Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Iain M. Banks - Against a Dark Background

[Against a Dark Background went from my To Be Read shelf to before my eyes with the news of Banks' illness. By the time he died, the review had been written for a few weeks. The temptation to sanitize it and remove any criticism was strong. One generally does not speak ill of the dead in even minor ways, after all. But reviews are not bad mouthing but rather conversation, and it seems to me far preferable for a writer for their work to be engaged with, both in positive and negative ways, after their death, rather than for their work to be eulogized in a well-lit but sterile corner.]

When not writing literary fiction as Iain Banks, Iain M. Banks was best known for his Science Fiction novels set in his famous Culture setting, my favorite of which is Player of Games. Against a Dark Background is one of his few SF works that does not share that setting, though the Golter system that it develops is not far off in terms of Banks’ usual inventiveness. Problems in its plotting and pacing hold it back, but it does still possess power in its dark conclusion.

The novel follows Sharrow, a noblewoman that once led a crack mercenary team. She is drawn back into action when a religious organization, the Hushz, obtain a legal warrant to kill her due to their longstanding dispute with her family over a long-lost and incredibly devastating weapon known as the Lazy Gun. Accordingly, Sharrow gets the old team back together and goes after the Gun herself. Things get progressively more complicated from there. Other players operate in the shadows, and each step closer to the Gun forces her closer and closer to her family’s secrets.

Sharrow’s search takes her through just about all of Golter and the planets around it, giving Banks a book’s worth of opportunities to play tour guide. Luckily, his creations don’t disappoint. Against a Dark Background’s setting is a dystopic satire of the late twentieth century filled with hilarious people, ideas, and institutions that are as zany and often as awesome as anything Banks has created. Unlike in the Culture, technological progress did not bring Golter to enlightenment. Golter’s people reached the stars, but their system was impossibly distant from anything else. As Banks writes: “[Golter] had found itself alone and it had spread itself as far as it could and produced so much, but it was still next to nothing” (p. 4020).

Technology brought no wisdom. Instead, numerous wars left humanity sitting in its own rubble. Marvels from the past, known as “antiquities” (p. 22), are hunted by teams like Sharrow’s, the world’s fragile peace is maintained by the litigious and bureaucratic World Court, and we all sit on piles of weaponry more than sufficient to annihilate one another. Religious cults of increasing strangeness abound. Some of the faithful keep themselves permanently chained to walls, a kingdom is run by the Useless Kings that style themselves the “Prime Detesters of God the Infernal Wizard” (p. 227), and a roving band of pirates is composed entirely of solipsists.

It’s a setting that allows endless, madcap adventure, and Banks capitalizes on it. As Sharrow travels to first recollect her team and then follow the clues she finds toward the Lazy Gun, the book is divided into a succession of miniature arcs that are separated by changes in scenery and that each culminate in grand set pieces. There is an SF train robbery, the thieving of priceless and closely-guarded jewels from a city of boats, ambushes in bars, escapes from armored cars, contended battles through miles of woodlands, assassination attempts via flying beasts, and much more. To all that Banks adds a series of flashbacks detailing Sharrow’s past and youth with her team and her family, many of which manage to be genuinely touching – and to explore yet more corners of Golter.

Alas, problems soon set in with these adventures, beginning with the sheer number of them. Moving onto a new chunk of Golter, or even onto a new planet, after each heist breaks up any momentum that might have otherwise built up. Save the team, everyone else is left behind, and Banks’ ingenious creations soon start to have the feel of theme park rides: thrilling and well-constructed but suited to one purpose only and best left as soon as that purpose is done. Up until the very end, the intensity of the heists itself doesn’t change much. Though the prize of the Gun does get closer with each victory, hunting down clue Y rather than clue X does not feel like appreciable progress.

