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Against a Dark Background - Iain M. Banks

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Author: Iain Banks / Genre: Sci-Fi / Fantasy

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    5 Reviews
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      12.03.2013 13:28
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      If you're working your way through Banks' sci-fi collection, don't skip this, but don't expect much.

      Lady Sharrow wanders with intent along the long glass shores of some distant, course continent. She sings softly, a song from her past, as she drifts sadly over the artificial dunes, spotting in the distance a beachcomber at odds with the landscape. On the horizon a saddled beast appears, and strapped to its back, a rather unstable figure struggling to direct the mid-tamed creatures mass. It's Geis, Sharrow's cousin, come with news of her current predicament, news too important to be exchanged over the phone - though Sharrow suspects a more personal reason for her cousins unorthodox arrival. The two's history is a complicated one, as the tale will inevitably address, but it's not a patch on the perplexing society they belong to. The system of planets our two characters find themselves contains a single ancient society constantly at ill-ease with its self. It's made up of a complex network of governments, companies, funds, trusts, religious factions and noble families all yearning for success. Just like on Earth (but on a far more rigorous scale), the greater the hold over the masses and the wealth of the system the better. There is a constant barrage of claims to legality chipping away at the defences of each financial 'sanctuary', numerous filings of law-suits; attempts to sniff out the loop-holes. The whole place swarms with business minds, sifting through the dirt (the debris' left behind by former rules, regulations, and agreements long since reinforced or fallen), attempting to decipher gain from decay. Evidently, this is NOT a Culture place.

      The Huhsz are a particularly powerful religious cult that have taken a particularly nasty turn to Sharrow - believing that, unless her bloodline is ended, their Messiah cannot be born. You see, in Sharrow's past she has made a few critical errors, one of which resulted in the death of several million people (20% of Lip City), when the dismantling of a powerful Lazy Gun went horribly wrong. The Huhsz are about to acquire legitimate 'hunting passports' that will allow them to lawfully commence the big event which they believe will culminate in the Ladies sacrifice. As an added layer of suspense, they only have one year before the passports expire, and potential safety can be arranged for our main character.

      Lazy Guns are one of the last remaining mysteries of the system. Eight were discovered, and several were used to drastic effect. When you use a Lazy Gun, the method of destruction it applies varies depending on the size and strength of the object(s) targeted. A human target might take a laser beam, bullet, or a heavy weight to the head for instance, whilst a ship might hit an ice-berg or face the wrath of a ferocious tidal wave. The Lazy Gun works in bizarre and unexplainable ways. In the case of cities, thermo-nuclear explosions are the norm, though in one instance a comet struck, causing similar levels of devastation. In the wrong hands, a Lazy Gun is the most deadly tool in the entire system.

      With the Huhsz and the Lazy Gun as continual themes, 'Against a Dark Background' indulges its' reader the life and times of lady Sharrow, a level headed, army-trained, kind-hearted (but ruthless), strong-willed, resistant woman from Golter, a planet lit by the sun, Thrial, the only star for a million light years. It's understandable then, that after 7,000 years of space travel, the systems inhabitants have never managed interstellar activity - they're all alone. The only way Sharrow can stop the Huhsz is by acquiring the only artefact they see greater in value than Sharrow's sacred suffering, the Universal Principles. This ancient book is said, by Sharrow's dead relative Gorko (the former head of her formerly rich and powerful family), to contain the where-abouts of the last remaining Lazy Gun. However, it is in fact Breyguhn (Sharrow's half-sister) that sheds this information to her. Breyguhn is being held captive by the Sad Brothers (another cult) in the Sea House, and on visiting her sister early on in the novel, a picture of the two's past is quickly revealed. It is fraught with sibling squabbles on the highest level. From the day they first met, a rivalry has existed, and Banks takes great pleasure in exhibiting this relationship to his reader in flash backs, and in great detail.

