TRANSITION – Iain M. Banks (2009)

Transition (red)

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.


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.


22 responses to “TRANSITION – Iain M. Banks (2009)

  1. I think I have encountered Banks too late to appreciate his books as I would have surely done 10 or 15 years prior. I struggle with his narrative choices and his manner of writing, and while his ideas are definitely worth exploring, his own way of dealing with them is not all that promising ๐Ÿ˜‰ That said, I plan to come back to Culture one day ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • My thoughts exactly, but will probably never end up reading his SF.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’ve never read any of his regular fiction. I have a second hand copy of The Wasp Factory lying around, and as that’s thin, I’ll give it a go, but my hunch is that’ll be the last Banks I’ll read…


    • What have you read? Phlebas iircc? But I think I agree, and would be in the same boat as you if I hadn’t read him a decade ago: as a novice SF reader, I was flabbeegasted by the ideas, probably not seeing his faults as a writer. I also think there’s maybe some boyish aspect to his work I have outgrown – like that orgasm passage.

      I do plan on rereading my favorite Culture novel one day, Excession, to settle the matter. Very curious how that will turn out, I hope I’m proven wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I read the first two books: Consider Phlebas (which was really underwhelming) and The Player of Games which I enjoyed much more despite the whole three sexes, very politically incorrect and undemocratic society we were supposed to root against. And yeah, since you mention it, there is an undercurrent sex obsession present ๐Ÿ˜‰
        I will bear in mind that Excession is your favourite book and will endeavour to read it – do you recommend reading Culture novels in chronological order?

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s how I did it mostly – I started with Player Of Games as that was recommended to me as the best entry into the Culture, and that seems to be right. (Phlebas is my least favorite btw, fwiw, too long and murky.) Anyhow, I think you can safely jump around the books if you’ve read POG already.

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  2. Hmm. Gonna skip this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. With only 5 Banks books under my proverbial belt I don’t have enough material for a good comparison, still this novel does not sound like the kind of story (?) I would enjoy, but rather like a sort of… authorial playground – for want of a better word – in which I would not get much fun…
    Thanks for sharing! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a story alright, but you hit the nail on the head with that authorial playground remark: I hadn’t thought about it, but that’s exactly what it is – Banks throwing ideas around, and the structure allows him a kinda vignette looseness.
      The book is praised by some for its meticulous construction, but while the strands do come together nicely indeed, there’s so much inconsistency in the world building (and even in some other choices, like the information one POV character has access to, like knowing who will read his account) that I have to say this is more of a sandbox effort indeed rather than a solid building.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Which 5 Banks have you read by the way? If ircc you enjoyed them?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Does anyone actually pretend that Iain Banks is different from Iain M Banks? Honestly, I doubt I’d ever have even noticed if someone hadn’t pointed it out to me.

    Unless it is the anal retentive literati type?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s just marketing, which Is don’t like much, but I guess it was warranted back in the days when scifi and fantasy weren’t considered literature. (Probably still warranted today now that I think about it.)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I need to finish Culture before I go here, and I probably will, at some point.
    What caught my attention was your phrase “fun beach reading” ๐Ÿ˜€ Whenever I’m on a beach, and I rarely am, I end up reading, I’ve read Thrawn trilogy and so many other books like that… good times ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • How many Culture novels do you still need to read?

      Last summer I had a bit of bad luck with lots of titles simply not working for me. I’m thinking of reading the new Stephenson and new Blake Crouch for this summer, should be good. We’ll see what else, I’m in a non-fiction mode atm.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve only read three so far, but maybe I’ll continue with the series this Summer. Generally, I’m also reading more non-fiction at the moment, or outside genre…

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I really enjoyed The Wasp Factory when I read it a decade or so ago… I’d like to hear your thoughts when you eventually get to it. That said, I haven’t read any of Banks’ other works.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: IN DEFENSE OF NEGATIVE REVIEWS | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

  8. Pingback: Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

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