Transition, by Iain Banks: Untapped Potential

Iain Banks TransitionTransition reads like it was intended to kick off a new series for Banks, and like Consider Phlebas, the first in Banks’ Culture series, it was kind of a hot mess but I loved it anyway. There’s just so much room in the universe of Transition for more stories featuring the Concern / l’expérience. The concept is so large that there is the potential for all of Banks’ fiction to take place inside of it. Even the Culture could’ve existed inside of this. It’s massive. I’m kind of mourning that loss of potential future stories right now. Something I find myself doing more and more after I finish reading an Iain Banks novel these days. Who even knows if he intended to return to this universe, but it could’ve been spectacular if he did. The bottom line is: Fuck cancer.

Strangely enough, Transition was published in the UK as a mainstream Iain Banks novels, but in the US under his Iain M. Banks pseudo pseudonym that Orbit used for his science fiction novels. His mainstream literary novels never took off in America (they’re almost entirely impossible to find at any brick and mortar book shops here), so maybe the publisher thought the book would sell better if labelled as science fiction? Although it’s a much stranger decision to me that it wasn’t labelled as science fiction in the UK. It’s very much a science fiction thriller. Perhaps SF doesn’t sell well there?

“Perdition awaits at the end of a road constructed entirely from good intentions, the devil emerges from the details and hell abides in the small print.”

This is the perviest Banks novel I have ever read. Like a late Heinlein romp, all of the women are gorgeous, their bodies described in detail, and they all want to fuck the protagonist. There’s one scene where minds are transferred from body to body to body so that a couple can orgasm over and over and over again until the experience crosses from heightened pleasure into torture. Just like Aaron Sorkin has his characters continually walking-and-talking, if the characters in Transition are dropping some exposition in dialogue, they’re fucking-and-talking, talking and then fucking, fucking and then talking and then fucking some more…and then talking about fucking. There are endless double entendres and sexual puns. It’s all just exhausting, extremely transparent and ridiculous. There’s also a lot of sexual assault in this book, an inclusion I’m not entirely opposed to if its inclusion is in service of the story and is handled well. Here it’s just uncomfortable, lazy, and almost entirely unnecessary.

Come to think of it, there’s a lot in this book that is unnecessary. You could say it’s more of a maximalist short story than a novel, padded out to 400 some odd pages with so much cruft. That would be one way to look at it. Another way is that almost nothing actually happens. It sort of fizzles and pops at the end as well. This is all sounding very negative, I still truly enjoyed the book, but I’m finding it difficult to explain exactly why. The concept of an organization that borders on cultish behavior, established to serve the betterment of humanity, with agents who are able to transfer their minds into parallel universes to achieve their ends is just fantastic fun. Also, Banks’ prose is just unbelievably expressive at times; the kind of mood he’s able to create with words is occasionally breathtaking. I am beyond biased when it comes to this author, but if you’ve read anything else I’ve written about him or his writing, you already knew that.

“Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator, though of course if you believe everything you’re told you deserve whatever you get.”

There’s an interesting story in Transition, we just never really get a glimpse at it. Instead we get stories that butt up against that story, bouncing off and spiraling around it, only ever hinting at the more interesting narrative. There are also these little narratively conflicting moments spread throughout the book, and while they seem intentional (we are dealing with infinite worlds and infinite versions of the characters as a story device after all) they don’t lead anywhere, and only serve to obfuscate and confuse. I don’t think he quite pulled off what he was going for with their inclusion. There are a lot of loose ends, and it feels like we’re maybe only getting about half of the story in that oh-so-clever, postmodern kind of way that can come across as pretentious if handled poorly.

Transition was close to what it could’ve been, but it just wasn’t quite there. I think that sums it up pretty well. Massively ambitious, but he didn’t pull it off, not quite. I would’ve loved to see some more stories in this universe though. They could’ve been incredible in the same way that Consider Phlebas only ever hinted at how great the Culture novels would eventually become in the fully realized Use of Weapons, Excession, or Look to Windward.

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