Against a Dark Background

ISBN: 0553292250
ISBN 13: 9780553292251
By: Iain M. Banks

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About this book

They had government permission to hunt down and assassinate her. What the religious Huhsz cult wanted was simple - the most deadly and enigmatic weapon constructed, the Lazy Gun, lost among the planets of the Thrial star system. Whoever controls the Gun controls all the worlds of humankind. And Lady Sharrow, former antiquities thief and soldier, is the key. On the run, betrayed at every turn, Sharrow sets out to accomplish the impossible and exact revenge - even as she delves into the evil at the very heart of humanity.

Reader's Thoughts


Iain M. Banks has something prophetic in mind in "Against a Dark Background," but it may have been a bit too subtle for most of the critics to get.Banks isn't writing a cheesy adventure story; he's not creating a science fiction galaxy for entertainment purposes; he's not playing around at all. He's offering us a warning of what's to come if we keep moving the way we are. He presents a galaxy full of technological wonders where thermonuclear war is tactical and a part of regular business, a galaxy where religions and corporations take the place of countries and legislate their desires through a world court, a galaxy where all is part of an enlightened dark age where the amazing is terrible and the adventurous is appalling."Against a Dark Background" is vintage Banks -- much more than it seems and well worth the read.


Another well remembered book that gets downgraded in a reread. It seems I look for something different than my young self.This is a non-culture science fiction book, dealing with an isolated solar system that is not ours. There have been cycles of great technological advance and descents into barbarism. That serves as an excuse to introduce advanced technology in a magic-like way, so that the story reads more like fantasy than the usual Banks science fiction.The biggest problem with this book, as in other early Banks novels, is that the author has more cool ideas than what fits in the page, so we got more a series of cool locales where something cool happens, before coolly moving to another weird event. The story is sacrificed to the anecdotical. A very interesting and thought-provoking anecdote, but nevertheless an anecdote.What however makes this book different is how Banks does not fear to throw punches and make the readers suffer. Like a character? Odds are they will die, and die badly. Get your hopes up only to see them crash again. In a way the whole setting, always rising forward to crash in nuclear war and lose most technology is mirrored in the characters.As a plus, there are lots of imaginative gadgets, turns, surprises, triumphs, defeats... A very entertaining read, but despite some meaningful reflections, they are lost in the background, so after finishing it you are left almost as you were before.


** spoiler alert ** I needed some light reading so I checked this one out of the library. Fun!* SummaryAround Thrial, a star a million light-years away from any other, turns the planet Golter, where on a beach of glass, on the eve of ten millennia of human civilization and war there, Lady Sharrow meets her cousin, Count Geis. Geis warns her that agents of the Huhsz church, the family's ancient enemies, have recently received permission to hunt and try and kill her for the next year and a day. The Huhsz can be placated by her death, or the return of a mysterious weapon, the Lazy Gun, hidden by her grandfather. A clue to the weapon's location may be in an ancient book, Universal Principles, location also unknown. Geis offers to help. He can use his vast wealth and means to protect Sharrow from the Huhsz, to find the book and the Lazy Gun. Sharrow declines. She has her own resources.And so begins an adventure, a quest and many capers. Banks has written a ripping yarn of exotic locales, lost treasures, ancient technology, friends and enemies, new and old, betrayals, intrigues, sex, murder, decadence and war.* What I liked about itAt almost every turn I read something that reminded me of something else in Jack Vance's books: a dilemma resembling one in Eyes of the Overworld, a situation sort of like one from The Face, a setting rather like one in Maske Thaery, an object like one in City of the Chasch. No matter how weak the resemblance, I felt delighted to meet them again and in what use Banks had found for them.Other delights include series of improbable capers which go wrong in a variety of hilarious yet white-knuckled moments. Sharrow's team plans well but their improvisations and luck usually win the hour. I've seen the authorial prerogative of "luck" handled clumsily but in this book Banks uses a kind of "fog of war" where plot development disguises the machinery rather than asserts it. My favorite example of this occurs about halfway through. It gave me ideas for my own work.I enjoyed the scenes of a road-trip across a continent so much I briefly wondered why bother with all this plot and characterization at all.* What I didn't like about itMy main disappointment with the book occurred in the climax when the Lazy gun was finally used. Throughout the book it had been described what an awesomely weird thing it is reputed to be—a gun with a sense of humor. When the trigger is finally pulled, it manages only to make a rather generic climatic action-scene with only one weird thing being mentioned. This was built up for incandescent fatal absurdity. Even some cliché would have helped: irate waterfowl, flags that say "bang!", banana peels, or falling anvils.* Other thoughtsBut the anticlimax seemed to work out okay. A somewhat more reflective moment brings out this:Sorry? Of course he was sorry. People were always sorry. Sorry they had done what they had done, sorry they were doing what they were doing, sorry they were going to do what they were going to do; but they still did whatever it was. The sorrow never stopped them; it just made them feel better. And so the sorrow never stopped. Fate, I'm sick of it all.But a charming, upbeat android, named Feril, introduced in the later chapters, cancels our Heroine's growing weariness of her world. Feril's general outlook is so positive and helpful it seems possible it could also reach out to the morose and cynical robot in Douglas Adams' books, and help it over itself. Banks takes a moment to give Feril some sense of doubt about itself, but I found it unconvincing.I had a blast reading this.

