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Against a Dark Background, Iain M. Banks, Orbit, 1994, 487 pp.

Against a Dark Background is Banks' fourth science fiction novel and first such non-Culture book. Banks' three Culture novels (in order: Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, Use of Weapons) envisioned a future so detailed and plausible that you might be forgiven for wondering why he would bother branching out. But with Against a Dark Background, Banks proves that he is one of the masters of world-building, in this case with the planet of Golter, ancient, decrepit, and isolated by a million light years from the rest of the galaxy. Frankly, I was glad to see that this was a non-Culture novel. In The Player of Games, Banks balanced the flamboyancy of the space opera genre with his own dark and disturbing sensibilities, a mix which exploited the best elements of the space opera stereotypes and made them something new. However, Use of Weapons was one of the grimmest books I've ever read. It took me several months to get through it, and a kind of cloying miasma of despair stuck with me after reading it. Obviously, this was Banks' intention, but not a pleasant feeling. Against a Dark Background is indeed dark, and grim, and disturbing, but not much more so than Consider Phlebas or The Player of Games.

The novel tells the story of Sharrow, a combat specialist on the planet Golter. She is being targeted by a religious group, the Huhsz, and since this is Banks' world, any religious group is invariably made up of unthinking, vicious, violent, inhuman, dastardly, wacko creeps. She joins up with her former combat team, and goes on a series of quests. For money, the Crownstar Addendum, the most valuable jewel on the planet. The Lazy Gun, because it can annihilate any enemy, even if no one remembers how it works. And so forth. Like any other Banks book, it's no surprise when everyone starts dying, and by the end, Sharrow has lost all of her companions, friends, enemies, and androids. It's ironic how, in a Hollywood action movie for example, you know that all the good guys will survive, and how in a Banks novel, you know that virtually no one will survive. Neither case is much of an eye-opener after a while.

Banks' prose is as sharp as ever. He might not be a flamboyant writer in terms of prose technique, but the way he assembles his story is unmistakable. Two examples illustrate my point nicely. Here is the opening paragraph of the Prologue, where Sharrow is a young child:

"She put her chin on the wood below the window. The wood was cold and shiny and smelled. She kneeled on the seat; it smelled too, but different. The seat was wide and read like the sunset and had little buttons that made deep lines in it and made it look like somebody's tummy. It was dull outside and the lights were on in the cable car. There were people skiing on the steep slopes beneath. She could see her own face looking back at her in the glass; she started to make faces at herself." (1)

Of course, the reason why Sharrow can remember such detail is that a tragedy will very shortly follow. I also particularly liked the passage where Banks finally reveals Golter's isolation:

"The sky was full of darkness. There were planets and moons and the tiny feathery whorls of the dim nebulae, and they had themselves filled it with junk and traffic and the emblems of a thousand different languages, but they could not create the skies of a planet within a galaxy, and they could not ever hope, within any frame of likelihood they could envisage existing, to travel to anywhere beyond their own system, or the everywhere-meaningless gulf of space surrounding their own isolated and freakish star. For a distance that was never less than a million light years in any direction around it, Thrial [Golter's sun] -- for all its flamboyant dispersion of vivifying power and its richly fertile crop of children planets -- was an orphan." (403)

As with the cultures on the planet in Walter Jon Williams' City on Fire, Golterian civilization is immensely old, splintered, and more than a little insane.

I'd like to talk briefly about Banks' mainstream reputation as a writer. Recently, I read an interview with Banks in a mainstream paper, which I will not identify here. Banks' science fiction, which is among the fiercest and most literate in the field, was glossed over, and in fact treated with stunning disgust. Banks himself talked about his science fiction output somewhat dismissively, but he did much the same for his mainstream novels. This is mainly due to his self-professed status as a slacker -- he writes for three months of the year, and goofs off the rest of the time. I find it astonishing that he could produce so many novels, both science fiction and mainstream, in the few years he has been writing, with such an eccentric attitude. In typical Banks fashion, it puts a stick in the eye of all those articles and all that advice about how to write. A sharpened stick, and with a grand flourish too.

Last modified: October 23, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (

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