When I first got my copy of Transition, I took a quick glance at the beginning, and grinned at what I found. The epigraph reads, ‘Transition – based on a false story’; and the opening sentence is one of the most endearingly cheeky I’ve ever come across: ‘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.’ That’s the start of an Iain Banks book, and no mistake.
Well, now I’ve read the whole thing, and am I still grinning? No, unfortunately — not because Transition is a bad novel (it isn’t), rather because it promises much but doesn’t manage to come together to deliver on that promise.
Unbeknownst to most people, there is a multiplicity of realities out there, each with its own Earth. A few people, known as transitionaries, are able to move their consciousness between realities, temporarily taking over other people’s bodies in the process; most of them work for the Concern, a vast organisation whose (apparently self-appointed) task is to intervene secretly in the realities to ensure that good things happen and bad things don’t — this might mean (for example) saving the life of someone who will go on to make an important discovery, but it can also mean ‘eliding’ undesirables if necessary.
The structure of the novel mirrors the idea of ‘flitting’ between worlds, as it moves back and forth between the stories of a roster of protagonists (some narrated in first-person, others in third-). But perhaps the main protagonist is Temudjin Oh, one of the Concern’s assassins, who must decide whom he trusts: Madame d’Ortolan, the current leader of the Concern’s Council, who’s given him orders to ‘elide’ several prominent Council members who are (allegedly) threatening the Concern’s stability; or Mrs Mulverhill, the renegade transitionary (and Oh’s former lover) who maintains that Madame d’Ortolan has her own hidden agenda, and is the real threat. Other narrators include Adrian Cubbish, a City trader from our Earth taken on by Mrs Mulverhill; and the mysterious Patient 8262, who has hidden himself away from his pursuers on some obscure world — he remembers being a transitionary, but has been here so long that he’s having doubts.
As you’ll have gathered, Transition is a complex edifice; but Banks is eminently capable of holding it together. He marshals the different plot strands and characters skilfully, such that we become disoriented but never hopelessly lost; and his control of voice is great in particular. There are secrets to be revealed, of course; but the effect is more jigsaw pieces joining together than layers of onion peeling away; more is told and less implied than perhaps one would like, but Banks never stalls in his telling.
Now for the ‘buts’. As the pages recede, one starts to think that Banks is cutting it a bit fine with the resolution. Too fine, it proves: a character named in the prologue but not properly introduced until 60 pages before the end provides a deus ex machina, shortly after the plot has become a fairly straightfoward chase. Not a great way to wrap up a novel.
There are some passages which consider ethics — is what the Concern does worth it? do their methods make them any better than the people they work against? — but I find them ultimately quite superficial; I don’t see these concerns worked through in the text itself. However, I think it’s quite clear what judgement Banks makes, what with the morality-tale way certain characters get their comeuppances.
There’s a larger-than-life quality, too, to the characterisation. The Concern seems fond of elaborate balls and fancy dress, and Mulverhill and d’Ortolan in particular feel more like figures in a parade than ‘real’ individuals. The other Concern characters are relatively more rounded, but not a great deal more; and even Adrian Cubbish is pretty much a stock ‘unsympathetic City boy’. I am quite willing to believe that Banks intended this effect; but I don’t think it encourages serious consideration of the issues underpinning his narrative.
I’ve spent more time talking about the negative aspects of Transition than the positive; yet the positive aspects probably occupy the greater part of the text — it’s the nature of the negatives that makes them such an issue. But, bearing these objections in mind, you’ll find Banks’s novel interesting and engaging for the most part.