Against a Dark Background was Iain M. Banks‘ fourth Science Fiction Novel, and his first not set in the Culture universe (though admittedly, it is never stated per se, and there are hints it might be). It is a marvelously interesting read, with strangely dark humor and filled with wonders from Banks’ vivid imagination. While not as dark as The Use of Weapons or Complicity, it certainly has its fair share of grim humor and deep overtones.
An ultratech futuristic Universe, with adventures spanning interstellar space.
Against a Dark Background is a wonderfully dark book with an evil sense of humor. A completely Stand Alone novel that may or may not fit into Banks’ Culture World, it was a highly enjoyable read for anyone who enjoys the darker side of Science Fiction. While not everyone will enjoy this book, I found it one of my favorites.
The primary plot revolves around Lady Sharrow’s hunt for the last remaining Lazy Gun, the only weapon ever invented that demonstrates a sense of humor. Created by a lost civilization, no one understands how these guns work, only that when fired they frequently destroy their target in a random way whose ridiculousness is inversely related to the size of said target. Thus, target a city and it will probably just blow up, but shoot a person and it will probably kill them in a manner more commonly seen in Bugs Bunny. Prepare for anvils from the sky, giant electrodes popping out and electrifying them, or the like.
What is most amazing about this book is that Banks manages to pull this off this cartoonesque weapon without making it seem stupid. Neither does it remove the dark tension of the story. Instead, Banks makes the Lazy Gun seem just as likely to exist as any other futuristic item; yet another sign of his skill as a writer.
As with most of his works, however, Against a Dark Background is not about technology or imagination, it is about people. This only really becomes clear at the end of the book, but it is what makes this book really truly work. To that end, if you are expecting a thrill-a-minute read, you may not enjoy the novel. It is a thoughtful book, and though it does have action throughout, it is not a blood-and-guts read. It uses tension rather than action to move much of the plot forward, and while I loved that, there are many who may not.
Even so, I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes thoughtful and imaginative speculative fiction, particularly ultratech Science Fiction.
- Live webchat: Iain Banks (guardian.co.uk)
- Live Iain Banks Webchat, 13.00 BST today, Friday 8th July (iain-banks.net)
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- Science fiction probes at religion | Roz Kaveney (guardian.co.uk)
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- House of Suns, Alistair Reynolds (ACE Science Fiction, 2010; Gollancz, 2008) (sophyanempire.wordpress.com)