Transition is the latest book from the prominent Scottish author Iain Banks. Or Iain M Banks, depending on which genre of his books you read. Iain writes fiction novels starting with his very famous debut of, “The Wasp Factory,” which laid out a style of writing that displayed an emphasis on the suddenly shocking. Particularly the shocking that is to found inside the seemingly mundane lives of the characters. Banks is a master of layering suspense and then jolting you out of your seat in the final moments. For example, Iain will think nothing of killing off a main character suddenly and with no preamble.
Iain M Banks writes Scifi, and amongst aficionados of the genre (myself firmly included) he is generally considered to be a top tier writer of what I call, somewhat clumsily, ‘semi-hard’ fiction. In this form, his novels usually revolve around or are connected with the fictional post-scarcity human society called “The Culture,” and the effects this ultra-liberal society has on the others around it; be they lesser, equal, or (in one particular novel) greater in power. Up until now, Banks has kept these worlds very separate and rarely incorporates characters from one genre into another. The nearest he has come to this was in the “non M” novel, “The Bridge”, where there is a reoccurring section involving a clueless but wily barbarian who is clearly in a spaceship (not that he knows this and describes it in mundane language).
One of the things I think Banks has in his mind (and this is my guess here) is that the two genres, whilst usually separate, do actually occur in the same universe. There is no reason why this should not be so, and I suppose that it was only a matter of time before the two collided. While this novel is NOT a “Culture” novel, it does allow for the possibility that it too occurs in the same universe.
As the title of this book suggests, this is the initial results of a clash; a transition from one style of writing to another. I read an interview with Banks where he announced that writing the Culture novels, as attractive that they are to him, is harder than writing the normal ones; as the Culture is almost all-powerful and thus what can he do to challenge it in a realistic manner? By bringing the two genres together in, “Transition,” Banks is experimenting with having the unbridled imaginative fun of a Culture novel in the everyday Earth-bound setting of a normal one. Transition could easily be an “M” novel; It has, in my opinion, more science fiction involved in it that not. I have read that it has been released under M in the states and this shows that the normal rules we know and love do not apply here.
Transition is a novel from multiple viewpoints, but it generally follows the life of a super-assassin from another dimension. This assassin is a member of a very secret organisation called “The Concern” that uses people with his particular talents to “transition” dimensions. They do this to attempt to control the flow of history in a positive way by, say, killing one man or perhaps saving another. The novel mainly focuses on the effects of such transitions, explores the depths of possible experiences this brings to Banks’ mind and what form a civil war amongst those who transition would take.
The story is therefore just as silly as the above sounds.
When the main character “transitions” into another dimension he takes over the body of someone in that dimension and is able to fully experience their reality, including making them do things they would never normally do, be able to do, or even know about. It seems that he can fully take over the person entirely. What happens to his original form or how he manages to get back is much of the explanation around which the plot hangs. This influencing events style of organisation is territory Banks has written about before as in the Culture novels, where there exists another, similar, organisation with high tech powers called Special Circumstances that effects very similar operations on lesser societies and indeed, there may be an argument to be made (or forthcoming in later novels) that this is what is happening behind the scenes in Transition.
However, is the basic premise nonsense? How does the dimension stuff work and where does it come from?
The idea of multiple dimensions is becoming more and more popular in science due to the effect of Quantum theory. You have three options at this point in the review.
- You can read my explanation of alternate dimensions. I shall explain it as concisely as I know how.
- You can read the version by Douglas Adams.
- You can read the version by The Cat from Red Dwarf.
A note: I am a Philosopher, not a scientist and certainly not a Particle Physicist!
It has long been known that what we experience as separate dimensions: length, breadth, width and time are not in fact separate, but different ways of looking at the same thing. Einstein proved that space and time are actually spacetime and interjoined, so that your movements in one effects your movements in another.
Nothing much was made of this until the advent of a famous experiment and the rational explanation of its observed effects. The “Double Slit Experiment” involves the firing of a single particle towards a wall with two slits cut top to bottom in it; like two open doors. The particle can obviously go through the slit on the right or the slit on the left. Behind the slits is another wall that shows the results of which one the particle went through.
Sensible so far.
However, something magical happens.
The wall behind shows that the particle behaves as if it goes through both slits at the same time. This is seemingly impossible, but the experimenters have locked the experiment in the cleanest of conditions and fired only one particle at a time, but still the wall behind shows a pattern that clearly means the particle has travelled through both slits.
Then it gets stranger.
The scientists, being sensible fellows, put some further detectors on the slits. This, they thought, would explain which slit the particle went though as the detector would register right or left, or (gulp) both. However, as soon as they turn them on, the second they turn them on, the particles stop going through both and start acting predictably by going through the left or the right. When they turn the slit mounted detectors off, the particle goes straight back to going through both. The implications of this are enormous. Why does the particle behave this way, only when we are not looking (detecting)? What is this telling us about reality?
The upshot is that scientists wondered if perhaps the particle is being influenced by a particle from another dimension.Imagine if you will that as the particle goes towards the slits reality itself splits into two parts. There are two possible outcomes and so reality breaks into two different directions, two dimensions, in order that both are played out. In one, the particle goes left and in the other the particle goes right. However, at the Quantum level the particle still can somehow effect the other in the second dimension and this is why the wall behind the slits shows the results as it does. In other words, the particle effects itself! Cool huh?
