A book set somewhere, or some many wheres, within an infinity of infinities, in an ever-expanding multiverse, will no doubt inevitably suffer from the limitations of the space between its physical covers. Iain Banks’ characters visit necessarily limited versions of reality. That much might be forgiven, given the infinite possibilities on offer; however, even within the finite, Banks still manages to turn out a convoluted and unsatisfactorily messy affair. Writers are sometimes seemingly prescient in how their works may be received, insofar as messages they leave within the work itself are concerned; sometimes they might be entirely unaware of how certain lines can come to define or describe their final creations. How Banks perceived his writing in his final years is currently unclear. Consideration, in either regard, should however be given to the following though, as the author labours towards the end of the offering under review: he writes about ‘a swirling, hideously complicated, topologically tortuous, possibly knotted exposition.’ He is describing a plate of spaghetti as analogy of his main character’s life, but it might as well be something else entirely.
Transition (Abacus, 2010) primarily focuses on Temudjin Oh, an agent of what is known as the Concern, or l’Expédience, a shady organisation nominally determined to ‘help societies across the many worlds, aiding and advancing positive forces and confounding and disabling negative, regressive ones.’ All is not as it seems, however. From the outset, Banks declares an ‘unreliable narrator’ status. The Concern is governed by members of the Central Council and, in particular, one Madame Theodora d’Ortolan, power-crazed and determined to rid herself of all those not allied to her aims. In opposition, one Mrs Mulverhill, one rung down in the hierarchy but not without her own powers. The main characters are able to ‘transition’ between alternate realities by means of a drug, septus, monopolised by d’Ortolan. Temudjin Oh is drawn into the power struggle, develops into an assassin, and then, beyond this, he emerges as some super-‘Awake’ demi-god of the many worlds, able to transition or ‘flit’ without the use of septus at all. We have seen this sort of trope in a variety of films, of course, many times.
Banks seemingly sets out to embrace the tried and tired filmic essences in much of what Transition is (he also book-ends his novel with a character, Mike Esteros, who just wants to make a film about alien tourists to Earth): there is a dose of The Matrix, complete with Neo’s woken transformation, there is the Sliding Doors take, and there are splashes of Harry Potter or the sceneries of Terry Pratchett (notwithstanding the fact of the books before the screen versions) in the ludicrous setting of the University of Practical Talents, complete with its multitude of ‘piled-together’ buildings ‘all domes, spires, elongated windows and flying buttresses’ and its central gold-capped Dome of the Mists. This world is Calbefraques, a version of Earth uniquely not called Earth, base-home of Temudjin Oh. When he transitions, on mission, he leaves his own body, which then operates in a low-watt, powered-down and stripped-back, purely functional state, occupying the body of some unknown other, somewhere in the infinity of Earths. It is always Earth. Banks slowly unfurls the purposes of a variety of other characters along the way: Adrian Cubbish, a greedy city trader, enlisted to Mrs Mulverhill’s cause, ultimately for a singular purpose in a version of Venice, late on; The Philosopher, a torturer; the Lady Bisquitine, a delinquent, an experiment, developed late in the proceedings, harnessed by d’Ortolan for her powers and pitted against Oh; Patient 8262, lying in a hospital bed, somewhere unidentified, hiding, waiting. We know he will be significant, and we surmise him early on, but Banks drags out his existence and purpose to tedious lengths.
As one might expect of a seasoned writer, there are lines of subtle intelligence (‘I live in a Switzerland,’ Banks writes, as Temudjin Oh. ‘The indefinite article is germane.’); there are lines that may have amused the writer in their appearance (as Adrian Cubbish, the trader, he writes: ‘Blood might be thicker than water but it’s no match for liquidity.’); there are lines and passages that suggest that Banks does not care that he might offend (again, as Cubbish: ‘I’d left my own current main girl back at the flat. She was lovely, a dancer called Lysanne and all legs and gorgeous long real blonde hair but she had a Scouse accent you could have etched steel with.’). Character development aside, and Cubbish does stand out as someone successfully odious, Banks’ writing in Transition embraces the afore-mentioned spaghetti plate essence in its whole.
To borrow a concept which Banks comes back to from time to time, the essence of his writing here is perhaps synonymous with what he terms ‘fragre’. That is, when Temudjin Oh transitions, or flits, between realities he has an additional sense on which he can rely: he can take in the feel of the place, the tone or timbre, as it were. Banks’ main character knows, for example, when he has landed in a ‘Greedist’ world by way of its essential ‘fragre’. In our day-to-day reality, or whatever we perceive that as, we may perhaps also go quietly through our considerations of it all with a kind of sense of place, of season, or of milieu. Transition’s fragre is a complicated affair to try to define, and so that spaghetti plate suffices, if not fully satisfactorily.
In the burgeoning Neo-fication (Matrix-style) of Temudjin Oh, Banks has him slide in and out of Venice, a Venice at least, and soon enough he is able to perceive all manner of perspectives that the mere throng of tourists and locals around him cannot even begin to imagine. Madame d’Ortolan tracks him down and throws all her available resources at him in her power-play and near five hundred page background war against Mrs Mulverhill. Along the way, there are hints at an interchangeability of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’, but we can be fairly sure which way Banks wishes our allegiances to lie come the final scenes. Hindered by an array of the not fully explored or developed ‘blockers’, ‘spotters’, ‘trackers’, and the seemingly unhinged and volatile Bisquitine (a powerful child-like enigma in a woman’s body, spurting a gush of apparent nonsense along the canals), Banks brings us to the Rialto Bridge, a denouement, in anticipation of a grand finale.
However, it seems that the author has long-since tired of any intention that might have been to provide anything other than an unsatisfactory ending. It is a shame because, throughout, Transition does contain some notable characterisation (for example, the annoying Adrian Cubbish), locations (a Moscow nightclub, a warehouse/office in the deserted zone around Chernobyl, a palace on the top of Mount Everest), and flights of fancy (albeit some elicit the feel of sexual fantasy and exploration seemingly only provided for the author’s own indulgence and amusement). It is an irony, perhaps not entirely lost on an author such as Banks (should he still have been around to perceive it), one certainly blessed with the ability to create, that in an infinity of infinities (if such a case were to be true) there are a multitude of other Transitions — some of which must, by definition, rest more elegantly in the mind.