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3.9 out of 5 stars76
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VINE VOICEon 11 April 2007
'Against A Dark Background' is the tale of a woman forced to find a mythical reality-warping weapon before she can be executed by a crazed religious cult. Iain (M) Banks 4th science fiction novel is his first not to be set in his 'Culture' series of novels, though there are a few surface similarities with 'Consider Phlebas' as this is another novel featuring a group of trigger-happy mercenaries on the trail of a powerful artefact. Essentially a quest novel, 'Against a Dark Background' is full of striking science fiction imagery (city-sized plant-life; a monastery where the inhabitants are chained to the walls; a backwards God-hating society), compelling characters (particularly the heroine and her poisonous relationship with her half-sister, and a rather lovable robot who joins the adventure looking for new experiences), a twisty plot, and a suprising amount of humour. Unfortunately however it doesn't quite add up to a satisfactory whole, with the climax complete with a rather cheesy melodramatic villain and an over-complex plot, but for fans of well-written action-packed science fiction there is plenty of enjoyment to be had along the way. Slightly less than the sum of it's parts, this is an enjoyable tale but not quite up to Banks best work.
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on 13 June 2000
My copy of this book is well worn; I no longer let it leave the house, despite the fact that I have found few people as fanatical about it. Why does it grab me so? The title says it all -- it is a true, dark piece of science fiction. Heros die. Love goes unrequited. Revenge is spiteful and slow in building. This is dark pathos woven in and around what could have been a very protected and innocent life. It is the tale of corruption, of loss, of bitter-sweet victories set against the near comic backdrop of desire, tragedy and a good-ole treasure hunt.
The fact that this is not a Culture novel is at the core of Banks' creativity. He has kept the scale within a solar system, invented from scratch the history, politics, religion, militia and sociology of a corner of the universe. That, in it's intimate nature, makes the story all the more believable.
Read this book many times. --->> Aim Here <<---
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on 3 June 2012
I've always enjoyed this author and this book in particular, fantastic plot, characters and humour so I bought the Kindle version the other day. Someone from the publisher really should proof read it. For some reason random words get hyphenated on almost every page. It's enough to drive you to distraction. I myself have two Kindle books for sale as a self published author and have been criticised once for bad proofing and made every effort to sort it out. How come a mainstream publishing house can be so unprofessional??
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on 22 June 2013
(Rating for conversion only.)
Yet another sloppy text conversion job; it seems that all words split with hyphens in the original justified text still carry the hyphens even though they now appear in the middle of a line. This is not a hard thing to sort out, I could programme it myself. The publishers should show more embarrassment.
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on 18 April 2001
If you have read any of Iain M Banks sci-fi novels, you know you are in for a powerful, mind-blowing experience... Having read most of them, this stands out as my sure favourite. The characters are exquisitely crafted, and the plot, whilst being along vein of the archetypal quest, has enough twists and turns to shock, elevate and emotionally bowl you over. Save this one for a special occasion - and try not to embarrass yourself too much, as I did on the tube, when you get to the last fifty pages.... Compulsive stuff.
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on 5 June 2015
Most of Banks' SF work is set in the Culture, which made him famous. I realise this means I have bad taste, but I dislike most of those stories. One problem is that Banks' own prejudices are heavily to the fore: sex and drugs are good, religion, capitalism and blood sports are bad. The most egregious example is in "Surface Detail" where the villain is a capitalist who shoots birds from his limousine on the drive from his house, aids and abets religious cults, keeps slaves, mistreats women, and even cheats at games. I have the impression that he ought to be wearing a top hat and twirling a waxed moustache. The other difficulty is that the Culture is so powerful that they are always bound to win: they have faster spaceships, bigger guns and cleverer computers than everyone else, so they can outrun, outshoot and outthink any possible enemy. "Against a Dark Background" has nothing to do with the Culture, and Banks' protagonist is faced with a very different predicament: a powerful enemy is chasing her and she has on her side only a few friends and whatever she can find on the way. Unlike a Culture hero/ine, it is possible to believe she could be defeated - indeed, difficult to believe she could succeed, though she does in the end. There is still a bit of "drugs are good, religion is bad", but the reader is not beaten over the head with it. The world of Golter, which has been civilised for more than ten thousand years, is vividly described and has a lot of depth, but there is no sensation that Banks is saying "Here, look at all this stuff I worked out and have to cram into the story." I've read it twice now, and will read it again. I feel it would make a good film, certainly better than a lot of the rubbish which passes for SF in Hollywood these days.
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on 9 February 2014
I've read all of Iain's Culture novels, but I missed this non-culture one first time round so I thought I would catch up with it on my Kindle, and I wasn't disappointed. It has all his invention and his usual fast moving plot with believable characters , as usual interspersed with flash-backs. I think the final chapter is one of his best ever.
The only annoyance with otherwise perfect formatting was that the soft hyphens from the book were left in - very sloppy.
Brian Price
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on 8 September 2000
Not one for the Culturniks, but again Banks delivers with a playful take on the fantasy quest genre, dressed in space-opera trimmings instantly recognisable as Banks'.
Yes, we have the huge unlikely settings (beautifully rendered) and strong female characters, but all with a lower-tech feel and a recognisable back-story.
A real romp of a read, yet not without Banks' usual poignancy, this is probably the most fun of his science-fiction yet.
My only beef is that the key point from which the title springs is only dealt with in passing: it permeates the feel of the book, but so little is made of it that you can even miss it!
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on 29 September 2014
The Thrial system, comprising main planet Golter and a few other inhabited planets, is a million light years away from anything: the night sky is dark excepts for the other planets and very distant smudges of galactic light. Civilisation is 20 millennia old, but with nowhere to go, has cycled, fragmented, and stagnated. Lady Sharrow, impoverished aristocrat and ex military team leader, is being hunted by the Huhsz, a bizarre religious sect who believe she is the last obstacle standing in the way of their messiah’s return, since they killed her mother. Her only hope for surviving their assassins is to find the last Lazy Gun, which her ancestors stole from the Huhsz, and return it to them. She gathers her remaining ex-team, and sets off to find it. But first, she has to recover a priceless antiquity that holds a clue to the Lazy Gun’s location, despite having been lost millennia before the Lazy Gun was hidden.