      The flash-backs attempt to build suspense and detail between Breyguhn and Sharrow, though certain episodes delve into unrelated areas of Sharrow's life. They mainly feature rivalry over men, the back-stabbing competition they had for a certain cousin back when the two were still in their teens. Perhaps the most interesting flash-back however, doesn't feature this, it features an android named Skave. In an effort to impress Breyguhn, Sharrow hacks into the 7,000 year old family android and alters its sleep, giving it a nightmare that will seem to the sentient machine to last 1,000 nights - and in which there is no escape. This vicious act reveals a lot about Sharrow's darker side, and might well be a hint of things to come.

      In true Banks fashion, there are a host of other main characters (which perhaps I should have mentioned earlier). Clearly, Sharrow cannot complete her dangerous quest to rediscover the UP and LG alone, so she has to reunite with her previous companions, her previous Combat Company which she led during the 5% Tax Wars several decades prior. Sharrow reacquaints herself with the team: Cenuij, a disgruntled man contented with his life in the city and reluctant to join Sharrow's crusade; Miz, Sharrow's former lover and a rich entrepreneur; Zefla and her brother Dloan - the former a tall and slender, upbeat figure with an optimistic approach to life, and the latter a strong, stubby and quiet man with a protective outlook on life. Sharrow also acquires the help and guidance of a few other intriguing characters: Travapath the wizard-like philosopher and Feril the adventurous android (who assists Sharrow to the bitter end).

      Along the way to the Universal Principles, the team first find themselves attempting to attain an Antiquity; the Log-Jam's prized, Crownstar Addendum, one of the most valuable items in the system. The Log-jam is a fascinating location, inventive and unique. Banks has created a floating city made from thousands of permanently docked ships, each catering to different urban function - shops, bars, homes, an airport, banks and vaults, etc. It is within the most highly secured vault that Sharrow, Miz and the team attempt to steal the Crownstar Addendum, but not all goes to plan...

      On leaving the vault, Sharrow is struck by an inhumane sensation of pain, a piercing, sickly injustice seeping to the very depths of her nervous system. She falls into a sort of coma of pain. What follows is a meeting with two identical twins (who Sharrow suspects to be androids). It is with these twins that a new element is added to the story, because Sharrow discovers that at any moment she can be harmed by use of a mysterious Voodoo doll at their command. Suddenly, nowhere is safe. The twins have only one ambition, to gain control of the last remaining Lazy Gun through manipulation of Sharrow... But who are they working for?

      The trail eventually leads Sharrow to the thrown of the Useless Kings - a religion vowed to curse and demoralise its own God; a religion based around the utter hatred of the sacred (awesome idea Banks!) - and it is here that the whereabouts of the Universal Principles are realised. As to where that will lead Sharrow next is another thing entirely!

      THE OPINION:

      I think the novel is set up really well at the beginning. It has all the right ingredients for a good thriller or tragedy, and there's even some comical dialogue and witty humour thrown in as well. It seems like it's going to be yet another classic Banks adventure, written in the style of his earlier Culture novels, but with a new and intriguing spin. What's bitterly disappointing then, is that Banks, despite all the great ideas put forward in this book, not to mention the resonant characters, doesn't seem to have captured the same page-turning excitement as previous. The book was (largely) a difficult, crawling read for me. This is a re-write (the final re-write) of his earlier works, and it seems (perhaps because of this) that a lot of the soul and attentive detail has been drained from the story - maybe it was never evident. The characters have personality and life, but their activities seem drawn out, and their reasoning cloudy (excluding Sharrow's). I feel like I never truly grasped a full image of the characters. I didn't see their physique, I saw their personalities based on what they had expressed through the dialogue. In other words, I didn't get the full picture when I read Against a Dark Background. The story-line may be an epic quest for the truth, twisted by outside influence - the Huhsz, Sad Brothers, Twins (and their hidden masters), etc - but it didn't read as well as it sounds. The thrill of the moment didn't transcend.

      A lot of the flash-backs experienced by Sharrow seemed unconnected, unnecessary to the overall story. They were also very long, sometimes exceeding ten or more pages. They often didn't lead the reader to anything conclusive about the characters personality or her relations - they seemed to fill gaps that weren't ever present.

