Transitions by Iain M. Banks

Orbit/Hachette Book Group
ISBN 9780316071987
Hardcover, September 2009
416 Pages

Opening with “Apparently, I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator,…” indicates we will eventually know more about the narrator than he does himself. It is a marvelous opening and with that, we are off and running through multiple worlds, solipsist worlds, and therein lies the question:  All the worlds that are known to exist are human worlds, earth-like worlds, with or without human histories, nary an alien to be found. Is this a good thing?

Hovering over the all these worlds is an organization known as the Concern or L’Expedience which acts to maintain these worlds. The Concern holds the secret to the manufacture of Septus, the drug making transition between the worlds possible.

The question resolves to opposing sides, one led by Madame d’Ortolan, current leader and future tsar of the Concern who holds that what is known comprises what is best; the other by Mrs Mulverhill, also a member of the Concern but not yet officially at Mme d’Orotlan’s level, holding that uncertainty is better. One aspect of the story, then, is whether the Concern will survive in its present form or Mrs. Mulverhill will succeed in shifting its direction.

Caught between the two women is Temudjin Oh, a particularly talented transitioner: a person able to travel the alternate realities by temporarily taking charge of a person in that reality’s body. Transition further means that a person used by one side or the other to influence events in that reality: saving or taking another person’s life, changing events from one thread to another, et al. There are other talents enabled by septus: trackers, dampers, and one secret weapon, Subject 7.

Mme d’Ortolan has a chief henchperson named Kleist and M Mulverhill has a henchperson named Adrian, whose stories are told in detail.  The henchpersons play roles in the recruiting efforts of both sides as the women attempt to convince Oh that he should support their cause.

To follow this story, we must keep track of (1) the Concern’s chief interrogator known as The Philosopher, a name earned because he refuses to employ children as tools in his interrogation techniques. (2) Adrian’s life and times, (3) The Pitcher, Mike Esteros, who has a story about aliens he has worked long and hard to produce; and, (4) Patient 8262, an inmate in a mental institution whom we know from the outset is a contrived persona.

Along the way we are going to confront issues such as eternal life through transitioned bodies, is man the best agency for deciding what’s best for humanity, and who is Temudjin Oh? We will be treated to observations such as:

– There is no intelligence without context.

– People at the top of any organization like to think they are, metaphorically, on the summit of a mountain of perfect visibility. They’re wrong, of course; in fact there’s mist all the way down.

– The old and powerful never want to let go. They always think they’re both profoundly indispensable and uniquely right. They are always wrong.

The structure of the book – interlaced narratives from each of the major characters – makes for an unfolding of the story that is never quite predictable though always logical. The characters are better than caricatures though their motivations are sometimes unclear. Most notably, Mrs Mulverhill could use a bit more explication. She knows what she knows and she acts as she does from principle but how she arrived at this place in her life is assumed rather than explained. Mme d’Ortolan gets fleshed out a bit more yet not so much as The Philosopher. As already noted, Banks gives us great detail on both the Philosopher and Adrian. In the end, though, Adrian’s role falls far short of the other characters suggesting his rags-to-riches life is actually a comment on life in the new millennium.

We also need to participate in a whole lot of sex. It is the primary means of communication for both female protagonists and Temudjin Oh is subjected to more than his fair share.  If you are uncomfortable with the thought, this book will not please you.

If you can accept that considerable portion of the plot, then you will find much to interest, much to challenge, and much to admire in this story. And you may even learn more about the Unreliable Narrator than he himself knows.

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