the Little Red Reviewer

Against a Dark Background, by Iain M. Banks

Posted on: October 5, 2013

against a dark backgroundAgainst a Dark Background, by Iain M. Banks

published in 1993

where I got it: gift from a friend














Sharrow hasn’t done anything wrong, well, not horribly wrong. Not so horribly wrong that she deserves to be religiously and ritualistically murdered by the Huhsz. The cult has the government’s permission and approval to capture and kill Sharrow, and she’s got one year plus one day to evade them and gain her freedom.

Luckily, Sharrow is not without friends and allies. Her very wealthy cousin, Geis, is only a phone call away, but Sharrow would prefer to work with her teammates. More than just a team, she is psychically linked to a small group of soldiers who now call themselves antiquities dealers. That’s a fancy name for thieving and fencing, by the way. They don’t know what the others are thinking, but they know how the other in the group will react, and sometimes that’s more important. Sharrow’s sister, Breyguhn, is a guest (or possibly a prisoner) at the Sea House Of The Sad Brothers. She’ll be released if Sharrow can bring a mythical book known as The Universal Principles to the Brothers of the House. She’s not sure if she can find it, but she owes it to her sister to free her.

She thought all she had to do to escape the Huhzs was hide from them for a while. Of course it’s not going to be that easy, is it? Following vague clues about the location of The Universal Principles, her gang already planning other jobs, and there is of course, the Lazy Gun. Last of it’s kind, everyone is after the unpredictable weapon. If Sharrow and her gang can find it, all the better for them as well. The Lazy Gun’s are oddly temperamental. When used, they might throw a bomb, or a piano, or a buckshot at your enemy. Possibly self aware, when Lazy Guns feel they are being interfered with, they usually blow themselves up.

On the search for the book and the Lazy Gun (and on the run!), Sharrow and friends visit plenty of strange places in their system, many bordering on the surreally absurd. Banks’s sense of humor is on full display here, where among other communities, we have a tribe of solipsists all who believe they are the only one who truly exists and all the other people in the tribe are their apparences; and the most absurdly backwards kingdom in all of creation, where useless items are horded simply to keep other kingdoms from being able to use them (for all values of useless that equate to priceless, of course).

From planet to planet, Sharrow finds clues and a few dead ends. She’s even slowly getting closer to The Lazy Gun. But she can’t fly fast enough or far enough to escape some sadistic twins, who can physically torture her from afar. How did they get something into her body that would respond to their remotes? Whatever is in her body, she needs to get it out. Great, one more thing to add to her “do to” list. No problem, right?

As you can see, there’s a lot going on here. And there’s even more left unsaid. Like most Banks novels, the subtleties in Against A Dark Background will leave you breathless. The book offers more layers than an onion, and the meat of the story is found in the deepest layers. Peel back a few layers for a fun action packed black comedy, peel back a few more for a troublesome family drama, peel back some more for a dangerous glimpse into how easy it is for the characters to do horrible things to each other.  Banks may not be throwing you into the deep end, but he’s not going to save you from drowning either.

Not a Culture novel, Against a Dark Background is stand alone, which means that if you’ve never read Banks, this is probably a safe place to start. It’s so much of a stand alone, in fact, that in one scene, a character looks up into the night sky to note that the closest star is a million light years away. It’s as if the universe has quarantined these people. Is the lonesome sky the dark background? Or is it Sharrow’s background that’s dark? Connections and humor abound, and the book offers more questions than answers.

All that said, this is the weakest Banks novel I’ve read. It starts with a bang, and ends with a bang so big it can barely fit on the page, but I found the middle to be very draggy. I’m so conflicted, because I can flip the book open to any page, and easily find a gorgeously written scene or a vivid character that easily gets a “that was so cool!” out of me, but while I was reading it, it kept suffering from “put-down-ability”. Now, to say this is the weakest Banks I’ve read means that it is still better than 95% of everything that’s out there, so there’s that. His crappiest writing is better than half the Hugo award winning novels out there. Even though the middle of the book was slow for me, I can see myself picking this up again in a few years, because I know, I KNOW damnit, that missed a lot of the hints and connections between things. Banks put them there for me to find, I owe it to him to try better to find them.

If you’ve never read Banks before, I do not recommend this as a starting point, simply because it’s not even close to his best.  If you have read this, I’m curious as to how you think it compares to his other novels. People, discuss!

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8 Responses to "Against a Dark Background, by Iain M. Banks"

I liked this one, but it had the most frustrating ending of all his books, and I’ve never been a big fan of any of his endings. This one was worse, because I didn’t realise it was the end until I turned the page and there wasn’t anything else to read. That said, I also loved the whole concept of the fewer names you have, the higher your social status, and you can pay to get one of your names removed to go up in society. Very simple, but at the same time really unique.


i liked the end, but at the same time felt very let down by it. *sigh*. I too love the way his societies work!


Hmm. Despite it all the premise looks interesting enough that I want to try it. And your right, I cant imagine a Banks by book actually being ‘weak.’.

Also. Mmmmm, onions.


onion books are the best, aren’t they?


Oddly enough, this was the first Banks I read. (Selected wholly at random.) I thought the third quarter dragged a bit, which is something I’ve seen in other Banks stuff. You may be right – I think it is a weaker effort, though I didn’t have anything to compare it with at the time.


What did you think when you read it though, where you blown away? Did you want to read more Banks afterwards? It is very, very draggy in the middle, and had I not known a Banksian ending was impending (even though I was a little let down by it, it just kind of happens), i might not have finished it.


I don’t know if I was blown away, but it was a lot of fun and very different from anything else I was looking at. I definitely wanted to get into the Culture series after reading Dark Backgrond.


oh good, I’m happy it was a good introduction book for you!


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