Volume 28, Number 02-03, Winter-Spring, 2010


By Iain M. Banks

Orbit, 2009
Reviewed by Thomas E. Jackson

Iain Banks has maintained a dual literary career since publishing The Wasp Factory in 1984, publishing mainstream novels as “Iain Banks” and science fiction novels, usually but not always set in his future history of the Culture, as “Iain M. Banks.” Confusingly, his new novel, Transition, was published using the mainstream byline in the United Kingdom and with the “Iain M. Banks” moniker in the United States. The American publisher, Orbit, would appear to have gotten it right. Transition is a science fiction novel, about characters who travel from one parallel world to another, and is as good a science fiction novel as I have read this year.

The time travelers work for an agency called “The Concern,” which intervenes in the various parallel worlds, ostensibly for humanitarian purposes. The novel tracks the missions of one secret agent, Temudjin Oh. In some cases, when a person aids humanity with his good work in some of the worlds and dies young in others, Oh intervenes to save the person when necessary so he doesn’t die prematurely. Soon, however, he goes much further, assassinating bad guys at the behest of the Culture to prevent them from doing evil.

As the novel progresses, The Concern is revealed as an organization drunk with power, one that abuses its abilities for its own nefarious purposes. One of those purposes involves a very science fictional element, one that I won’t reveal because I don’t want to provide a spoiler. There is also plenty of discussion on the uses and abuses of torture, with Banks arguing convincingly that torture is wrong in all instances. (One of the characters is a professional torturer who is known as the Philosopher.)

The novel is written from several points of view, including a character who is hiding out anonymously in a mental hospital on one of the worlds. At first, it is not clear how the various characters and story lines relate to each other, but as the book advances, everything comes together in a very satisfying fashion. Libertarians will enjoy Banks’ observations on the corrupting quality of wielding coercive power over others and his arguments for civil liberties.

But I haven’t nominated Transition for the Prometheus Award. What’s not to like? Well, there is this, in Chapter 13, on page 326 of the American edition. The novel’s heroine, Mrs. Mulverhill, who has revolted against the evil Concern and is apparently also one of the greatest sex partners on all possible worlds, is in conversation with Oh, discussing some of the people he has assassinated. Oh asks if one of the people he killed, Yerge Auslander, really deserved to die, and Mrs. Mulverhill assures him he did:

“No, he really was a shit. He wasn’t really a genocidal racist as such but whenever he’s not stopped he ends up causing such havoc he might as well as been. Wanted to buy up a state in the U.S. midwest and build an impregnable Nirvana for the super-rich; Xanadu, Shangri-La. Fantasy made real. A Libertarian.” From his expression she must have thought he wasn’t entirely familiar with the term. She sighed.

“Libertarianism. A simple-minded right-wing ideology ideally suited to those unable or unwilling to see past their own sociopathic self-regard.”

I might add that there’s nothing in the plot that makes it necessary to attack libertarians by name. Banks apparently just wants to take a shot at libertarians.

And it’s hard to understand why he would be so vehement. The libertarian Cato Institute says that it stands for “individual liberty, free markets, and peace,” a pretty good brief summary of what mainstream libertarians believe. As Banks is solid on peace and individual liberty, he is arguably much more of a “sociopath” than almost any Republican politician you could name. The only exception that comes to my mind is Ron Paul, who is, after all, a libertarian.

One could argue, I suppose, that if Banks has a problem with libertarians, it is his problem, not ours, and that we have a right to consider giving his novel an award, even if it pisses him off. We’ve been giving awards for the past few years to many authors who would not describe themselves as libertarians. It would seem like a stretch, though, for an organization that calls itself the “Libertarian Futurist Society” to overlook a passage that directly attacks libertarians.

Still, I feel comfortable suggesting that many readers would find much to like in Transition.

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