Saturday, 29 November 2003

Iain M. Banks; Against a Dark Background (1993)

Edition: Orbit, 1994
Review number: 1199

The novels which Iain Banks publishes with his central initial usually share the space opera background of the Culture, even if only tangentially (as in Inversions). In Against a Dark Background, however, the setting is carefully differentiated from the Culture, even if it is apparently quite similar on the surface. (Banks distances the setting from the galaxy-wide Culture by describing Golter, the planet on which Against a Dark Background is set, as orbiting a star a million light years from any other, something which makes the standard space opera device of inhabiting the planet with a disctinctly human race of beings ludicrous, presumably deliberately so.)

Like several of the Culture novels, the plot of Against a Dark Background concerns an attempt to acquire a missing technological relic, a lost ancient weapon. In this case, it is a quest to find the last remaining Lazy Gun, one of eight whimsical weapons produced for a long ended war. Sharrow and her companions are also the surviving parts of an eight-fold weapon - a unit of commandos with an enhanced ability to predict each others' actions, a useful skill in combat.

The planet of Golder is an interesting, anarchic background, full of the trademark whimsical touches that Banks delights in - the Solipsist mercenaries, the Useless Kings, and so on. It is a background typical of some of the more recent writers influenced by Banks - MacLeod or Reynolds, for example - and is really more designed to fascinate than to be believeable. The story contains many flashbacks, and sometimes (undoubtedly deliberately) it is hard to tell for a few pages whether the story is in the narrative present or past.

This is not one of Banks' best novels (I seem to have felt that quite regularly about the ones I have reread recently). The plot and much of the background are by now over familiar (the Culture novels are more successful if a lengthy gap is left between reading any two of them); the flashbacks may illuminate Sharrow's character and explain how she came to be in her current situation, but they don't have the kind of explosive purpose that they are used for in Use of Weapons. For someone who did a lot of narrative experimentation early in his career, Banks has seemingly employed less care than usual in putting this novel. Nevertheless, even "Iain Banks by numbers" is enjoyable enough.

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