Transition by Iain Banks (Shane's book 40, 2010)

This book brings me to the end of my fifth year of 26 books. The first year's posts are on my personal blog and, coincidentally, the final book of year one was also by Iain Banks.

[amtap book:isbn=0349119279]

As I wrote back then, Banks writes science fiction as Iain M Banks and 'straight' fiction as Iain Banks. Oddly, this book is published without the M (except in the USA) but is pretty clearly sci-fi. It's also a bit of a mess.

Transition is set in a universe that contains infinite versions of Earth, overseen by a mysterious group called The Concern. Using its agents, who can 'transition' between realities, The Concern manipulates events - sometimes radically, through assassinations and other times more subtly. The aim, officially, is to try to improve things.

The narrative follows several characters: Madame d'Ortolan, the scheming head of The Concern; Mrs Mulverhill, the former member of The Concern who now suspects the group's motives; the assassin Temudjin Oh, whose loyalties are torn between d'Ortolan and Mulverhill; Adrian Cubbish, an uber-capitalist and City trader; The Philosopher, a torturer for a police state in one of the alternate realities; and Patient 8262 a former assassin in hiding in a hospital in another reality.

Banks weaves these various narratives together skillfully, jumping around chronologically to maximise tension. The plot concerns Temudjin, who has been given a list of people to assassinate by d'Ortolan but may have gone rogue, carrying out Mulverhill's wishes instead.

Along the way, Banks is able to delve into the morality of torture and of political assassinations and offer some criticisms of unbridled capitalism. It might be an allegory for the war on terror and the financial crisis but if it is then it's all too vague and unfocused. The book just about works as a straightforward thriller - though the plot is quite linear and the ending feels too easy - but mostly because of Banks's narrative tricks and our unfamiliarity with the world he's created. A significant amount of the intrigue comes from just not having a clue what's going on.

I always find Banks readable and his imagination is a fascinating place to spend time so I didn't dislike this book as much as I probably should have. Without doubt it's a failure as a novel and best left for fans only.