      I thought ideas such as the Thrown of the Useless Kings, and the android Skave were high on the list of banks' best inventions, but the way they were moulded into the story wasn't up to scratch. Skave brought a much needed machine intelligence into the team, giving them the upper hand in places, and providing interesting analysis of situations. You could tell the android wasn't on the same level as a Culture equivalent which was cool, the balance seemed just right for the story with this character.

      I might have gone into this a bit too much, almost giving it more credit than it deserves. But as you can tell, the story-line takes a lot of explaining, the ideas behind it are wild, new and complex - which is a good thing. In general though, I just didn't get a good feel from this novel. It came across as slow, with too much filler and not enough grip. The action is enthralling, but the rest (the vast majority) is someway close to a bore. I'll have to settle on 3 stars for Against a Dark Background.

      RATING: 3.0/5
      PRICE: £6.89 (paperback)
      AVAILABILITY: Amazon.co.uk at above price.

      Thanks for reading!

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        01.03.2002 17:06
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        The title says it all really, “Against a Dark Background” – you can tell this isn’t going to be a happy tale. Welcome to Golter, an Earth-like planet approaching its decamillennial celebrations (that’s 10,000 years to you and me). The inhabitants of Golter have spread out throughout their solar system, colonising and terraforming wherever possible along the way, although they have not managed to make the trip to any other solar systems for the simple reason that their star is an orphan wandering on its own private route in the otherwise dead space between galaxies. Golter itself is a splintered society, its political map a multicoloured confusion of independent states, religious enclaves, disputed areas, commercial territories and assorted kingdoms and private lands. As is only to be expected, war is a reoccurring fact of life. Enter Sharrow, or Lady Sharrow to give her her correct title, granddaughter of an incredibly wealthy but disgraced aristocrat and ex-member of a personality attuned combat team that fought in the Five Percent War. Sharrow is also, unfortunately for her, regarded as the major obstacle to a religious cult called the Huhsz achieving enlightenment. You see, many generations ago her ancestor stole the eighth and last Lazy Gun from the Huhsz – unless the Gun is returned in time for the decamillennium the Huhsz have decided to hunt down and kill Sharrow instead. And, the World Court has already granted them their Hunting Passports. Sharrow’s only hope is to find the Lazy Gun before the Huhsz find her and give it back to them in return for her life. All in all then, the stage is set for some trademark Iain M Banks seat-of-the-pants sci-fi action. Or is it? I think the first time I read the book I got about half-way through when suddenly I stopped mid-sentence, looked mildly puzzled, and then thought to myself, ‘Hang on a minute, something’s not quite right here
        .’ You see, the book isn’t really sci-fi at all. Despite the laser guns and spaceships, the planet-hopping and androids, “Against a Dark Background” is a good old piece of fantasy fiction. You have the “Fellowship of the Gun” consisting of Sharrow and her ex-combat team which she slowly pieces together after years apart. They set off on a quest to find a treasure, or rather treasures – first the Crownstar Addendum, a fabled necklace; then the “Universal Principles”, a unique book with a clue in it to the Lazy Gun’s location; and finally the Lazy Gun itself, an incredibly powerful weapon capable of destroying anything its sights are set on. There is a princess in a tower, Sharrow’s sister held in the Sea House by a religious order called the Sad Brothers, and even magic in the form of ancient weapons (such as the Lazy Gun) from a lost age which can easily overpower and destroy anything that modern-day Golter can come up with. So, more like seat-of-the-pants not-quite-so-trademark Iain M Banks sci-fi/fantasy action. (Try saying that three times quickly!) And Banks certainly delivers on expectations. Although nearly 500 pages long the novel grips you on the first page and doesn’t let go until the dust is settling from the explosions of the near-apocalyptic ending. Violence runs throughout the book in a never-ending stream of gunfire, explosions and death – had Banks not already used the title “Use of Weapons” for another book it would have been ideal for this one. Death and destruction follow Sharrow like some dark cloud, the number of people killed either directly or indirectly by her actions reaching into the thousands (yes, I do mean thousands!). One incident in particular haunts her – when working as an Antiquities hunter after the war in her youth, she was contracted to find one of the remaining Lazy Guns. This she did, and returned it to Li
