Friday, April 22, 2011

Against A Dark Background - Iain M. Banks

1993; 613 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Science Fiction.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    Everyone is after Lady Sharrow.  The Sad Brethren of the Sea House want her to steal something called the Lazy Gun as ransom for her half-sister.  The Huhsz (how would you pronounce that?) want to kill her so that one of their end-time prophecies might come to pass.  And two twin bald-headed dudes just like to torture her with a voodoo doll. 

    What can Sharrow do?  Assemble her elite combat team, go on a quest, run when outnumbered, and kick butt when not.

What's To Like...
Iain M. Banks (aka, "Iain Banks") is a master of words.  The description of the alien worlds (which are within a single solar system) and the civilizations thereon are compelling and vivid.  Sharrow is a fascinating character study, and there is a subtle ribbon of humor running throughout.

The Lazy Gun is one awesomely surreal weapon.  Shoot it at a person, and who knows what will happen to him?  An anchor might appear above him and drop down.  Giant electrodes might pop up on both sides and electrocute him.  Some wild animal might tear his throat out.  But you can also aim it at something like a tank, or even a whole city; and similarly bizarre dooms will unfold.

The ending (the last third of the book) is superb.  Along the way, Banks has some key things to say about religion, fate, governments, and android rights.  Finally, this is a stand-alone novel; a pleasant change from most sci-fi books nowadays.

Alas, there are some serious weaknesses.  Flashback scenes abound, but there is no signal when the present ends and the past commences.  The Lazy Gun, albeit kewl, turns out to be little more than a macguffin.  And if the ending is great, the storyline leading up to it is head-scratchingly illogical.

The Lazy Gun is well-guarded, but hardly hidden.  Lord knows why it takes Sharrow so long to find it.  She despises her half-sister, so that's a poor choice for a hostage.  The voodoo doll dilemma is never resolved; the Huhsz are never dealt with.  And don't try to solve the quest riddles with Sharrow; the answers are arbitrary and unfathomable.

Kewlest New Word...
Coprolite : Fossilized dung.  Used here as  an epithet.  I've got to try that one out.

    "Get ...your...filthy...female foot out of my d-" he said, raising his gaze to find that he was lookng down the barrel of a large hand gun.  She pressed his nose with it.  His eyes crossed, focusing on the stubby silencer.
    He swung the door open slowly, his chain rattling.  "Come in," he croaked.
    The silencer muzzle left a little white circle imprinted on the gray flesh at the tip of his nose.  (pg. 44)

    "Indeed, your gracious Majesty," the monk said, looking down modestly at the carpet.  His voice sounded respectful.  "Our Belief - perhaps not so dissimilar from your own, more venerable and more widely followed creed - is that God is a Mad Scientist and we His experimental subjects, doomed forever to run the Maze of Life through apparently random and unjust punishments for meaningless and paltry rewards and no discernible good reason save His evil pleasure."  (pg. 289)

    "I must say," the one on the beach said.  "You don't seem terribly surprised to find us here, Lady Sharrow."  He sounded disappointed.  He accepted a tall glass from his twin, then drank and smiled up at her.  "We'd rather hoped you might be."
    She shrugged.
    "Typical, isn't it?" said the one in the chair to his twin.  "Women only go quiet when you'd actually quite like to hear what they have to say."  (pg. 366)

"We live in the dust of our forebears; insects crawling in their dung.  Splendid, isn't it?"  (pg. 80)
The Wikipedia article on Against A Dark Background indicates this was an early, unpublished story by Banks which he later reworked into a full-length novel.  That may explain why the storyline has so little cohesion.  It really should've stayed a short story or a novella.

The great ending and Banks' writing skills make up for the plot weaknesses, albeit just barely.  It seems Banks is better known for his sci-fi "Culture" series, and I have one from that set on my TBR shelf.  I have a feeling it's going to be a better read.  6 Stars.

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