:: Article

The State of Banks’s Art

By Max Dunbar.


Transition, Iain Banks, Little, Brown 2009 

There was always a clear delineation between Iain Banks’s mainstream and science fiction, but you still feel there’s a link somewhere. In his literary fiction, Banks constantly pushed at the borders of the real, exploiting the possibilities of geology, consciousness and human craftmanship to create considerable mortal marvels. From the first line of The Crow Road,when Prentice’s grandmother explodes, you are rambling with Kenneth McHoan in a Scotland of magic and wonder, looking out for Slow Children and the sound you can see. His science fiction, where Banks isn’t even bound by terrestrial physics, remains astonishing in its imaginative power.

Sadly, men are made weak by time and fate and the later Banks novels exhibited weaknesses that multiplied like bindweed. There were too many scenes of middle-aged drugtalk, political rants that in their stridency became somehow insincere, calculated setpieces of profound flirtation that would have been moving were they not so formulaic. As Maxton Walker wrote in the Guardian:

His last three non-science-fiction novels, The Business, Dead Air and The Steep Approach to Garbadale, left many wondering if the man who, in the 80s, was hailed as the ‘great white hope’ of British literature was running out of steam.

Banks was always a fine concept artist, but recently he has been letting the ideas do all the work, without benefit of good narrative or believable characters.

Transition has been rightly hailed as a return to form. It’s a big idea novel, a huge idea novel in fact, about a pandimensional bureaucracy called the Concern, which sends its agents across multiple realities to influence the course that history will take. Its purpose is ostensibly for the good: operatives are sent to kill the dictator who will start the nuclear war, to save the doctor who will invent the cure for AIDS – the ultimate liberal interventionism.

Human nature being what it is, the Concern teems with infighting, with the autocratic Madame D’Ortolan intent on remodelling the organisation in her own image; her only credible opposition comes from a renegade assassin and his old tutor, the enigmatic Mrs Mulverhill. And so it begins, over many different continents and realities, spectacular and thought-provoking, yet with story-strands flapping loose in the wind – but then The Bridge didn’t make any sense either, and that was an awesome novel.

Like the Discworld series, Banks’s novel is a mirror of worlds. The Concern work principally in a Europe founded on Judeo-Islamic values and menaced by Christian terrorists. The renegade assassin, when d’Ortolan raises the point of Christian suicide bombers, shakes his head sadly and sighs: ‘The religion of brotherly love.’ The inversion gives Banks the opportunity to reflect on the events of the last eight years, on war, power, capital and faith, without it all feeling tacked on. This gives an eerie quality to contemporary debates, showing Banks’s real and enduring strength: to make the reader look at something familiar from a different angle.

If I can make a criticism of this strong and complex book? The character of the Philosopher, a butler and torture expert reminiscent of a sociopathic Mr Stevens from The Remains of the Day, comes across well except in one aspect: his backstory. Right after his ruthlessness is established we get a great wedge of traumatic personal history. Shouldn’t Banks know that he doesn’t need to diagnose his characters?

The truth has far more impact – that people who have found happiness in themselves, and their place in the world, still get off on the murder and oppression of others. One would have thought that Banks, a great follower of international events, would have realised this by now.


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 16th, 2009.