Top critical review
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on 18 July 2012
I re-read this book recently after getting to thinking I must have missed something the first time round. The central idea of the novel is ambitious and impressive, dealing with multiple characters across a myriad of realities (the "many worlds"). Tackling the multiverse was never going to be easy, and I'm surprised by some of this novel's brighter reviews in the national press.
The page-to-page experience of the novel is generally a good one. Banks is an excellent writer, and there are some brilliant pieces of description and ideas. The characters, however, are not well formed. Adrian Cubbish is the worst of these. He's from up north but has set himself the challenge of playing a barrow-boy-banker. The sections of the book written from his viewpoint are the most stereotypical and predictable. Lots of "know what I mean?" and "But I was the golden boy, wasn't I?"
Although the central theme is impressive, the plot doesn't hold together in the slightest. Ideas are set out and then rubbished, and the `rules' that seem to apply to those with the ability to transition between the many worlds are all eventually forgotten, giving way to a confusing narrative where anything is possible (which makes for very dull storytelling).
This comes to a head towards the end of the novel, which has set up the premise that to visit an alternative reality there must be human bodies there which travellers can take up as hosts. Two of the main characters visit a world where an accident caused by a "gamma-ray burster" left the planet "devoid of humans". The visitors seem to have use of human bodies whilst they are there, but there is no explanation as to how. Similarly, just after setting up the premise, the central character hypothesises about transitioning into mid-air from an aeroplane and falling to his death: impossible, unless transitioned into the body of a skydiver intent on suicide. For this to happen to him there would have to be someone in mid-air over the Atlantic for him to take up as a host. These and similar inconsistencies make the whole thing a bit of a waste of time.
The novel's many worlds and characters could have been interesting. Indeed, some of the ideas continue to intrigue me. Banks sets up a great premise, and then explores about four percent of it. The inadequate characters, of which there are so many, are under explored. They never visit or come across alternative versions of themselves (wouldn't you be tempted?) and it's never quite clear what happens to host minds when they are displaced, or the original bodies of the travellers when they are left unattended (we know they are functional, but seem to lack personality - they are described as "husks" but seem to look after themselves, therefore retaining an identity (character) of some kind that isn't acknowledged). In a book with so many characters, it would be nice if some had approached the subject matter, and the central plot points of the novel, from a few more angles.