Saturday, September 25, 2010
Transition is not the first book of Ian M. Banks’ I’ve read (I’ll get to the reviews I swear) but it is certainly the strangest. The first two I read were science fiction of the space faring variety while this one takes place in a more contemporary time witch encompasses the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. While I think that the premise is certainly an interesting one, in my own opinion I think the execution and story fell short.
The central concept of the book seems to be that there are an almost infinite number of earths in different realities or dimensions. In each of these realities Earth can be completely different in every way imaginable or, there can be a difference as subtle as a certain person being alive when they shouldn’t be (relative to THIS Earth). A group of individuals from the primary manifestation of earth that call themselves The Concern believe that it is their duty to interfere with each and every world’s future by removing or aiding specific people who would have an influence on events. As such, The Concern has identified a talent that certain people have to “transition” to different worlds and different people with the aid of a drug called Septus. Septus allows a person to “flit” from world to world and person-to-person in order to achieve their aims. There are various permutations of the talent: some allow the transitioner to take people with them, some block another’s ability to transition and others can track transitioners through additives in the drug, but The Concern identifies, trains and uses them all. Especially one particular Transitioner trained as an assassin.
Yell is loyal to The Concern. Identified and trained from an early age for his future occupation, he’s developed a talent for flitting with a sneeze and dispatching his quarry. He doesn’t usually question his orders until they begin to be amended by one Madam d’Ortolan. It appears that Yell, is to remove some of the members of the ruling body of The Concern dubbed the Council of which Madam d’Ortolan is the head. As this is highly suspect, Yell defies his orders and soon finds himself subjected to torture to find out what he knows as Madam d’Ortolan is convinced that there is a conspiracy afoot and is determined to stop it. Shortly thereafter, Yell is contacted by Miss Mulverhill who is a former student of d’Ortolan’s and has since formed a rebellion. It would appear that Madam d’Ortolan has designs upon The Council and plans for immortality.
Perhaps if I had read Transition in a reasonable amount of time it would have made more sense. It flitted from person to person, backwards and forwards and didn’t engage me for more than short periods of time. There are instances of great storytelling that just seem to get lost in the “who are we talking about now?” aspects of the writing. As an example of the need of a guide through the book, all of the changes of character have headings. Not chapters, mind you, but when the first person narrative changes (sometimes after a few paragraphs) you literally get a: “Sparkletits” in italics. Perhaps it’s that by using this method of storytelling it took quite a while for me to connect with the characters, as it took me more than two weeks to read it which is very unusual. While the characters actually do end up being very well developed, the methodology employed meant that it took until at least mid way through 400-pages before you even started to get a feel for what some of them were about. Perhaps it’s just me, I really did enjoy Banks’ other two books that I’ve read, but this one just felt convoluted and needlessly complex. It felt like Memento but, ultimately, I was left without anything to take home.
The entire reason for this inane prelude is so that you understand that I am being absolutely honest when I make the following statement: to this day, I don’t believe I’ve read a more brilliant and moving example of science fiction literature than Robert J. Sawyer’s Watch.
This is the second instalment of the World Wide Web trilogy and the second book of Sawyer’s that I’ve read and reviewed. I reviewed the first book, Wake, some time ago and, while I thought it took some time to get going, it was definitely worth the read as it was very well written and engaging on the back end. I will admit that I felt a little trepidation purchasing Watch (hardcover books are not inexpensive these days) because baby needed a new pair of shoes. In hindsight, I have no issue with having my youngest walking through life’s dog-dookie without the protection of a sole.
The World Wide Web is sentient. Via her optical implant, Caitlin Decter can actually see information flow as it moves through the internet. The being that Caitlin has names Webmind is now far more intelligent than even the smartest of humans and begins to dabble in other peoples lives via the internet. Fortunately for humanity, Webmind has decided to use its abilities to aid the human (and not so human) race; unfortunately for Webmind, the American secret services have also taken notice and are not so convinced. Now it is up to Caitlin and her genius parents to devise a way to keep Webmind safe from those who would see him destroyed but to also let the world know that he is alive, watching, and maybe save a life or two in the process.
The previous synopsis is an extremely simple outline of what Sawyer’s book is about. I must keep it that way as I feel that giving away any spoiler, no matter how minor, would do an excellent work a great disservice. Sawyer manages to explain very complex ideas that are of both the ethical and scientific variety with an easy simplicity without making it seem as though he’s talking down to the reader. He deftly juggles the intertwining threads of various themes, lives and questions without ever getting them knotted. But where I feel Sawyer truly shines in his second entry to the trilogy is how he is able to provoke a stunning feeling of empathy within the reader. This is not only extended to Webmind (though that would be impressive enough) but also to a Chimpanzee/Bonobo hybrid named Hobo. I have no reservation in stating that at certain points in the book, a warm tear may have caressed my usually frosted soul. Truly, Sawyer’s Watch is an excellent addition to the genre and a brilliant lesson in humanity as learned from a machine.