Iain M. Banks' latest novel Transition, in bookstores this week, will jelly your brains in brilliant weirdness. Banks turns political world-building on its head in this exciting tale of an Earth-based multiverse in turmoil, where dimension-hopping assassins jockey for power.
Transition (Orbit Books) is not part of Banks' beloved Culture series, which take place in a galaxy packed with thousands of alien civilizations. Indeed, Transition wasn't even released as an Iain M. Banks novel in the UK - there he published it under his more literary nym, Iain Banks. But in the U.S., the book is being released as an Iain M. Banks joint, probably because that nym is more well-known here and the plot is science fictional (though one could argue that it's more like fantasy or magic realism).
Transition is a hallucinatory thriller about what happened to Earth - and specifically, Europe - in the time "between the fall of the Wall and the fall of the Towers." In other words, during the feverish years between the demise of the Berlin Wall that marked the end of communism's hold over Europe and the demise of the Twin Towers in New York City that marked the beginning of the "war on terror." When a novel begins with such heavy-handed references, you worry that it's about to become cliched balderdash about How The World Is Changing. Luckily, that is not the case here. Though Transition is an intensely political novel, it is not about party politics or East vs. West or the end of the state or anything that you might read about in the UK Guardian.
Instead, it is about a group of renegade dimension-hoppers who dare to take on a shady, multiverse-manipulating institution called variously the Concern or L'Expedience. In Transition, it turns out our Earth exists in a massive deck of possible other Earths, many of which are accessible to people who are "aware" and have access to a transition-enabling drug called septus. The Concern, which exists on an alternate Earth called Calbefraques, is the sole manufacturer and dispensary of septus. And it trains special agents in the art of "flitting," transitioning between worlds, in order to mold events "for the better" across the multiverse. Sometimes this means saving a physicist from stepping into a building that is about to blow up. Other times it means assassinating people. In our main character Temudjin Oh's case, it means assassinating a lot of people.
Oh is especially talented, which means he's been singled out for recruitment by two women who are vying for control of what the Concern does across the multiverses. Madame D'Ortolan and Mrs. Mulverhill are both intensely powerful, well-connected and politically savvy. They also both have the special power of bringing people with them into another universe by having sex with them - and both want Oh to be their special agent. The problem is that Oh isn't quite sure what either of the women stands for. They ask him to go on missions that are unexplained. D'Ortolan asks on the part of the Concern, which she controls; and Mulverhill asks on behalf of a secret group that opposes her. Maybe killing the guy in his hot tub will save one version of Earth from a future dictator, or maybe it will prevent something good from happening, like world peace or a new scientific breakthrough. Oh isn't sure and mostly he doesn't care. Except when he begins to realize what D'Ortolan is really up to in her secret labs.
Strange and dreamy, the novel is shattered into fragments of perspective: We flit from one person's mind to another and plunge into alternate Earths that are very close to our own. In one, we learn why one man became a torturer for a Muslim-dominated government in a world riddled with Christian terrorists. In another, there is universal healthcare and a mental patient never worries that he'll be kicked out of the hospital where he lives and put on the street. In some worlds, Mandarin is the dominant language. In others, English. Several versions of Earth were destroyed by a gamma ray burst, after a ruler declared her or himself world leader and built a castle inside a bubble on the top of Mount Everest. In other Earths, humans never evolved.
To move from Earth to Earth, the agents must jump into the bodies of people who live in their destination dimension. Which means that Oh is literally jumping from perspective to perspective as he transitions through the stack of possible worlds.
This is all done with Banks' usual crazy, I'm-going-to-do-something-giant panache. In his hands, even the most preposterous battles, mega-objects in space, and (in this novel) bizarre permutations on reality take on a mesmerizing lucidity. Though we know almost nothing about the labs that produce septus, or the way the multiverse works, we believe in it. And we're drawn into the battle between Madame D'Ortolan and Mrs. Mulverhill, which in the end turns out to be something like the battle between Earth and the Culture. Not literally, mind you. There is no Culture here. There are just warring ideologies.
D'Ortolan, who has lived for 200 years by transitioning into younger bodies, represents the raw, libertarian lust for personal gain. And Mulverhill characterizes D'Ortolan's position tartly in this way:
Libertarianism. A simple-minded right-wing ideology ideally suited to those unable or unwilling to see past their own sociopathic self-regard.
Whereas Mulverhill promises something akin to what the Culture has - a chaotic do-goodery which attempts to help people in finite ways while acknowledging it is impossible to make the entire universe a perfectly good place.
Unfortunately, D'Ortolan is willing to engage in wanton destruction to get what she wants, while Mulverhill tries to persuade people to be good using reason - along with a little sex and sword-fighting. As Oh comes into his full powers, and shuffles the deck on the multiverse, the action goes trippy and fun.
While some of the philosophizing in Transition comes across as a bit vague and twee, for the most part the novel feels vital and inventive in a way that Banks' last novel Matter didn't. The worldbuilding is deft, funny, and pointed. Banks' overall point is that Earth at every single moment hovers between thousands of possible futures and presents. And this idea is both well-observed and gracefully shown.
Best of all, Transition will make you remember that you don't need to go into outer space to discover another world. Your Earth is only one of billions.