Despite being Iain M. Banks’ fifth published work of science fiction, Against a Dark Background has all the feel of being the author’s fledgling effort in the genre. Overwritten, narrative fragmented in inconsistent fashion, and plot devices and storytelling all rather overt, the book is good if you’re looking for a light read that doesn’t require too much thought. Otherwise, it leaves a lot to be desired when compared to much of the author’s other sci-fi.
Against a Dark Background is the story of Sharrow, the displaced daughter of a noble whose life choices have not endeared her to the aristocracy of their planet Golter. And what a character she is. On the run from the Huhsz, a strange religious group which has a legal assassination warrant out on her unless she can locate the last Lazy Gun, Sharrow runs the gamut of a century’s action and adventure plots trying to survive, utilizing every ounce of will and guts to enact revenge and fulfill her own goals in the process. A rebel to the world, her past haunts her as much as the present as she and her pals sabotage, trick, and cheat death one step at a time, planet to planet, finding the last Lazy Gun.
As might be seen, the most positive aspect of the novel is Sharrow. Not a tight-jumpsuit-clad, vacuous Star Wars babe with a laser pistol, Sharrow is one of the best female leads I’ve come across in a sci-fi novel in a while. Her sense of independence, wit, inner strength, and self-awareness are a sight better than the otherwise mainstream motifs employed in Against a Dark Background, not to mention the standard genre presentation of women. A scene wherein she kicks a boyfriend out of the house is the very definition of “no nonsense”. She is, in fact, the only reason to bear with the novel because…
…for as strong as Sharrow is, the remainder of the book is mediocre, at best. Banks obviously attempting to write something that will appeal to the masses, he employs numerous tried-and-true tricks. There is a MacGuffin (or two, or three), bad guys that turn out to be good guys, good guys that turn out to be bad guys, a crown jewel heist, family feuds that go back to childhood, abrupt twists for humor’s sake, lights “suddenly going out” to save several scenes, the hero going unconscious at least five times to save other scenes, and, the most-over-the-top element, the Lazy Gun itself. Readers will have to read to find out, but suffice to say it pushes the book close to satire. Thus regarding Banks’ intent, it is nothing short of rollicking entertainment. If I had to guess, in fact, I’d say publishers asked Banks to rummage around in his drawers for old material after the success of his other sci-fi works like Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games. There really is such a notable difference in quality.
Employing numerous standard tricks of the trade is one thing; padding the narrative with extraneous material is another. Such a simple story somehow clocking in at almost 500 pages, Banks could have done with some pruning. There are numerous lead-in scenes and segues which do nothing for the overall storyline, save allowing Banks the opportunity for a spot of humor (some of which is indeed quite good). By comparison, looking at Jack Vance (a writer who uses similar premises and motifs) the reader finds an economy of plot that tells a far more engaging tale as a result. Banks’ novel is at times an act of wading.
As if realizing the story was rather straight-forward, Banks broke the narrative of Against a Dark Background into pieces to make it more complex. By jumping between time frames irregularly, Banks accomplishes his goal, but still cannot disguise the blasé nature of the overall effort. Varying points in Sharrow’s history are thrust upon the reader in the middle of present day scenes, which does indeed shake the doldrums from what would otherwise be an A-B-C narrative. But what these historical scenes amount to only salts the soap opera flavor. Certainly elements of the conclusion depend on this history, but it could have been handled in less voluminous, more integral fashion that doesn’t involve fragmenting the narrative merely for complexity’s sake. Banks’ learning his lessons, Use of Weapons does a magnificent job of fragmenting past and present character narrative.
In the end, Against a Dark Background is less than average sci-fi. If you’re only looking for a fun read with most of the elements mainstream action/adventure/sci-fi is riddled with, then your expectations will be met. Sharrow is an admirable character, as are the occasional spots of comedy, but otherwise the story lacks depth or anything that might make it memorable. I am a fan of Banks, but there is better space adventure out there.