        p City to be investigated. The only trouble was that the Gun didn’t like being fiddled with and detonated itself in a nuclear explosion that destroyed half the city. The book is amazing in its variety. Like all good fantasy (well, the bits of fantasy fiction I’ve read anyway – think “Lord of the Rings”), the characters travel through a number of areas with very different geography and inhabitants. There are desert wastelands, wind-swept coasts, snowy mountains and impenetrable forests. Well, I say forest, but I really mean Entraxrln – a plant covering most of the landmass of one of the planets in Golter’s star system. Probably the most “fantasy like” section of the book is set here when the characters set out from the main city on the planet into the dense foliage of the ever-present plant in search of the “Universal Principles”, the book they believe will lead them to the Lazy Gun. They travel through the forest on horseback to the land of the Useless King, leaving behind the technology they know to enter a more ancient way of life in a kingdom where anything new is frowned on unless it can be proved to be “Useless”. Each new location the characters arrive at is described in vivid detail, as are the characters themselves. The fellowship Sharrow creates from the surviving members of her former combat team is made up of interesting individuals who each have their own motivations for helping her. As the action progresses the reader is also treated to tantalising glimpses of Sharrow’s past, which adds further depth to the relationships she has with the other characters. A warning though, this is Iain Banks, not Hollywood – it would be a good idea not to get too attached to any of the characters. Just because they are the good guys it doesn’t make them invulnerable to gunfire. The complex politics of Golter’s fractured political map raises it
        s head now and then, but never gets in the way of the story. In general, the reader is given just enough information to make the background to the book coherent and rationalise the characters’ actions, but not so much that the book becomes bogged down in political discussion. There are only a few times when I felt there was not enough information available – especially near the end of the book when the action moves to the Embargoed Areas, which are off-limits to Golter’s citizens and patrolled by a quasi-military force. The only thing is, the book never actually explains why the Area is off limits, which I found a little frustrating. However, such gaps are rare and Banks has obviously spent a huge amount of time creating the world – if this “came out of the closet” as a fantasy novel I’m sure there would have been a map or two tagged on at the beginning of the book for the reader to refer to. The mix of sci-fi and fantasy is also a refreshing break from the norm. Banks never writes what you could call “hard” science fiction in the first place (he relies on characters and events to drive the story rather than technology), but in this novel it was interesting to see two different genres merge and, on the whole, compliment each other. And the novel is not all darkness and death either. Banks’ twisted sense of humour runs through the entire book, especially in his treatment of the various religious cults and sects that put in an appearance. My favourite are the Solipsists who each believe they are God (apart from one of them who is an atheist) and that the rest of the people they see in day-to-day life are nothing more than imaginary figures who they conjure up to help them mull over problems. The leader of the cult is particularly delighted every time one of his followers is killed as he believes this means his will is growing stronger and he needs less imaginary people around him to act as m
        ental crutches! Having said that, I can see that this book is not for everybody. If you like sci-fi, it might be a little too far-fetched in places, and fans of fantasy fiction might have a hard time getting their heads around the laser guns and androids. And, of course, if you don’t like either genre you might just dismiss it all as silly and not what “proper” literature is all about. While looking around on the internet the other day I also discovered an unpublished epilogue to the book that was first published in “The Culture” fanzine in 1998 and has since been made available on the net. If you’ve read the book, I advise taking a look, although it doesn’t add much to the plot. Or, if you’re new to Iain (M) Banks, why not see what he writes like? The extract is available under http://cdr.sine.com/cdr/article.cfm?id=142. So, to sum up, this is a strange novel, although I really enjoyed it. While not as literary as some of Banks’ other books, it has no real pretensions to be and can be enjoyed as a break-neck adventure yarn. Unlike his “Culture” novels, it is 100% stand-alone and so might be a good place to start if you are new to the author. You should give it a go; you never know, you might just enjoy it.

