Steven Wu's Book Reviews
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Against a Dark Background
by Iain M Banks

A book review by Steven Wu
January 03, 2003

Rating: 6 (of 10)

Iain M. Banks is always dependable: his science fiction novels are reliably exciting and well-written, with fantastically original ideas, a fiendishly humorous streak, and an invariably depressing conclusion. Against a Dark Background is no different, but it falls below the standards of Banks's previous novels due to its awful ending.

For the first time, this science fiction novel does not take place in the Culture. Instead, Against a Dark Background occurs in a single solar system centered around Golter, the home planet. Thousands of years have already passed since the excitement of that planet's expansion; now, a sense of despair and decay has settled onto the system's humans due to the impossibility of exploring beyond their narrow band of space.

Sharrow is one of the last aristocrats from Golter, from a family that was once fabulously wealthy but has since become poor due to the adverse judgments of the powerful World Court. When the book opens, we discover that the ancient Huhsz sect, which has had a grudge against Sharrow's family since one of her ancestors stole the sect's Lazy Gun, has successfully applied for a one-year assassination order from the World Court to hunt down and kill Sharrow. To avoid getting killed, Sharrow calls together her old combat team from the Second War to hunt for the system's last Lazy Gun in an attempt to appease the Huhsz. But things quickly get more complicated.

After a very confusing start, Against a Dark Background swiftly settles into the pattern of a caper story, with Sharrow and her crew haring after one precious artifact after another in a sequence that will hopefully lead to the Lazy Gun. The story is full of Banks's trademark imagination. The Lazy Gun itself is hilarious: an ancient gun that, when fired, wreaks humorous but somehow appropriate havoc upon its target (for instance, causing a thermonuclear blast, or replacing the victim's head with an anvil for about ten seconds). The story also benefits from a deep sense of history: Golter and its system are deeply aware of their history, despite the fact that many records were destroyed by the two dreadful Wars that have afflicted the civilization. All of this gives Against a Dark Background a rich background within which Banks can spin his tale.

And what a tale it is, for the first several hundred pages. The pace never lets up, as Banks throws one exhilirating action sequence after another at the reader, interspersed only by the occasional glimpse into Sharrow's past. Banks has a sure handle on when to flash back, when to flash forward, and when to keep plying details of the present engagement on the reader, and for a long while the book is just as fun as the best of Banks's work.

Three-quarters of the way through, however, the pace suddenly begins to flag during an overly long trek through the Embargoed Areas. And then, suddenly, the story becomes simply ludicrous, with a conclusion that gives laughable explanations for what had been interesting mysteries. The actual ending is abrupt and similarly dissatisfying, leaving too many questions unanswered and too much potential wasted.

It's a shame that this book, otherwise so wonderful, had to be spoiled by a terrible ending, especially since Banks usually provides such slam-bang conclusions no matter how loosely tied together the rest of the book is. It's still worth a read--just don't expect to be too happy by the end.

Copyright © 2003 Steven Wu

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