Against a dark background

What can I say about this book by Iain M.Banks? Well, it is one of my favourites, has influenced how I run roleplaying games, has an absolute kickass female protagonist, and just flat-out rocks.
The book is set in a star system (Thrial) with lots of worlds, but separated from other systems by such vast gulfs of space that the inhabitants are alone. Most of the worlds have been terraformed, giving a great deal of living space, but they cannot reach beyond the limits of their own system. Vast dark dust clouds obscure great segments of space, hence the title, “Against a dark background”.

First lines:

“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 red like the sunset and had little buttons that made deep lines in it and made it look like somebody’s tummy”

This is from the prologue, with Sharrow, the main character, taking a trip as a child. Sharrow is the target of a religious cult, the Huhsz, who believe her to be the final obstacle before their faiths apotheosis. Her only chance is to try and find a weapon of unspeakable power, one of the so-called Lazy Guns. The book revolves around her quest for the Lazy Gun, while diving deep into her past.

Banks has an interest in families that were once wealthy, had status and land, and then fell upon hard times. Such is the case here. Sharrow refers to her relatives, and recollects holidays spent at expensive mansions, before it all had to be sold off.

The book is full of ideas, too many to list here, certainly not without spoiling the story. I think it is the mark of a good story when one of my favourite characters is an android, and the idea of a combat team being attuned to one another by a bioengineered virus is amazing. A world where one organism covers most of the planet is another great idea, and of course, there is the idea of the Lazy Gun.

Banks likes to surprise, and this book is no exception (SPOILER BELOW). Sharrow takes part in a conflict, and during a space battle sees a cruiser that has been badly damaged:

“The external view she had now – flagged as thousand magnification – showed a wrecked excise clipper spinning slowly in front of her, its black hull flayed and pitted, its rear end gone, ruptured plates fluting tumorously¬† from the craft’s waist¬† to shred away to nothing from about three-quarters of the way back, ending in a glinting mess of metal.

There was something biological, even sexual about the ruined ship, its matt-black skin like dull clothes ripped apart to reveal the flesh beneath, exposed and open. She’d never seen a ship so badly damaged.

She thought, Poor fucker; lift that driver’s chow-bucket off its hook and send it back to Stores…then realised that this was the view from Miz’s ship; he was following her, and what she was looking at was her own craft. She was the unfortunate pilot she’d been consigning to oblivion”

Masterful. Still gives me chills when I read it.

Unlike many of Banks’ books, this one is not set in the Culture, and has no connection with it. Indeed, with a million light-years separating Thrial system from its nearest neighbour, connection is impossible. The book has everything from humour, romance, nostalgia, melancholy and ladle-fulls of action. It is a refreshing change in science fiction to have a strong female protagonist, who takes absolutely no crap from anyone. Clever, resourceful, sexy, you gotta love Sharrow.

I was lucky enough to meet Iain M Banks, and let him know that this is my all-time favourite book, bar none. In response, he blinked, smiled and said “Blimey, thanks very much”. Nice guy – even signed it for me. It isn’t every day that you get the chance to tell an author how much you appreciate his writing, and I was glad of the chance.

There is a lot in this book, and I won’t spoil it for you. I would recommend it heartily, even if you really enjoyed the Culture novels and worry that you won’t like this. It is different from the Culture books, certainly, but the trademark elements of what makes a great Banks book are here – good plot, good characters, lots of action, great ideas.

Last line:

“A little later the monowheel vehicle spun backwards out of the sewer outfall, pirouetted vertically like a saluting mount, swung down across the greasy slope of stones at the base of the House’s walls, dodged uncoordinated gunfire from a nearby tower and accelerated quickly across the tide-flooding sands”