Transition

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(340)

Iain Banks, Little, Brown; £12.99

I've always enjoyed the science fiction novels of Iain M Banks, but I've found that some of his more recent "mainstream" novels (published under the name Iain Banks, without the M) don't always have quite the same pull over me.

But Transition is a new departure for the author, a sort of mix of both genres. Rather than a near infinite universe full of bizarre Banksian creations, we have instead a "multiverse", where the characters stay near motionless in time and space, but have the ability to skip through dimensions, inhabiting different bodies and experiencing different realities.

Transition uses first and third person narratives to follow the lives of a cluster of characters whose stories are, in some way or another, intertwined. Temudjin Oh is the central protagonist. He is an assassin for "the Concern", an apparently benevolent body devoted to meddling with these different realities.

We are also introduced to Adrian Cubbish, a cocaine dealer turned hedge fund manager from our own world, reaping the rewards of deregulated capitalism. Patient 8262, meanwhile, spends much of the story describing life in a hospital bed, as he tries to keep a low profile. Then we have shadowy Madame d'Ortolan, the leading figure in the Concern, and Mrs Mulverhill, a renegade member of the group. And it is an Iain Banks book, so there is the near mandatory professional torturer and weirdo, the Philosopher.

There aren't many authors who can pull off skipping between narratives at such a speed without turning the reader's brain into mashed potato, but Banks (just about) gets away with it. The separate story threads build the characters up so well that you sometimes feel you are reading several different books at once. It's a little like he has spliced together chapters from The Wasp Factory, Consider Phlebas, The Steep Approach to Garbadale and Use of Weapons into one epic narrative.

The story is sandwiched (approximately) between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Lehman Brothers, via the World Trade Centre attacks. With that backdrop we see light-handed but compelling arguments regarding torture, humanitarian intervention and the absurdities of finance capitalism.

There is also a commentary about religious intolerance. The terrorists and the marginalised are, in one of the worlds, Christians. Here Christianity is seen as inherently reactionary because its adherents can commit a multitude of sins before confessing and being assured a place in heaven.

There are a lot of loose ends and red herrings in Transition. Rather than a defined and racing plot, it feels a little like an exploratory meander through various imagined realities. That's not necessarily a problem though. This is a novel that will take you to other worlds, but make you think about your own.