Against a Dark Background

by Iain M. Banks

Cover image

Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: 1993
Printing: 2005
ISBN: 1-85723-179-1
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 487

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Sharrow is heir to a noble family, which is much less useful than it could be since her grandfather was declared a criminal by the powerful World Court and most of her family's property was confiscated. She's a former military officer and squad leader, and now is a retired antiquities hunter and retrieval specialist. She's also the target of a religious cult, who murdered her mother and who believe that either all the female members of her family line have to die or an artifact known as the Lazy Gun must be returned to their collection for their messiah to return. They are on the verge of getting a Hunting License from the World Court, a legal document giving them a year to murder her with full legal protection.

The final antiquities contract Sharrow and her half-sister took was finding and retrieving the second-to-last remaining Lazy Gun, which promptly exploded and destroyed most of a city when people attempted to analyze it. The last remaining Gun is the one supposedly stolen by her family from the cult. Sharrow plans on finding it, since the alternative appears to be death. Family lore has it that a clue to its location was left in a legendary book called the Universal Principles, a book her half-sister believed was kept in the fortress of the Sea House. Sharrow's half-sister is now imprisoned there for attempting to loot their treasury, with the price of her release being the Universal Principles.

Against a Dark Background has a style and a mood familiar to readers of Banks's Culture novels, but it itself is not a Culture book. (Although, as one discovers late in the book in a memorable moment that most summaries of the book spoil but I won't, it could be in the same universe.) The entirety of the book takes place in one star system, mostly on two habitable planets, with no interstellar contact. But Banks layers into that star system a wealth of history and complexity that brings to mind Culture novels, particularly Use of Weapons.

Sharrow's squad during the war underwent a process called synchroneurobonding, which means that they can anticipate each other's thinking processes in combat situations and make extremely accurate guesses about tactics such as which direction one of them would dodge away from enemy fire. It also makes them very close. Sharrow's second act in the book, after approaching her half-sister for clues to the location of the Universal Principles, is to pull together the remaining members of her squad. That's when Against a Dark Background falls into shape: this is, at core, a caper novel. A small, close-knit, diverse team combines their skills to pull off dazzling heists, following a trail of clues through various antiquities to the last remaining Lazy Gun.

If you've read any Banks before, you might immediately guess that this is great fun. This is a team of highly competent and somewhat jaded people, who have been through a war together and who are cynical, sarcastic, and very sure of their skills, but also dealing with emotional damage. It's set against a marvelous background, a world full of twisty legal codes, microstates, a wealth of half-forgotten history and half-remembered knowledge, and a truly baroque legal system. So much of SF reflects a US sensibility of a young country devoid of the detritus of history. Banks's world is gloriously lived in, full of past mistakes, odd corners, and remnants that need not have any specific story implication. They just are. I could lose myself in the convolutions of the background; the story is just a good excuse to play in it for a while.

So, a caper novel with great Banks protagonists against a memorable background in search of an artifact that's delightfully odd (and whose details I won't spoil for you; it's more fun to find out what a Lazy Gun is in the full context of the book). What's not to like? Well, I have two cautions.

First, this is not a book about explaining things. Golter's history simply is. The caper plot has a resolution (which worked for me, although I know others found it unbelievable), but if you go into this book expecting grand revelations about the world and its history, you're going to be very disappointed. That ties into what I found to be a useful angle from which to examine this book: Against a Dark Background is a story about special forces troops, not about engineers.

Much of SF, particularly much of US SF and including much military SF, is about engineers, or at least about people with an engineering or scientific bent. It's about discovering, designing, building, analyzing, and taking things apart. It's about understanding the world. The military perspectives in SF are normally those of the Air Force or, particularly, the Navy, where understanding, building, rebuilding, and tending to the needs of complex and comprehensible machinery is the center of the military experience.

Sharrow and her team are not like that. They appreciate good technology, but things they acquire are meant to be used. They don't take things apart and try to understand them; they use them for their immediate requirements until they break or they have to leave them behind, and then they acquire new things. This mentality extends to almost everything in their worlds. Banks ventures somewhat into the morality of this and provides some emotional justification in the extensive flashbacks that tell Sharrow's life story. Her goal, from the beginning of the book through the plot climax, is never to understand things. The reader can figure out quite a bit along the way, but Banks is not going to provide the catharsis of jigsaw pieces coming together, and the engineering reading that SF normally encourages is going to be frustrating.

My second caution is that this is Banks, which means that the story can be quite dark. He provides some warning early on: the book opens with a violent flashback, and not far into the story a third player enters the plot by torturing Sharrow. But even with that, I was caught by surprise by the bleakness of the last section of the book. While Banks does provide an upbeat twist to the ending, this is not a happily-ever-after sort of story, and the last 100 pages are a harrowing experience. He's vicious to his characters. There's enough odd gallows humor and personal courage mixed in to make the ending enjoyable (despite a typical, predictable, and very annoying wounded protagonist sequence), but this is not a book that's going to leave you feeling optimistic about the world. Think more Use of Weapons than The Player of Games.

Those two caveats aside, Banks is an excellent writer and this is a beautiful book, full of rich description, layered history, and characters I cared a great deal about. The reader gets to know Sharrow thoroughly, including a miserable childhood and some of the miserable things she did in reaction to it, and she remains appealing as a protagonist despite being far from a saint. Banks does a good job weaving world background and extensive flashbacks into the story, keeping things moving forward while giving the reader lots to piece together and appreciate (and often laugh wryly at). It does require some attention to recognize the pieces, and Banks's description is rich enough that one has to go slow, but I never found it excessively hard to follow.

I came away from the book upset by the ending and wanting more discovery and understanding of the world, but the more I've thought about it since finishing it, the more it's grown on me. It's not The Player of Games, but it's a solid SF caper story that feels better grounded in real emotions, believable characters, and deep history than nearly all SF. Recommended, but be aware of what you're getting.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-01-05

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21