Transition is a science fiction novel written by Iain Banks. Fans of the author are well aware that he typically publishes his science fiction under the penetrable and unobscure nom-de-plume of Iain M. Banks. I’m not sure why this didn’t happen this time. I’m sure his marketing department had something to do with it, but, more apparently, Transition doesn’t cleave to the Space Opera mold of most of his science fiction work.
In Transition, a shadowy multidimensional organisation called the Concern sends operatives between various manifestations of Earth to make things better in a vague sort of way. Flitting between one world and another requires a particular predisposition, substantial training, and the use of a mysterious drug. The protagonist of the novel is Temudjin Oh, a rather likeable assassin working for the Concern. Conflict quickly occurs when he goes against the orders of Madame d’Ortolan, one of the most influential leaders within the Concern, to kill various of her colleagues. This reluctance to follow the villainous d’Ortolan’s orders comes, we learn, from his association with the mysterious Mrs. Mulverhill — an ex-Concern agent working against d’Ortolan’s nefarious agenda.
This main thrust of the novel, interdimensional espionage, counter-espionage, and assassination, is highly entertaining, and its conclusion, on the streets of our Venice, has a great sense of tension and menace. There are other strands to the novel, however, which are less compelling. One concerns a nameless concern agent holed up in a retirement home somewhere, far from any action. It added very little to the overall narrative, and has very little internal drama either. Another focuses on the ascension of an unpleasantly narcissistic small time coke dealer (Adrian) to an unpleasantly narcissistic City trader. Again, this contributes very little to the overall narrative. There is one nice (albeit shallow) sequence where Adrian meets Mrs Mulverhill in a supercool Russian club, but this section of the book seems to have been put in there by Banks solely so he can have a dig at obnoxious new money and amoral trading practices. While I always appreciate Banks’ amiable leftiness, his ability to marshal economics (history/science/etc.) in the interests of a good story is hardly at Neal Stephenson levels. The last other main strand is told from the perspective of a bureaucratic torturer (the Philosopher). I rather enjoyed this one. I thought the dry and didactic tone of the prose matched the character rather perfectly, and it did a good job of reflecting the banality of evil. Who needs pliers or blowtorches when you have a lemon and a piece of paper. This character, incidentally, has what was without doubt the most perfect comeuppance I have ever encountered in any book ever. Even if there was absolutely nothing else of value or entertainment in the book, this alone would have made it a worthwhile read.
The multidimensional stuff was interesting to read after having recently encountered Terry Pratchett’s and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth. In that book the other worlds are almost entirely unoccupied and one physically disappears from a world when you step to another. In this, all the worlds are variants of our own — similarly populated and similarly technological. And here, rather than physically moving, one’s consciousness pops into an appropriate body in another dimension somewhere geographically and temporally analogous to where and when you currently are. Creating systems like this and doing interesting things with them is one of my turn-ons as a fan of speculative fiction. I think Banks does a great job with this. For one thing, there’s a fabulous multi-orgasmic transdimensional jaunt in the midst of a bout of sex. Apart from that though, we discover a plethora of abilities that all tie together very sensibly. Temudjin himself unlocks some serious super-powers, and Mme d’Ortolan unleashes a suitably monstrous high-powered but mentally unstable agent to defeat him.
So, not perfect, but, if you want to read an amiable, and frankly rather amusing*, romp about super-powered transdimensional assassins, then you will not be disappointed.
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*Okay — my favourite paragraph in the novel. Mme d’Ortolan on “the Dark Pleasures”:
The epitome of such enjoyment was, for her, to be taken anally by a Nubian brute. Privately, she thought of this act as “going to Sèvres-Babylone”, as this was the deepest, darkest and most excitingly, enticingly dangerous Métro station that she knew of.