Saturday, December 12, 2009


Things have been a bit quiet here on the Stuff By Dan front; it's been an absurdly busy month (with another absurd month or two ahead), and the latest book I have read has those badly-sized chapters that mean I have a choice of about 5-10 minutes of reading, or 40 minute of reading. For me, 20 minutes is about the ideal chapter length, since it means I get a fair bit read each evening before bed, but not so much that I'm awake all night reading, or falling asleep before the chapter ends.

Also, I was reading two books simultaneously. But more on that in the next post.

I've just finished Transition, by Iain Banks (oddly, not Iain M Banks). It's that very difficult breed of novel, a Multiverse novel.

A big problem with science fiction is making all the worlds your characters visit feel like real, and distinct worlds. It's why I avoid running space opera roleplaying games; I never feel it's really possibly to evoke the sense of a real world when it's a different planet you're visiting every session. Multiverses are even harder, as it's a different world in a different universe that is being visited. Banks, on the other hand, is a masterful world builder, so he can get away with these sorts of shenanigans.

Transition gets around this by having the transitions between universes being only possible between similar universes; in fact, the characters can only transition into bodies and minds similar to their own; and it's only their mind that transitions. It's often hard to tell which universe any particular part of the story is taking place in; our Earth is frequently visited, as is Calbefraques, the version of Earth where the ability to transition was discovered. Each different version of Earth has branched from ours at some time in the past, and there are infinities of possible earths between each of these universes, corresponding, presumably, to every branching possible outcome of every event in the Earth's history.

Once you get past the very Science Fictional setting, the story is more a spy thriller than a Sci Fi novel. The main protagonist, Temudjin Oh, is a Transitionary, one of the rare breed who can transition between Universes. He is an agent for l'Expedience, aka. The Concern, and organisation based on Calbefraques, which has the duty of sending its Transitionaries to different realities, and making butterfly-effect changes to a single person's life that end up changing that world in a big way. Things naturally get more complicated as conspiracies are unveiled and motives revealed, and it marches to an exciting, if somewhat small-scale, conclusion.

I'm yet to find a Banks novel that I'm disappointed by when I get to the end. Admittedly, I wasn't able to really start reading Feersum Endjinn, but the others are great. Transition never feels quite on the scale of Banks' other Science Fiction; novels like The Algebraist and his Culture novels overwhelm the imagination with the sheer scale of things. No-one can write an interstellar war like Banks. Transition is smaller, more personal, and deals with the intrigues between a small group of people who know each other quite well.

So, it's worth a read, but if you haven't read Banks, I'd start somewhere else in his corpus.

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