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Transition

By Iain Banks

Banks is not short of imagination. His mind is one of the most curious and inventive at work in modern fiction – certainly in Britain. In Transition, he creates an entirely novel universe in which some people slip into the minds of others. This usually happens across the multiverse, as Banks paints a picture of infinite universes, most with Earths and humans like our own but always different. Within this realm, Banks crafts a thriller. His story covers espionage, political rebellion and action.

All these things sound tremendously exciting. The prospect of this novel is buzzing with opportunity and potential thrills. But somewhere in the execution Banks falls down. He is, of course, a gifted writer: an immense imaginary force (we have seen this in every one of his books) who has honed his skill at crafting fine language through which to communicate his big ideas. But the very architecture of this book is riddled with flaws, like a house missing bricks.

It is difficult to connect with the characters: while most are from other Earths, they are all still human and obviously represent the humans we know. But they seem flimsy and undeveloped. Here is the Machiavellian; over there is the Cromwell; while this is the loyal but confused agent. All two-dimensional cardboard cut outs – the reader knows their political persuasion but cannot see into their soul (which means their politics lack credibility).

Meanwhile, the human from our Earth is a drug dealer who became a hedge fund manager. His occupation and character arc are annoying; it is as if Banks found it difficult to create a character with any other job, writing this as he was during the banking crisis. If the character’s ambitions and philosophies had any connection to the book’s overall ideology, it is not clear – so it looks smashed in.

Underlining all this is the plot – which is not so much a plot as a series of expositions and then a showdown in the final pages. Granted, Banks has a lot of world-building to do but he should know how to do this alongside plotting. Plot should never be sacrificed for descriptions of the new fictional world or its cultures. Frankly, Banks makes it difficult for the reader to buy in to his world because not enough happens within it. There’s too much scene setting, too many history lessons and not enough plot-tightening.

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