More importantly, Banks somehow manages to find the perfect, unbalanced position between a character that can do anything and a character that is helpless against the odds, and the result is a near total lack of tension. When Sharrow and her team hatch a scheme, it will succeed. We never see them outwitted in action, at least not for long. Whenver they decide to avoid the Hushz, they do so with ease. But, with no warning at all, Sharrow is frequently outwitted and captured. Those scenes are so abrupt that not only can Sharrow do nothing against them but also the reader has no sense of building danger. Whether or not a given scene plays out in her favor seems entirely out of her hands or anyone else’s. Banks doesn't so much incorporate both Sharrow’s abilities and the danger she faces as he does veer wildly between them.

Despite all that, the last hundred or so pages do manage to tie much of the novel together and to deliver a powerful thematic punch. The comedic, light adventures of pursuing the Lazy Guns and the clever wit packed into the guns themselves and the quest is set against the titular dark background of Golter’s degenerate state and even of mankind itself. As the novel nears its conclusion, that background grows, and we watch it swallow the tiny pinprick of light that is our main characters and their quest. The reader has the tendency to clutch onto the light all the harder, to hold onto it like a man dangling over a cliff. But Banks stomps on our fingers and lets us fall.

Golter is a world shaped by violence, a world scarred by the destruction wrought upon it to the extent that men can never forget it, keep circling it endlessly, afraid to move away lest any change trigger more upheaval. As Sharrow knows, “All I’ve ever been was made by weaponry and death” (p. 483). The only way out, Geis tells us, is to tear it all up and move on: only a new order can save poor Golter, only some new message can win people’s hearts and minds. All you see here, however precious it might be to us, might have to be sacrificed. Perhaps we need a new beginning; a clean slate. Perhaps that is our only hope (p. 473). Reform is impossible. The system must be torn up entirely and remade anew.

It is this kind of reformation that Sharrow comes to oppose in the novel’s (stupendous) final chapter. Destroying the remnants of the past system will only lead to further horror. The well-intentioned upheaval planned by Geis will be an upheaval like any other save that it will be even worse for its totality. As Sharrow acts to destroy his new order, rejecting his half-hearted apologies for the carnage and his offers to her to join him, she thinks: Sorrow be damned, and all your plans. Fuck the faithful, fuck the committed, the dedicated, the true believers; fuck all the sure and certain people prepared to maim and kill whoever got in their way; fuck every cause that ended in murder and a child screaming (p. 484).

By its final pages, Against a Dark Background has become a clear-sighted and devastating work. Banks acknowledges the horrors of the world. He doubts that any subtle, peaceful reform can change it. But he also knows with a cold certainty that any attempt to tear it up, to force disobedient and warring men into a utopia is a cure worse than the disease – indeed, is a cure that only revitalizes and intensifies the ailment. Though the institutions that we have cause great harm, Banks tells us, the horror is not truly in them. It is in us. No new configuration can change that. His is a novel that, despite all of its fun and wit, brings us up to the problem of the world’s darkness, and, instead of offering an easy way out, it discards the solution that the people of Golter (and of Earth) have tried so often in the past.

After all that, Against a Dark Background is a rather hard book to review. It has problems. The pacing is off, the thrills are not spectacularly thrilling, and much of its middle quests pointlessly. But it also has some of Banks’ strongest, most cutting writing and thinking. Though I wouldn’t start here, I will say that I think that Against a Dark Background is an essential work for anyone that wants to grasp Iain M. Banks’ full vision.


  1. That's a fair review. This is probably Banks least well-received works but I think undeservedly so - looking past some obvious problems (like the entire team taking a nap while concurrently sending their stupendously talented android away to guard a self-defending fortress), the underlying theme for me remains vividly humanised. Banks' stories are ultimately an exploration of human psyche, in this case the profound effects of childhood trauma underscoring the self-annihilating corruption of power. Lots of interesting questions left hanging: did Geis' death really plunge the system into war, or did it happen anyway? Does it matter if it's all about Sharrow making a personal stand against manipulation and deceit, whatever the cost. Here's a thought: Could Geis himself have been manipulated by SC? For me Golter made a lovely counterpoint to the Culture, and could be an example of how Culture manipulation of this kind of 'primitive' system might have gone horribly wrong...

  2. The first non culture stand alone I have read and it was captivating from the get go. Great pace and depth of character make this a more intimate read than some of the other culture books that are heavy on the tech.

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