Micah R Sisk

Banks is one of those authors I keep coming back to, hoping to like his work more than I usually end up doing. The framework of his novels are ripe with such possilities, yet in the end he rarely harvests the richest fruit from them. Unfortunately, this is one of those novels. Its concepts and world creation are potentially broad and deep, yet he spins a haphazard adventure tale that inadequately fleshes out his concepts, while serving up not much more than a series of action scenes tied together by a not very compelling story. It's not terrible (none of his books are, which is why I keep coming back to them looking for the gems), but it consistently operates on the most superficial level: keep the main character running from here to there trying to stay a step ahead of the bad guys. And ultimately the worst part of the book is its ending, which completely fails to resolve the central crises of the book. Disappointing, but mildly entertaining if you're into Banks, SF and action/adventure.

Kolya Matteo

This may be my favorite book my Iain M. Banks. It's more fun to read than some, thanks to some larger-than-life Dickensian characters that leave lasting impressions: The blowhard old scholar Travapeth on Miykenns, the barbaric King Tard the 17th, the smugly ambitious bureaucrat Lebmellin, and above all, the solipsist Elson Roa. This kind of hamminess can be grating if done badly, but here it's a lot of fun. The main characters are, fittingly, more complex. Mr. Banks does a great job of letting you get to know them on your own. Each character is complicated, yet completely believable - these are full people, with inconsistencies and foibles, but not all riven by some all-consuming internal strife like so many postmodern protagonists. I didn't notice such superb characterization in Mr. Banks's other books, possibly because people from the Culture never grow up and so don't actually become real people.I also found the ending less depressing than most of Mr. Banks's books, although this might just be from acclimation. It helps to read the epilogue, which wasn't included in the book. Certainly, there is far more death and destruction than seems necessary, but hey: more than one person is alive at the end, which seems positively upbeat from Mr. Banks. I begin to suspect that he just doesn't know how to end a story with living characters. "They are still doing things," he thinks, "so I have to keep telling about them. But geez! We're past 600 pages! I'd better off them all!" Iain, I have a tip: the classical alternative to a funeral, when it comes to ending stories, is a wedding. Perhaps that will work for you!


this is the only Banks sf novel that lacks a Culture setting, and he wrote it more or less to prove he could. and he can. but it lacks something just the same - edge, maybe? those gorgeous displays of style? the usual layering? it's a fairly straightforward chronological narrative, with establishing flashbacks. although it's sf, it has the sort of medievalist look and feel one might expect in a fantasy novel, and some of the robotic aspects aren't well folded in. also the protagonist never quite comes alive or engages enough to give the story the emotional weight it needs, although she gets plenty of air time: the undercurrents of her more intimate war with her sister, and her interactions with her own peers, suggest that she is rather more cold and calculating that she sees herself, or perhaps even wants to be (because it feels like she's writing her own eulogy on the ground), and uses people without regard for consequences, to get what she wants. this is probably the way her character is intended to be read, but somehow it doesn't really come off exactly right within the subgenre in which it is written - the sense in which she is broken is self-engineered, so we follow in her path with reservations that grow until we are viewing her with an enemy's eyes, at which point it becomes a subtle psychological study that doesn't shoehorn well into a space-opera mold. therefore not the best example of his work, though accessibly written, with some lovely descriptive passages and a lot of interesting different locales and political structures to explore on a single world. recommendable, and good as Banks is always good, but nevertheless a minor work, and from the author's PoV perhaps a failed experiment he did not repeat in a subgenre - though he adds a lot to it, since he's there - to which his considerable talents weren't best suited. the genre limits his options, and he writes his best without limits.


