Saturday, 20 September 2008

Review: "Against a Dark Background" by Iain M. Banks

"Against a Dark Background" is the first of Iain M. Banks' novels I've read that is not set in the "Culture" universe. If nothing else, he easily demonstrates that he doesn't need to fall back on the established conventions from those novels to spin a good yarn. This is a book with invention and narrative detail to burn. Ideas that would have been the central premise of a science fiction novel written in the 1950s are tossed around like confetti.

As the title suggests, this is a darker work than "Player of Games" or "State of the Art" (I'd say it's on par with "Use of Weapons"). Sharrow, the central character is haunted and hunted by her past, and pursues her destiny as everything and everyone she loves is methodically stripped from her. In this sense, it is a punishing novel, establishing a raft of characters at length only to make their absence that much more painful.

The culture in which she and her team travel is space-faring and has progressed to peaks of scientific achievement and then descended into relative savagery. The star system in which the story is set has been shaped by conflict bred of isolation, similar to "The Mote in God's Eye". There is advanced science left over from earlier ages, which includes the "Lazy Gun", the MacGuffin for this particular journey. The "Lazy Gun" is a weapon that is almost cartoonish in its effects, I'm surprised the author stopped short of having it drop anvils on its victims. This makes a nice change from the usual doomsday device, all deus and machina, with very little humor.

I finally found a copy of "Trillion Year Spree", the sweeping history of Science Fiction by Brian Aldiss, and even in the first few pages, it's provided some relevant insights regarding gothic novels as the forerunners of Science Fiction novels:

"Other planets make ideal settings for brooding landscapes, isolated castles, dismal towns, and mysterious alien figures; often, indeed, the villians may be monks, exploiting a local population under the guise of religion."
-- "Trillion Year Spree" by Brian Aldiss (with David Wingrove)

This is indeed a gothic novel, full of moody environs, steeped in protracted mysteries and eventual revelations. On that level, it's straightforward enough, and in fact just a little disappointingly so. Where the novel really shines are in the details, the set pieces established along the way. Parts of the novel, such as the boat heist, the android city, and the train heist are compelling and enjoyable. The overarching plot is just the excuse the author gives himself to progress from set piece to set piece. I would urge anyone who enjoys compelling ideas and descriptive detail to just enjoy the individual squares in the quilt, and not to think too much about the overall design.

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