Against a Dark Background (1993) was Iain M. Banks’ fourth science fiction novel published, and the first that was not set in his ‘Culture’ universe (The Algebraist, Feersum Endjinn, and Transition are also non-Culture science fiction novels). Against a Dark Background is essentially a quest novel: the plot follows the protagonist, Sharrow, and her comrades as they search for the Universal Principles (an ancient book), which will then help locate the last Lazy Gun (a weapon that distorts reality), which will result in Sharrow avoiding an assassination/execution by soldiers of the Huhsz, a crazed religious organization.
The book often feels like a RPG with its meandering plot and haphazard cohesion. There are several short flashback sections — momentous events from Sharrow’s past — that add texture and back-fill, but the transitions between sections is sometimes jarring: perhaps this was intentional, but I found it confusing at times. The novel’s title has an interesting meaning, and Banks does a nice job of world-building, although much of it seems superfluous. I didn’t form an attachment with any of the characters, which is a good thing, because most of them don’t make it to the end of the book; in fact, I think I enjoyed an android’s personality the most, and it didn’t appear until well into the story. There are some wonderful sections in the novel; but, as a whole, I found it a bit disjointed and unnecessarily long, and the ending is somewhat predictable.
Some readers found the ending abrupt: it didn’t particularly bother me, but for anybody interested, Iain M. Banks wrote a short epilogue that is available on-line, which is not included within the confines of the novel (and there is no hint in the edition I read that an epilogue exists).
Against a Dark Background was re-worked from an early novel (written in 1975), and I think the immaturity can be glimpsed through the cracks in the re-write. To be fair, however, I should note that this sub-genre is not my favorite (i.e.: a quest novel). Others might enjoy Against a Dark Background, especially if you enjoyed Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas, which is similar in construction (I enjoyed some sections in Consider Phlebas, but it is one of my least-favorite of the ‘Culture’ novels). I checked on-line and found several glowing fan-reviews for Against a Dark Background, some even declaring it as their favorite Bank’s novel. There is some inspired writing but, in my opinion, much of the material was sub-par for the author.
If you’ve never read Iain M. Banks, I’d suggest trying Player of Games (a short ‘Culture’ novel, one of his lighter books, possibly my favorite); and, if you enjoy that novel, then try Use of Weapons (also possibly my favorite Culture novel, though longer, and much darker in tone than Player of Games); and if you like that, I’d be glad to recommend more….