Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks
Against a Dark Background was Iain M. Banks first sci-fi work not set in ‘The Culture, and was written at a relatively early point in his career. Where The Algebraist is a story which simply could not have been told within ‘The Culture’, I’m not so sure that this is the case for Against a Dark Background, with Banks creating possibly his least coherent setting I’ve encountered, although also one of the most evocative and thought provoking.
Against a Dark Background takes place in the Golterian system, in particular it’s capitol planet Golter, but with the odd visit to other planets. The relationship of the Golter system to Earth is not made clear, but it appears that these humans have no knowledge of Earth, and that Golter is in a state of stagnation. Although humanity has the technology to expand and reach beyond the cluttered mess that is the Golter system, they are held back by their own petty cultural rivalries. Golter is ostensibly ruled by a group known as the ‘World Court’, but significant influence is wielded by criminal gangs and bizarre religious cults. These varying cults are by far the best and most amusing part of the book; of particular note are the ‘Solipsists’, in which each individual member believes themselves to be God and all those around them to be their creations, yet somehow managed to bond together into a group despite this seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Also entertaining is the Kingdom of Pharpech, which are not atheists but ‘anti-deists’, who bitterly and loathe all gods and are ruled by a deluded man child. Banks isn’t an author who is particularly concerned with internal history and consistency of setting in his novels, but Against a Dark Background feels chaotic even by his standards. However, it is unfair to criticise the novel for not achieving something that it did not set out to do. Golter is a compelling setting, with a strong feeling of decay and stagnation. Banks provides a vivid portrait of a civilisation ruled by pettiness and corruption, which at times can feel uncomfortably close to our own poor beleaguered planet. If you are someone who is all about world building in their sci-fi however, I’m not sure that Golter will be for you.
The protagonist of the novel is Sharrow, a member of the aristocracy and former soldier. Sharrow’s ancestor had stolen an item of great worth from a violent cult known as the Huhsz, who in vengeance swore that the entire female line of his house must die before their Messiah can be born. The item stolen was one of the eight ‘Lazy Guns’, devastating weapons the nature of which become apparent as the novel rolls on, which has since vanished. The novel opens as the Huhsz have gained a legal licence to hunt Sharrow for a year; if she can survive the year or return the Lazy Gun to them she is saved. Sharrow goes about reuniting her old combat team to find the Lazy Gun, and what follows is a caper of sorts, as the team of vivid and entertaining characters travel the Golter system following trails and leads which can lead them closer to the mysterious Lazy Gun.
The story is a fun one, but is, like The Algebraist which I have previously reviewed, a structural mess. Sporadically throughout the novel, Banks flirts with a non-linear structure, a structure to which I am no means opposed if implemented thoughtfully and consistently with clarity. To see a great example of non-linear storytelling done right one should look no further than Banks own Use of Weapons (one of my favourite novels I’ve ever read), which used it’s non-linear and ambiguous nature to great effect as we explored the fascinating character of Cheradenine Zakalwe. However, I’m not convinced that Banks has achieved this so well here, which is surprising considering that Use of Weapons came out three years before Against a Dark Background. There are frequent chapters which flit back and forth between the present and the past almost at random, leading to an extremely jarring reading experience. Perhaps this was Banks’ intention, but the fact remains that this novel can at times be a chore to read. Other moments soar however, particularly the quiet moments in which Sharrow and her squad banter and reminisce, creating a wonderful sense of a group who went through hell together and made it out the other side.
Banks remains an ambitious and eloquent writer, with this novel showing off some of the best dialogue I’ve encountered from him, particularly from some of the deliciously malevolent villains. Banks is excellent at conveying a tone, and the tone of Against a Dark Background is that of decay and darkness, somewhat lightened by a brutal and cynical sort of humour. It’s an interesting tone, completely at odds with the utopian Culture. Not every aspect of the novel is so successful however; I’ve never been particularly convinced of Banks’ ability to write action scenes, as many of them devolve into a confusing mess of explosions, gunfire and somewhat impenetrable futuristic lingo. I remember feeling the same way about Consider Phlebas, Banks’ first sci-fi novel. These problems are sadly on full display here, and it can just be very difficult to visualise what is actually happening. Again, this could be a conscious attempt to replicate the chaos and confusion of combat, but since Sharrow is so competent and in command of her surroundings, perhaps the readers should be allowed to share her clarity? Despite some flaws, Banks is doubtless one of the most ambitious writers in the genre, and is not content to simply rely on the plain prose generally favoured by many of his contemporaries.
Sharrow is an excellent protagonist, deeply flawed with a pronounced vindictive streak, yet fundamentally sympathetic despite that. It’s easy to grow attached to Sharrow’s team, such as the voluptuous and fun-loving Zefla and her stoic brother Dloan. These characters aren’t necessarily hugely well developed, but they are more than the simple caricatures which sci-fi military squads often become. The most entertaining characters are the secondary and tertiary ones, characters who only appear for a few chapters and then vanish again, or appear sporadically throughout the story. Really, the true protagonist of the novel is Golter itself, a sad, decaying system dying a slow and ignoble death.
Of all of Banks’ works, this is probably the one that I struggled with most. Oddly enough, I can’t help but feel that this story would have made a better movie than it does a novel, as it would allow the snipping of some of the fat that bogs the novel down whilst also giving the action scenes some much needed clarity. I haven’t been overly impressed with Banks’ non-Culture works that I have read so far (although I much preferred The Algebraist to Against a Dark Background), so I look forward to getting back to the Culture with the recent release of the new novel in the series, The Hydrogen Sonata,which I shall be reading soon.