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          21.04.2001 21:04
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          As the title suggests this is a dark novel. Set in a futuristic universe, not the Culture of Banks' other novels, the story twists and turns with Banks' usual style. As you would expect this is written very well and is a joy to read but it doesn't flow as well as some of his other books, there are some disjointed events that although tied together cleverly in the plot are very separate in a literary sense. Perhaps this is deliberate and sets the tone of this half of the novel but for me it wasn't quite right. Shannon, the story's reluctant conscious heroine is, or was, the leader of a group of biologically linked warriors now separated and abandoned by their former sponsors. Tricked and decieved by various groups of people she almost accidentally starts searching for a super weapon, mainly to make sure it doesn't fall into someone else's hands as the effects could be catastrophic. The team are reassembled and the hunt becomes more complex as the plot really takes off. The world Banks paints as a backdrop for his story of political double cross, backstabbing and suspense is as dark as the title suggests. With some wonderful sci-fi concepts just dropped in and not explored just to add to the feel of the planet. Usually with sci-fi and fantasy I wish authors would explore the little ideas they drop in every now and then but with this book each clever concept is almost self contained; it doesn't need expanding in the text and really fleshes out the scene that contains it. I found myself quite satisfied with the ideas being used like this and not wanting more. Banks initially makes his world brutally different from our own and it seems a stark future but as the book develops the parallels with our own post modern society creep up on you. The effects of corruption, corporate politics and over commercialisation are slowly revealed as history in the novel which could be a dark and cynical look at our own possible f
          uture. These facets of the world aren't just written in to read straight from the page they are just facts in the background of the reality Banks is writing about. His characters just react to things in various ways and make assumptions which build up a picture of their outlook and the world they inhabit. This subtle way of giving the reader information really makes the darkness of the world more effective and powerful. Each of the characters in the book is portrayed in a different way, the writing style changes slightly for each and they are all very believeable. They aren't all perfect or likeable. All of them have qualities that you admire as the heroic properties necessary in the book but likewise all of them have a darker side, they're very human and each has a history, both linked with the other characters and as an individual. Again Banks doesn't just write their histories down for you he slowly reveals small things about each by interactions between characters and the way each reacts to the different situations. The novel also contains a lot of humour, little parodies of other sci fi universes and worlds from other books and films. These touches make teh creeping horror feel even more effective. Although 'Against a Dark Background' is not a horror novel it leaves you with that satisfying slightly uneasy feel after reading much better than many novels of that genre manage. Banks really has got the ethos of this book right, without thinking about it you slide right back in to the situation every time you pick the book up to continue adn for me that's a mark of true quality. I think this is Banks' best book, the writing is sublime, nothing is over done and nothing is left out. A must read for any Banks' fan and a really good book if you like any sci fi.

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            03.10.2000 03:25
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            It's Ian M Banks Easy to understand why this, but why now? Well, This would make the third copy of AaDB I've bought. Two given as birthday or Christmas presents previously. In a way I love it to bits; in another way it worries me deeply. On any cold- blooded assessment, Banks as a science fiction writer of the larger shores is not as scary as the aggressive cornering of all available cosmic wierdness of Larry Niven; Banks's stories are large and loose, and there's always room for a parallel universe or two. Despite the skill- and he has some stunning imagery- you get the feeling that he is something of an E.E. "Doc' Smith for the nineties; he will come close enough to be hugely entertaining, but never actually write the definitive story of anything. Part of this- criticism intended- is because he's just not odd enough; the motivations behind his stories are entirely too mundane. His people are too much like we would be, taking advantage of the opportunities their society offers them to satisfy desires and impulses not sufficiently different from those of you or I to be convincing as those of children of so radically different a culture. He is simply not searching the wilder shores of psychology in anything like the way he expands huge and powerful technologies- Culture vessels have actually become less and less powerful in every novel of the series. And a good thing too- we were on trans- Star Trek levels here, and with something of the same comfortably normal social blandness. Special Circumstances is really the only part of the Culture interesting enough to be worth setting a story in. There's something wrong with such a flat civilisation- but at least it's an alternative to middle class marriage. Perhaps because I'm secretly a Puritan Independent at heart, his strange sexualities do not really move me; they're entirely too much like the dysfunctions of the present. Which is really the p
            roblem. His science-fiction work is entirely too reminiscent of him without the "M'; which is excellent work indeed, but not what science fiction at it's best and most characteristic is supposed to be about. The Player of Games, for instance, has strong links with John Brunner's The Squares of the City. Radically different modality, same point and intent. This is not a Culture novel; the setting is a small solar system in the cosmic middle of nowhere, between galaxies, trapped and condemned to fouling it's own nest, building on the rubble of the previous generations. It is nearly the decimillennium, and wild things are expected. The mundanity is very largely redeemed by his great skill at mundanity- "like many of the oddities on Golter, the Logjam was basically a tax dodge' being one example. The central character takes quite an effort to like. The plot is essentially messianic; there is a lunatic cult who want to kill off the line of a certain family of which she is a member, to prevent them spawning someone who will undercut them all. The family helps out by conveniently disgracing themselves, and Sharrow is something of a rogue anyway. How this actually happens, Banks drops a very large hint, but there are no shortage of dark passion undercurrents between Sharrow, her half-brother Geis, and her sister, a hostage of the Cult, who agree to let her alone in exchange for her finding one of the last of the Lazy Guns, a probability gun that kills it's target in the most entertaining manner its AI circuitry can dream of. A lot of stuff has got lost in the Golter system over the millennia, a good deal of it deliberately, and there is a job opportunity there, for people capable of ferreting the stuff out. In her younger years - Sharrow is a university dropout - there was a war, over a Five Percent Tax - and to anyone who is aware of the causes for which the European nations have gone to war over the last f
            our centuries, this is not a joke- and she joined up on the Anti-Tax side, where along with her fighter group she was dosed with a synchroneurobonding virus to make them function effectively as a team. There are emotional consequences, and she becomes pregnant by her second in command, just before the disastrous attack that kills three of the team and leaves her sterile; the child is extracted, force grown, and becomes, unknown to her, the new messiah-orchestrated by Geis. He also bugs her with an implanted growing crystal virus, which he uses to keep track of her and... things do get very weird. A planet-wide lifeform (essentially ripped off from James White's Major Operation , but without the sentience) much odd hole and corner stuff. The plot is basically a chase scene. It's at this point that you begin to sense the awkwardness of a one page review. I do have a few quibbles about it; first of all, the admirable and intelligent sense of restraint displayed by the inhabitants of the Golter system in structural and economic matters is inexplicably out of phase with their personal lives. Surely, surely Banks should have more of a sense of the dynamic interactions of a society than this. There's always the possibility that he, like the vast majority of us, is just copying down from reality without wondering what the pressures are that are making all this happen. It probably had to be like this, for the sake of the plot, but the characters have strong doses of cyberpunk in them, lives formed by a disintegrating, corrupt world, which does not resonate with the political structure of Golter- an interestingly incoherent place, which must have rather a British constitution; traceries of aristocracy, libertarian separatism, aristocracy, theocracy criss-cross one another; you would expect, and get in abundance, tangled remnants from a culture like this, as long as it had a reasonably soft or uncoercive centre. The problem is that it has lasted a good d
            eal longer than we're likely to, especially if we go cyberpunk. People are much more victims of society than we like to believe or let on- the alternative is worse in any case- and the characters...although certainly unusual, and every society has it's rogues, the minor figures and background characters are too much like this. Sometimes you have to throw away credibility to get a good story. Imagination; less than the best, but so very much better than the worst- B+ Science; very soft SF, derivative, cribbing; C Scene- setting; Little inconsistencies, but suspension of disbelief is well worth it; B+ Characterisation; strong if skewed and very dark; A- Overall; Excellent on it's own terms, but not in the grander scale- B

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              21.06.2000 07:14

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              A very strange tale of a band of people plagued by yet another even stranger person intent on their demise. A great book with extreamly vibrant descriptions and in depth events. As each person is introduced so to is there backgrounds and personalities. This book has many twists and turns and keeps you thinking about just what is going to happen next and sometimes what does happen is extreamly bizarre to say the very least!! By the time you get to the end a very twisted tale of why it is all happening to them is revealed.

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