This is Banks, so the story of questing for plot coupons is done very well. Sharrow and her motley crew traipse around the Thrial system, allowing us to see a huge variety of government styles, including solipsists, monarchies, religions, cults, and corporations. Carefully crafted flashbacks of deep tragedies and petty rivalries let us see how Sharrow got to be they way she is.

There are touches of Banksian humour, and marvellous invention, but this is apparently a rewrite of a much earlier work, maybe before he found his full voice, and the ability to pull it all together. The main feeling from this tale is the crushing weight of history, of having tried everything and nothing working, resulting in the fragmented claustrophobic cultures (here definitely with a small ‘c’).

There is a bleak, but satisfactory, conclusion. Available online, but not in the published work, is an epilogue, which ties up a few loose ends, but doesn’t add much to the outcome. Overall, I found it difficult to engage with the characters or story: an interesting tour of a complex world, but not enough point.
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on 11 October 2011
Iain Banks' fourth sci-fi novel, while not a Culture novel, follows a similar pattern as Consider Phlebas and The Algebraist, a fellow non-Culture novel. The latter two novels were planet hopping, solar system exploring, alien delving, quest faring, 5-star plunges into the realm of science fiction like I've rarely experienced before. Now, while Dark Background may not be many of the above, it is at its nature in the `quest faring' category. The entire novel takes place within just ONE solar system (only Inversions beats this small scope by taking place in one continent). Banks' description of this solar system is detailed and enthralling. The prose he uses to describe something as mechanical as orbital body order is impressive. To compound this, his written sketch of planetary particulars paints a vivid enough picture to nearly make one hallucinate. The tri-planet quest will leave you with your own vibrant memories of their search for the Universal Principles book and the Lazy Gun.

The quest for the two relics above sets the background for the entire novel, but it doesn't take center stage. At center stage is the relationship between the protagonist Lady Sharrow (since this isn't a Culture novel, she doesn't have an absurdly long name) and everyone else be it friend, foe, android, King, cousin, half-sister or even God. The family relationships are well probed as the novel tends to occasionally flashback to Sharrow's past experiences, whose lessons' reflect on the continuing storyline. The entire flashback cliché isn't humdrum or eye-rolling; Banks does a fine job of keeping everything relevant. His visions of 18,000 year-from-now humankind on a distant planet feel real, even though much of the story is about its aristocracy (which I hate in nearly ALL novels but Banks does such a fine job, yet again).

The plot flow for a typical Banks novel is fairly steady, which would a large reason why I've rated all of his sci-fi novels either three stars (Inversion and Feersum Enjinn) or more. Again, here in Dark Background, the pace is steadily addictive... up until about the 75% point where I began to put the book down more and more often before it finally picked up 50 or so pages later. I finished the novel is a brisk 3½ days with little sweat.

Banks is inclined to focus on plot and character development in his novels while technology takes second-string (unlike fellow British SF authors Asher and Hamilton). This is also the case in Dark Background. There's a strong spotlight on the Lazy Gun in the beginning of the book, but there's minimal technological attention paid to it. There is also light attention paid to the weapons, predominant land vehicles, space vehicles and modes of communication. If there is one prime piece of technological wonder in the novel, it would be the monowheel (a ground car with one center wheel), which makes an appearance on the cover of the British version of the cover and towards the last 15% of the novel.

A solid novel by Banks but it has its' one stretched moment of lapse and boredom, which seriously took it down one star. This is amalgamated with the protagonists' repetitive dreams of friends' deaths. The last 15% could have been more solid.
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