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Against a Dark Background, Iain M. Banks

Surprisingly enough, this latest SF novel by Banks reminded me as much of Zindell’s Neverness as of Banks’ earlier SF. Maybe it’s because I’d read Zindell’s novel recently, and because Banks and Zindell are both writing “Space Opera” yet enlivening it with modern sensibility. Banks remains irrestiably readable, even when the novel is nothing more than an adventure novel with a few flourishes. Like Use of Weapons, Against a Dark Background centers around family relationships, moving people and events around like a grand chess game. This novel is separate from Banks’ other SF, however, which is grouped under the name of the “universe” that it is set in, the Culture. I think I prefer the Culture universe. At least, it seems to make more sense to me. I never quite grabbed the scale to which time and space moved in Against a Dark Background. Many things seemed invented solely to provide a different setting or mood when the story demanded it, rather than actually being true world building. Still, the individual constructions–the Sea House, the Lazy Gun, the World Court, the Huyze brotherhood, the characters, the weird animals, the political/religious/social sectors–are simply wonderful, each unique yet familiar as well.

What this novel really lacks is the twist that I’ve come to expect from Banks. Or, maybe the twist is there, but because I know Banks, I looked for it and expected it, and wasn’t surprised as I should be. Which might mean that Banks has achieved a formula that has become predictable in its unpredictability. All in all, Against a Dark Background is not a worthless experience, but Banks has done much better in other books (I suggest The Player of Games for SF, Espedair Street for non-SF).

[Finished 19 August 1993]


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