This entertaining SF thriller combines the premises of two of my favorite SF classics. In Asimov's The End of Eternity
, an all-powerful group called the Eternals use time-travel to control the course of human history. Whenever something bad is about to happen, they engineer a carefully timed intervention to steer us away from it. Typically, these interventions are as inconspicuous as possible. Pohl's underrated A Plague of Pythons
explores another, rather nastier idea. Suppose a device were invented which let you take over someone else's body at will. How would people use it, and what would happen to society?
Banks fuses these two themes and sets them within a nicely realized version of the quantum multiverse. Every possible quantum reality exists, and there is a drug which allows you to move between the different alternate worlds; as in the Pohl novel, you do this by directing your consciousness into another person's body. The organization who control the drug use it, so they say, to make the various worlds into better places. But, as in the Asimov book, it becomes increasingly clear that things are not what they are supposed to be.
Both the original novels are about power and the abuse of power, and Banks follows in their footsteps. He's sometimes a little too explicit and preachy, and I was oddly reminded of George Bernard Shaw: you're in the middle of a dramatic piece of sex or violence (there's plenty of both), and it's suddenly put on hold for a page-long moral disquisition. But, as with Shaw, I was generally willing to forgive him. The plot, though perhaps overly complicated, is gripping, and the writing is of the high quality Banks fans have come to expect. Also, Mrs Mulverhill is hawt.
As sometimes happens with Banks, there is a mild aftertaste of paranoia. I'm not sure I would have awarded it four stars if I'd read it a month ago, but it was one of those cases where the timing was spot-on perfect. I noticed it in a bookshop near the Piazza San Marco on Sunday, and after discovering that a large part of the novel was set in Venice found that I was simply unable to put it down; I finished it earlier this evening on the train back to Geneva, where I'm now writing this review.
Whatever made us go into the bookshop and then guided me to that particular book? I can't quite reconstruct the sequence of events, but if agents of the Concern somehow nudged me into doing it I have no idea what their motives were. I'll let you know if there are more odd coincidences.