This is it, the last speculative fiction book of Banks I had to read. Surprisingly, Transition was marketed as an Iain Banks book in Europe, adopting his ‘non-genre’ moniker. Yet this would be classified as science fiction by most: a many-worlds thriller in a contemporary setting, so the American publisher decided to use Iain M. Banks instead.
I have often wondered wether I have changed a lot as a reader – Banks meant so much to me when I first started reading scifi – or if it’s just a coincidence my final three Banksian reads were unsatisfactory. His final 2 Culture books were fine, but Inversions and The Algebraist were bore-outs. Transition isn’t as bad as those 2 – it’s generally entertaining – but it has a few huge problems, making it rather pulpy. This critical Guardian review calls it an airport book, and I would concur: fun beach reading, as I tend to say, but not much more.
Negatives first, including something about an eternal orgasm.
Biggest issue: no character development whatsoever. Zero. A villain that’s a transparent caricature – she likes seeing her cats devour helpless birds. All other characters are stock characters too: the reflective torturer, the ninja-assassin, an eccentric super-telepath, the egoistic stockbroker.
Instead of character development, we get Banks developing the world. This is mainly done by characters explaining to the reader how the parallel worlds thing works. Lots of explaining, gradually revealing what is the deal – it’s fun because the setup is great and Banks’ technical narrative choices work. After more than 1/4th, there is still no sign whatsoever of what the actual plot is, and that’s also not a real problem: the pacing is brisk, and the book retains its sense of promise. When things kick into gear in the final part of the book – the multiple POV chapters converge – it’s revealed that the plot is rather thin. There’s evil types that are power hungry, and they needed to be stopped. The reason why evil types think their power hunger is justified is hardly explored, and it involves the Fermi paradox.
Yes indeed! A staple of scifi, the Fermi paradox. It is actually the greatest idea of the entire book: what does the notion of infinite worlds do to Fermi? Sadly, Banks doesn’t do a thing with it. This crucial part of the plot gets about 1 page of the 469 available. Maybe he had planned a sequel? We will never know.
Although the book has a veneer of science fiction – using many-world science as a starting point – there’s actually zero consistent science in the book. The mind-body problem is just sidestepped – a bit like in Altered Carbon – and used inconsistently to be able to do something gimmicky with OCD and with polyglotism. In this sense, Transition is like a 21st century version of all that laughable telepathy focused scifi of the 50ies and 60ies.
Similarly, there’s a veneer of deep thought and philosophy: solipsism gets some pages, but it’s not that interesting – maybe if you’re 15 it is. It’s all painting by numbers. Let’s try this insightful passage as an example:
He did recall, despite the pulsings of such concentrated extended pleasure, that there were people who existed in a state of perpetual sexual arousel, coming to orgasm continually, through the most trivial, ordinary and frequent physical triggers and experiences. It sounded like utter bliss, the sort of thing drunk friends roared with envious laughter over towards the end of an evening, but the unfunny truth was that, in its most acute form, it was a severe and debilitating medical condition. The final proof that it was so was that many people who suffered from it took their own lives. Bliss – pure physical rapture – could become absolutely unbearable.
DEEP – BLISS – DEEP!!!
Themes are typical hedonist Banks: lots of sex, some drugs. He opens the book explicitly by embedding the setting between the fall of the Berlin wall, 9/11 and the 2008 economic crisis. That seems promising at first, as Banks does it with quite some aplomb, but sadly none of the political stuff is explored – except for some asides about torture (in an interview he said to have Guantanamo in mind) and a few rants against capitalism. There’s also the typical stuff about those that have superpowers and try to influence reality for the better, and that power corrupting… you’ve read it all before.
In terms of plot, the book has a whopper of an annoying cop-out. Near the end, the main character all of a sudden gets godlike powers, hardly justified by Banks, and more or less totally unbelievable in light of consistent world building. Godlike powers are obviously super convenient, saving the good guys, and saving Banks tens and tens of pages to work around the inescapable trap he had set up for the character in a realistic manner. Or wait. That trap involved the bad guys also pulling a super power rabbit out of their hat. Oh well, spectacle comes at a cost. The action is rather fun, so who cares?
After all these negatives, let me backtrack a bit: this is an okay 3/5 star book. That’s not a mean feat, most aspiring writers will never be able to write one. As I said: the bulk of the book is entertaining – pulp is not bad per se.
What should you do? Interconnected, parallel worlds will always capture the imagination of speculative authors & readers. The first 5 Amber books are among the best I’ve read sticking to a fantasy setting, and Dark Matter by Blake Crouch surpasses Transition both as entertainment and in the hard science department – not to mention emotionally. Stephenson doesn’t make many-worlds his focus in the brilliant Anathem, yet the story could have not been told without the concept. As for a British thriller with a tangential theme, there’s Europe At Midnight. If you’re looking for mind-jumping and secret orders truly well done: try The Bone Clocks. Plenty of other things to check out before you hit this, I’d say. But if you’re just looking for a blockbuster in book form: Transition is great stuff.