By turning on the detectors on the slits, we are in effect forcing ourselves into a particular reality, choosing a dimension, and this ghostly inter-dimensional interference disappears.What this means is that for every decision ever made by every particle in the entire universe (that is a lot of particles) reality splits into two and the possible outcomes of that decision are played out in full in another dimension.
The cumulative result of zillions of small changes could result in realities quite different from ours. In these other realities perhaps Germany won the Second World War, or England could have won the 1995 European Cup, or something even more bizarre and improbable. Or even something more mundane. It could be that in the other reality, I had one extra drop of coffee in my cup this morning. Not something that anyone would be able to notice in the absolute sea of dimensions splitting off all-over the place.
Douglas Adams’ version: Mostly Harmless (Hitch Hiker’s guide to the galaxy)
Quote: “The first thing to realize about parallel universes… is that they are not parallel. It is also important to realize that they are not, strictly speaking, universes either, but it is easiest if you don’t try to realize it until a little later, after you’ve realized that everything you’ve realized up to that moment is not true”
Cat: [turns to Lister] “So what is it?”
Lister: “Its a singularity, a point in the universe where the normal physical laws don’t apply.”
Cat: [turns to Rimmer] “So what is it?”
Rimmer: “Its a way of crossing dimensionality, a transfer of the soul across time and space.”
Cat: [turns to Basho] “So what is it?”
Basho: “It’s a hole in space”
Cat: “Oh, a magic door! Why didn’t you say so.”
Transition is about a group of people who have access to these other realities and can move through them with the aid of a certain drug and with the foreknowledge of where they will end up. Of course, like all humans they mainly use this skill to kill people and have sex with each other. With mastery of the transition technique you can Imagine a situation, and this happens in the novel, where you can have sex with your partner and transition at peak moment of orgasm to another reality just behind our own. Extending the “clouds and rain” almost endlessly (and delightfully) for as long as you could find realities to jump into. It is testament to Bank’s imagination that his characters ever make it out of bed in the morning! If I were gifted such a skill, I would make love to my wife all day and then simply transition to a reality identical to my own, except where I went to work. Bonus!
This is in fact the main problem I have with Transition. If the dimensions are almost infinite, then there is no way that any organisation would be able to effect control over them. By trying to do so, they would only add to the dimensions being created, it’s self defeating!
The influences that go into thinking up such a work are manifold. Films such as Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix and Blade runner, as well as TV shows such as Quantum Leap and especially Sliders (a very similar concept) could all be possible influences, not to mention books such as Timeline by Crichton, Red Dwarf and even Dune. What Banks offers that is unique is his own personal ability to build tension. He is one of those authors where long and seemingly quiet passages of prose can be suddenly broken up in a burst of violence that is so rapid and visceral that you read right past the them and have to turn back and reread the previous few pages again this time with more concentration. This must be entirely on purpose, as we all know that real-life conflict and violence is identical to this. I think that Banks’ method of reflecting the speed of violence adds to the illusion of reality necessary to read a fiction novel and especially a scifi one. However, this does lead to somewhat abrupt endings, and the inclusion of epilogues to tie up the lose ends. This book has a particularly unsatisfying epilogue, which is left to not only tie up some lose ends, but also explain some of the plot in a rather abrupt manner. I have to comment that this book is the sort that could not come from a new writer; it wouldn’t get published. The idea is just that little bit trite and Banks works hard to show the cracks in the plot as little as possible before pulling the top off the idea and letting it flow. In other words, he spends much of the book setting up limits for these powers only to unleash them by the end. This final moment is frankly too similar to that found in Heretics of Dune, where Miles Teg suddenly changes and I wonder if it isn’t something of a homage to that.
The above may make you feel that I did not like Transition, but this is not true. I love reading Banks’ prose and I am very comfortable with his writing style. Some of the main characters in the novel are only given a little outline, but the minor ones are (mostly) fleshed out marvellously. Much is made of a professional torturer called, “The Philosopher,” by his comrades due to his introspective manner. It is with the minor characters that the political aspects of the novel arise. “The Philosopher” lives in an alternate version of Earth where Muslims run the country and it is the Christians who blow themselves up. At first I thought this was a cheap trick to avoid controversy in the press, but it is perhaps a form of social commentary. Read like this, Transition becomes a polemic on the state of our world, its people and values via the medium of satire and the the plot becomes a moot point. I, personally, don’t think that this is Banks’ main intention, but the internet is awash with the idea. The reason I discount it is that, frankly, the social commentary is not that good and if Banks really meant to write it as the foreground, it would be stronger and more of a focus. Another interesting character is Adrian, who I cannot help thinking that I know (I work in the city myself). His, Gordon Gecko style, “greed is good” cityboy attitude is perhaps meant as a dig at the banking crisis, but, again he is hardly realistic. Also one of the characters could be Banks himself and this almost breaks, ‘The Fourth Wall’.
In conclusion, “Transition,” is a good read but does somewhat hit the rails in the ending. I suspect that this book is an experiment in combining the two halves of Iain and M Banks. I liked it and can’t wait for more. Perhaps in another dimension I am already reading future Banks novels?
You can buy Transition here: