Iain M. Banks – Against a Dark Background (1993)


  • Genre: science fiction / space opera
  • Series: no
  • Pages: 487
  • My rating: 7/10

While Iain M. Banks was working on his Culture series, he still found the time or the need to write science fiction that was unrelated to his Culture universe. Some might skip these non-Culture novels, but I wholeheartedly recommend them, if only because they illustrate that Banks had the power of imagination to conjure up universes that were every bit as rich and fascinating as his Culture universe. Against a Dark Background (1993) was written after Use of Weapons (1990) and before Feersum Endjinn (1994) and Excession (1996).

The main character is a woman named Sharrow. Just Sharrow, no last name, which indicates that she is nobility. Sharrow, beautiful and smart, is a “strong female protagonist” as some men feel urged to write them. Meaning that in the first 50 pages, she ignores two guys, lets a guy pine over her, breaks a guy’s heart, hits a guy on the chin and kicks another guy in the balls. They had it coming too. But come on, book, stop with the whole “men are bad and deserve to be hurt by a cold woman” shtick. It is uncool, and is more about men anyway. I’m a bit surprised by this element of the story, but I suppose it is part of Banks’s preferences. This stuff continues for the rest of the book. Ohhh Sharrow is so perfect and pined after and sarcastic, and every man in this book is an idiot.

Sharrow is being hunted. The plot is a bit complicated, but she needs to acquire an ancient artifact named the Lazy Gun. With this, she can placate a religious order named the Huhsz, and free her imprisoned sister. To do this, she assembles her old combat team to search the solar system for the artifact. Banks engages in world-building here on the high level of Jack Vance. Also very much like Vance, there is talk of interstellar companies, royal families, old grudges and legal acts. He spins a solar system in which a dozen planets are inhabited, with a history of 10,000 years and a whole lot of strange customs. A fascinating place altogether. A rich universe begins to unfold in our imagination.

I call this book rich, but it is also a grab bag of all sorts of fictional ideas, all squeezed into one novel. Not all of them work, and some of the ideas are just played for laughs. The Lazy Gun is one dubious example. It‘s an Outside Context Problem, something that is so weird that it ignores every law of physics. Every chapter takes us to new locations, each of which require new exposition and highlight some cool idea that Banks once had. It’s all a bit much. The exposition never lets up, while the characters are not really that involving. So, it is slow going at times. Pacing, pacing, that is of the essence, and we do need to keep concentrated on all the details.

At the half-way point, I lost all interest in continuing. The story had no tension. The characters were uninteresting. The science fiction ideas were just plain silly. Against a Dark Background is also an adaptation of old SF-material that Banks had lying around since the 70s. A fix-up of old material with some new stuff to glue it all together, perhaps. And you can feel this. There’s a lack of focus in the story, even though the individual chapters are all quite cool. Most of Sharrow’s one-name team-members never come to life. I couldn’t care less about what Miz and Dlo and Zef and Cenuij were doing, because they were just a couple of names.

I’ve never been this negative about an Iain M. Banks book and it pains me to say so. I didn’t hate it. I don’t even think it is “bad”. But reading it did feel like a waste of time and reading any further felt like a chore. His Culture novels from the same years are much better.

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