Dans ce roman, on s'attache aux pas de Sharrow, une aristocrate de la planète Golter, à la recherche d'une arme aussi mystérieuse qu'étrange, le Canon Lent. Bien entendu, comme Banks est un grand auteur, il ne se contente pas de nous faire vivre cet épisode de la vie de son héroïne, il en profite également pour tracer sa biographie à l'aide de flashbacks très habilement placés. Et le moins qu'on puisse dire, c'est que cette héritière d'un grand nom (à défaut d'une fortune, dilapidée par son père) a un sacré caractère, qui me la rend très agréable.Je disais qu'elle était à la recherche d'un Canon Lent. Cette recherche va l'obliger d'abord à partir à la recherche d'un autre artefact, d'une valeur à peine inférieure à cette arme étrange et, oserai-je le dire, facétieuse. Et pour ces recherches, elle fera le tour du système solaire avec ses anciens amis.Il y a plein de choses à dire de ce roman, et la plupart sont voudrais d'abord évoquer la personnalité de Sharrow, qui rentre dans mon panthéon des héroïnes de SF de qualité. Elle a en effet tout de l'aristocrate fin de règne : plus un sou, mais un comportement incroyablement hautain. Un comportement surtout visible, d'ailleurs, dans ces flashbacks qui nous montrent son enfance, ses débuts en tant que soldat, sa seule bataille spatiale (au cours de laquelle je pensais qu'elle avait gagné son boitement, alors qu'en fait non). A contrario, la Sharrow "actuelle", celle dont les aventures nous sont contées, a été usée par la vie, et la plupart de ses convictions se sont effritées, sous les assauts de la réalité. Pourtant, elle ne semble pas avoir renié ses convictions.L'autre grande qualité de ce roman, c'est le voyage qui nous est offert ... Il y a quelques années, j'avais lu un bouquin de Colin Greenland, Le pays de Cocagne. Dans ce roman, il essayait lamentablement de nous montrer tout ce qu'il pouvait caser comme merveilles dans un seul roman de SF. Et bien sûr, il échouait. Ce roman-ci me donne l'impression que Banks s'est fait le même pari, voire a lu le roman de Colin Greenland et a voulu lui montrer comment mettre à l'épreuve son propre Sense of Wonder. Et je dois dire qu'il y arrive formidablement. Tout y est : une ville flottante comme dans les Scarifiés ou le Samouraï virtuel, des mercenaires à moitié fous, des systèmes politiques comme s'il en pleuvait, à la façon des chroniques de Durdane, des moyens de transports sophistiqués ou antiques, mais toujours spectaculaires et pittoresques, et même une planète occupée par une unique plante. Pour le coup, je crois bien avoir fait le voyage des voyages parmi d'innombrables références de la SF classique ou moderne.Et puis,à côté de ces indéniables qualités, il y a le canon lent. une arme qui est aussi, à certains moments, un personnage, mais qui est surtout un sacré clown. Quand l'auteur décrit, vers le début du roman, je crois, la diversité des morts qu'il a infligé, je dois bien l'avouer, j'ai pouffé un peu bêtement, tellement la scène était comique.Et comique, c'est, je crois, l'une des qualités de cette oeuvre parfois très noire ... qualité qui lui donne peut-être son titre original "against a dark background" ... contre un fond plus sombre.C'est d'ailleurs l'un des grands intérêts de cette histoire. Au bout d'un moment, on comprend qu'il ne peut rien en sortir de bon pour qui que ce soit, sauf évidement pour Sharrow qui se doit de témoigner de la vacuité de sa propre existence. C'est donc une histoire sans espoir, mais pas sans humour. Ce qui en fait, à mon sens une lecture quasi-indispensable. Pour ces raisons-là, mais aussi pour toutes les autres, que je ne peux pas mentionner sans spoilers, je le crains.


