Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, June 8, 2012

2009: Transition (Banks, Iain)

Open to self-interpretation; expose your own reality (4/5)
From August 29, 2010

Most of Iain Banks' science fiction is straight forward story telling (Consider Phlebas, Algebraist, etc.) to the highest caliber while his fiction (The Wasp Factory, Dead Air, etc.) tends to be open to interpretation. Transition has many elements which would classify it as science fiction for most authors' work but for an Iain Banks novel, this is certainly one of his works of fiction--a storyline which is anything but clear, a yarn which slows your subjective time to allow for analysis. The fiction of the science isn't of a typical Banks-ian interstellar romp, hyper-terrestrial habitat or xeno-sociology delving. Transition fixes its sights on the science of the infinitude of parallel worlds, the transversing of these said worlds' realities, and confronting the tugging, nagging, irksome issue of solipsism and its allusion to a unique illusionary reality. So, if I had my say on the issue, I would say the book should be under the name of Iain Banks (like in England) rather than Iain M. Banks (as in America).

Rear cover synopsis:
"There is a world that hangs between triumph and catastrophe, between the dismantling of the Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, frozen in the shadow of suicide terrorism and global financial collapse. Such a world requires a firm hand and a guiding light. But does it need the Concern, an all-powerful organization with a malevolent presiding genius, pervasive influence and numberless invisible operatives in possession of extraordinary powers?

Among those operatives are Temudjin Oh, of mysterious Mongolian origins, an unkillable assassin who journeys among the peaks of Nepal, a version of Victorian London and the dark palaces of Venice under snow; Adrian Cubbish, a restlessly greedy City trader; and a nameless, faceless state-sponsored torturer known only as the Philosopher, who moves between time zones with sinister ease. Then there are those who question the Concern: the bandit queen Mrs. Mulverhill, roaming the worlds recruiting rebels to her side, and Patient 8262, under sedation and feigning madness in a forgotten hospital word, in hiding from a dirty past.

There is a world that needs help; but whether it needs the Concern is a different matter."

Tackling the topic of solipsism is a major feat as the metaphysics behind the philosophy can be dauntingly deep. It's not to be a theme taken lightly in a novel nor can it be thoroughly explored due to its expanse of implications and subjective meaning to the individual. A number of other science fiction authors have attempted to question reality within the pages of their novels and the general outcome has usually been enlightening: Ursula K. LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven (1971), James White's The Dream Millennium (1974), Greg Bear's Queen of Angels (1990), and Greg Egan's Quarantine (1992). Banks, too, does a stellar job of engaging the mind while swimming in the depths of the plot's tapestry.

This tapestry (I find other words lacking in context, conceptualization) is cross-woven with interlinking stories of the characters, sometimes even merging back with itself, like an Ouroboros. And like the snake eating its own tail, these oddly paralleled lifelines consume themselves is a dazzling display of who's-who, what's-what, and the ultimate question: What does it all mean?

However, I found the gratuitous sex a bit of a turn off. I've never encountered so many sex scenes in a Banks novel before (this being my 14th to date). Some of the passages depict scenes of subordination, a sexual exhibition of a character flaw, sexual deception or just good old fashioned lust. Banks touches all of these aspects of human sexuality... so I give him props for taking the stereotypical "sci-fi sex scene" beyond the loathsome grit and woman objectifying.

In the end, literally, I felt the conclusion to be open to interpretation, as I've stated above. Whose solipsist view is the entire story actually seen through? (I can see two or three arguments) Which realty was in fact the original reality? And is this reality the reality of the last stated reality... and so on. The reality issues are endless, much like infinitude of parallel worlds Banks has chosen to enthusiastically depict in a grandiose manner in this deeply interwoven tapestry.

You can't go wrong with a Banks novel. Ever.

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