Speculative fiction has something of a tradition (though not an incredibly rich tradition) of political commentary. Perhaps the reverse is what usually happens—political commentary and satire are disguised as speculative fiction rather than a speculative fiction novel containing elements of commentary that are tangential to the thrust of the plot. 1984 and Brave New World come to mind; I suspect that Orwell and Huxley didn't start writing these classic works by saying to themselves "I've got a great idea for a science fiction novel." Fortunately, Iain Banks's Transition is a solid speculative fiction novel firmly grounded in theoretical physics, which in turn allows him to comment on current events because he's provided himself a framework by which he can step outside those events.
The premise of Transition is fairly standard speculative fiction fare—physics demands that there are an infinite number of parallel universes, and a group of people figures out a way to traverse them. That group calls themselves the Concern, or sometimes l'Expedience, and is created with the high-minded goal of making things better in those universes without, as it turns out, any sort of definition of what "better" really means. And so long as the Inner Council are made up of like-minded individuals, the group performs its mission well: an agent appears and distracts a brilliant poet long enough that he doesn't get into an elevator that subsequently plummets to the ground floor, killing everyone within.
But not everyone agrees on what "better" means, and so factions arise amongst the Concern and with them internecine politics that drive people to do horrible things in the name of a good cause. There are fundamental issues with how the members of the Concern are able to do what they do: basically they jump into the bodies of people in the other universes, but they don't think very much about the repercussions—what happens to the personality of the body they inhabit when they jump in? How do the reconstituted individuals deal with the effects of whatever action the jumper performs while in the borrowed body? What happens to their own body when their personality leaves it?
This is the complex background upon which the action of the story is based, told in another of Banks's thoughtful narrative experiments. The novel contains several points of view, sometimes delivered in first-person and sometimes third. Sometimes those narratives take place in the "now" of the story and sometimes in the past. And it becomes apparent that some of the points of view might be the same personae in different circumstances.
Banks populates Transition with more of his iconoclastic characters, giving them full personalities and making them enjoyable to read, even when they are not necessarily the best people. Madame d'Ortolan has been a member of the Inner Council for some time and is drawing those within the Council to her opinion of how things should be run, a policy which includes members of the Council being allowed to jump into young beautiful bodies as their original bodies grow old, giving them a kind of immortality. Against her stands Mrs. Mulverhill, who recognizes that not only does this cross the line from general betterment of a culture to an act of personal selfishness (despite arguments that immortality preserves the wisdom of the beneficent Council) but also that the growth and sustenance of any organization is based in part on the ideas and strength of new members. Mrs. Mulverhill also witnesses the Concern-backed research into the nature of this ability to cross universes become an effort to militarize those powers as "researchers" become torturers in order to drive those powers to extremes.
Between these two is Temudjin Oh, an operative for the Concern who reports to Madame d'O (as she becomes known) and was trained by Mrs. Mulverhill. Madame d'O tries to use him to infiltrate Mrs. Mulverhill's rebel organization while Mrs. Mulverhill tries to get information about Madame d'O's plans from him. As the book starts, the tension is already mounting and Oh is going to have to land on one side or the other very soon.
Banks uses this organization to talk about how groups that desire to do good can be perverted because of changing perceptions of what "good" is. Extremists are active in the Concern and while they may have begun with the best intention, it's difficult to overlook their methods. It's a nice commentary on the raging political war in the United States, where the words and deeds of those on the furthest right grow more and more violent without comment from the more moderate centrists. It also speaks to religion as well, reflecting on ongoing questions about Islam and what the tenets of the religion say about those who perform violence in its name. Mrs. Mulverhill acts because extremists can only continue to act in the name of an organization if no one speaks up or acts in ways to refute them. Madame d'O is a believer; she truly believes she is doing the right thing, but that some sacrifices must be made for the greater good. Eventually she also comes to believe that speaking out against her actions is actually speaking out against her, making the struggle within the Concern personal, further removing them from what their original charter.
Banks can also be rather pointed in his commentary rather than just letting similarities between his fictional organization and our world speak for him. For example, we discover that the Concern is not actually based in our universe, and in fact they desperately dislike our Earth, calling it "greedist": capitalism has gone way too far. On the world the Concern has arisen, they too had a period of international terrorist unrest, but it was caused by Christian terrorists acting out in the name of their god. Banks's description of the beliefs of these terrorists is chilling precisely because their beliefs are the same that many Christians in our world hold, but extremism takes them over so that they become something else.
The resulting novel is delightful. Banks is an artist at plots: while there are few individual sentences that leap out of the page and stick with the reader, his narrative and the structure it takes are delightful. His characters are fully realized. Their interactions feel very real, even when they are based on some of the biggest speculative fiction possibilities or on the very personal and bizarre. While the ultimate destination of the plot is the same for similar novels, what happens to the individuals we come to know and how they get there is not so generic. There are moments of humor and moments of real horror. Though I have concentrated on the book's political overtones, they do not dominate the story unless the reader wants them to; instead they provide some flavoring to the events of the story. And because of Banks's mastery of nuance, in plotting, in characterization…and in commentary, this is the best Banks novel I have read in some time.