Book Review: Against A Dark Background by Ian M. Banks

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

This is one of those books that could really do with two different reviews.  One for its plot and one for its content.

The plot is kind of ridiculous and reads more like a bad role-playing game than a novel.  It finds itself jumping from location to location and having the characters get into various adventures at those locations.  If that was all “Against a Dark Background” had going for it, I would forever throw it into the literary trash heap and be done with it.  Luckily, the world that “Against a Dark Background” inhabits is rich and varied and complicated and imaginative and consistently surprising.

It is very hard to describe the world Banks has created in this book.  We have what appears to be a rogue sun, Thrial, with an orbiting planetary system, the main of which is Golter.  Golter can best be described as containing a pseudo-anarchic city-state system of government with a semi-autonomous world government that attempts to keep all-out anarchy at bay.  The plot revolves around the main character, Sharrow, and her attempts to flee an amorphous cult called the Huhsz which thinks that Sharrow needs to die in order for their prophesies to be fulfilled.  The world government, which is called the World Court, is totally ok with this and there is, in fact, a formal process that entities can submit themselves to in order to get these assassination passports.

Sharrow and her friends spend the entire book trying to stay a step ahead of the Huhsz, all the while searching for a weapon of immense power called a Lazy Gun which has been lost for generations and is best described as a weapon of mass destruction with a sense of humor.  Fire it at a man standing in the middle of a desert and it will create a deluge of water which will drown him.  Fire it at a city and a giant meteor will appear to wipe it out.  You get the idea.  The Huhsz have promised Sharrow that she can trade her life for the Lazy Gun if she can find it before they find her.

What makes the book worth while is everything Sharrow and her friends come across in their adventures.  There is a jewel heist in a city called the Log Jam which consists of a series of boats tied together and stretching kilometers across.  There is a book theft in a city ruled by a king that forswears all technology and learning of any kind.  There is a cult that lives in a place called the Sea House and whose members must walk around forever chained to the wall which contains an interlocking system of grooves that allow them to slide their chains from room to room.  There is a city full of androids that is too radioactive for humans to live in full-time.  There are Solipsists who spend their time explaining away everything they see around themselves as projections of their own godhood.  And more.

And that’s the saving grace of this book.  There is so much imagination just packed into the pages.  Much of it doesn’t seem to go together and a lot even seems contradictory but it is all quite enjoyable if you ignore these faults.  I see “Against a Dark Background” as more of an adult children’s book.  It doesn’t make much sense, but it allows your imagination to run wild.