Review: Transition by Iain Banks

There is a world that hangs suspended 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 un-killable assassin who journeys between 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 ward, in hiding from a dirty past.

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


M-Theory is popular at the moment. M-Theory is a derivation and expansion of Super String Theory. In essence, M-Theory tries to explain everything. It is an approximation of the rules that govern the universe, from the smallest particle to the greatest expanse of void, and beyond. There’s a lot of stuff in there about membranes and the number of dimensions required to contain a universe such as ours (eleven, as it turns out). One interesting aspect of M-Theory that has arisen, and also been the subject of several popular works of fiction and cinema is the bubble universe theory.

This theory states that within these eleven dimensions of existence, universes exist like the foamy froth of bubbles on top of a bubble bath. Universes “pop” and collapse, and new ones arise from the quantum foam. It is theorised that each universe has a slightly different set of starting conditions. Some are amenable to life, others fizzle and die, thus collapsing back in to nothing. Within the small subset of these infinite universes that contain life, a smaller subset of infinite universes exists where intelligent life has evolved. A smaller group of infinite universes again contains human life. Within this miniscule cluster of endless possibilities and variations exists any and every decision that any and every person has ever made.

At each decision point, or “node”, where a decision is possible by anyone or anything, a new universe or set of universes branch off to contain the possibly myriad outcomes of all the different courses of action that could or by that stage, have already happened.

Admittedly, this concept is rather complicated and dizzying. It means that anything that might have happened anywhere has, in some universe, actually happened. The Germans won the Second World War. The Americans stopped the World Trade Centre attacks on the 11th September. Your high school sweetheart didn’t turn you down for the school dance and go with someone else, but went with you instead. How would the world look if these events had actually taken place?

According to Iain Banks, in one universe somewhere, scientists have discovered a way to transition between worlds; to flit from one consciousness to another, to experience these new worlds, new cultures and new perspectives. Furthermore, they have also developed precognition techniques that can detect disturbances in the patterns of the universes: a young man who will grow to be an oppressive tyrant, an old lady who will enact a law that will lead to the slaughter of thousands. Combining this foresight with the ability to flit, this particular society uses their abilities to attempt to bring about the best possible universes in those places they can reach.

Transition follows the stories of several notable people from several universes. Inevitably, their paths cross on occasion, though not always in ways that the reader may expect. The tales are a combination of retrospective narrative, philosophising on the nature of various phenomena and prose directed towards moving the main plot forwards.

While the characters are generally not likeable, they are interesting and complex creations. Many of them perform distasteful duties that many would shudder at even contemplating. Each character has believable and well thought out reasons for doing what they do, however and these are expounded upon during the retrospective portions of the book. The soul gazing leads to philosophising more often than not, and then interspersed throughout these ramblings the story unfolds.

For readers wishing a book which gets to the point quickly and economically, Transition is a book better skipped than read. If one has the patience to persevere with the story, a very satisfying experience can be had. Transition is very nearly a character study, with a story thrown in so that a genre can be attached to it to please the marketers. This is not to say that the plot is unsatisfying or under developed. It is there, and it is effective, though it does become somewhat lost in the examination of the characters. By the time the end of the book is reached, it may be beneficial to return to the beginning to refresh the mind as to what occurred there with regards to early developments.

One thing that does manage to go beyond quirk and decent to rankle is Bank’s religious stereotyping in the opening half to two-thirds of the book. It is clear that he is trying to make a political statement and draw attention to the manner in which the Muslim community has been painted with broad strokes as terrorists due to the actions of a tiny minority of extremists. His seemingly unceasing use of the phrase “Christian Terrorists” at every possible opportunity soon begins to grate on the nerves, however. Instead of drumming his point in, mallet-like whenever half a chance arose, his agenda and overall book tone would have been better served by playing on readers’ expectations and subverting them at some without making too much of a production of the whole thing. As it is, parts of the book read distressingly as an obnoxious political/religious/cultural manifesto rather than a fantastic work of speculative fiction and character development.

That issue aside, and as stated previously, Transition is a great if somewhat rambling story. It contains plenty of Banks’ staples such as copious use of drugs, wild sex scenes, graphic violence and wonderfully understated humour. Readers of Iain M. Banks (Iain Banks’ science fiction nom-de-plume) novels will find themselves right at home. Needless to say, exposing children to a work such as this is done at the reader’s own discretion.

If one reads Transition without expecting a point A to point B adventure story with a straight forward plot, there are plenty of brilliant ideas and much quirky humour to be mined from the labyrinthine book. Like much of Iain M. Banks’ work, Transition is well worth the read if one can excuse a few oddities.

  • Genre: Science Fiction-Speculative Fiction
  • Demographic: Adult
  • Rating Out of Five: 4
  • Format: Paperback
  • Find At: The Book Depository
  • Published: September 2009

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