central Council. He questions the orders, but this imperious dragon lady reiterates that she and her colleagues have approved this course of action, reminds him that he is sworn to obey his superiors, and duly sends the assassin off to fulfill his mission.

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