This is easily my least favorite Banks novel, and the only one I seriously considered not finishing. There's a lot here to like, which is why it gets two stars and not one. But the good stuff is spread pretty thin, and on the balance it was just plain hard to read. Not "challenging," not "narratively dense," but hard to read. This book has a lot of problems from a formal perspective.First and foremost, it's an action novel with frustratingly opaque descriptions of the action. It reminded me of Consider Phlebas in that regard. I often had difficulty tracking what was physically happening in the fast-moving scenes, who was dead or injured, what various bursts of cerise light portended.Secondly, the narrative structure is schizophrenic. Banks relates the present-day timeline interleaved with the protagonist's back story, often in chunks of about four paragraphs. Entire chapters take this form, switching back and forth between past and present. It was often the case that I would read the first paragraph of such a section and still not know which timeline I was inhabiting. I'm sure there are people who would find such stroboscopic story telling to their liking, but it really put me off. Banks has experimented with non-linear stories to better effect before, such as in Use of Weapons, so I'll consider this an outlier.Even worse, Banks will spend entire sections of the novel enigmatically referring to some technology or concept of the book's world -- characters will have conversations that allude to it without indicating what it is -- before abruptly throwing in the towel and spending a few pages of perspective-free exposition simply telling the reader what he's been teasing us with this whole time.The world of Dark Background is deep and interesting, with a half-fallen technologically mature civilization sifting through the junk heaps of their ancestors looking for seemingly magic devices. No one in the novel understands how such tech works, so you won't either, but some of it is still pretty neat. But the real stars of the novel are the various cities, planets, governments and cults that comprise the Golter system. In this, I'm again reminded of Consider Phlebas. Also like that first Culture novel, Dark Background's plot comprises a series of high-stake heists and covert missions. It's a shame that it feels like such a slog for much of its length.


Against a Dark Background is the first Banks book I have read outside of the culture series. Like all of Banks' work Against a Dark Background features his tremendously vivid prose (particularly in his action sequences) and the his consistently fun wit. Against A Dark Background follows the Lady Sharrow, a noble from a family that has lost much, on a series of adventures as she tries to keep herself alive and find different old antiquities. The plot is interesting and the universe is original, but really Against a Dark Background is a never ending sequence of brilliant action sequences. I think it'd be hard not to read this book and be very entertained. The story gets its depth more from Sharrow's flashbacks to her childhood with her half sister and her time in the military than from any of the current interactions between the characters. This certainly was not my favorite Banks story, but none the less it was engaging throughout. If you enjoy Banks' other work than you should definitely read this book.


** spoiler alert ** My rating to this book may seem unkind at two stars, but I am going by the 'it was ok' suggestion. I really can't say I liked it, but I didn't find it bad, either. As another two star review pointed out, there is a good book in Against a Dark Background, and it's trying to get out. I found episodes in the book to be excellent as pockets of history or character building. The incident involving Sharrow's fighter craft accident, her past with Miz, the character of the android and the bald manipulative twins were all wonderfully (or effectively) written. I liked her band of misfits and was put out when they were all put to sleep. I can deal with strong supporting characters written to die, but not when they are the only thing making the story interesting for me.It seemed to me the author was just tired of the story and wanted to wrap it up quickly as it wasn't going where he hoped it might have. The speed with which the book shifted from being character driven to wiping everyone out and going in for a quick (BIG PICTURE REVEAL) mop-up was pretty fast after so much build up. And yet, was there a climax to the story? I found the involvement of her cousin to be predictable and melodramatic, even campy, and the death of her one-dimensional sister to be unsatisfying after Banks went to so much effort to flesh her out into a fully annoying individual. I am looking forward to reading more of Banks' Culture novels (I know this isn't one), regardless of my feelings about this book.

Adam Hewitt

The recent death of Iain Banks, one of my favourite writers and an excellent man, prompted me to pick up this book that I’ve owned for awhile but never quite got round to. It’s one of his few non-Culture sci-fi novels, and has an altogether different tone and scope to those books.It’s darker, sadder, and much more confined: the action takes place in one small solar system, a few planets and moons, rather than on the galaxy-wide scale of the Culture novels. The technology is relatively less advanced and over-the-top, though there are still some joyful Banksian touches, including the ‘lazy guns’ at the heart of the novel’s central quest, bizarre weapons based on an ancient lost technology that destroy whatever they’re pointed at of whatever size in unpredictable and even comedic ways.This is a chase novel and an adventure story, with its protagonist, Sharrow, the aristocratic leader of a small combat team, desperately hunting certain items while a bunch of religious nuts with a licence to kill her chase her all over the world(s). But it’s also about her own back story, family, and guilt, as she has the deaths of thousands on her conscience. Parts of this recalled some of Banks’ other family-themed, flashback-heavy novels, especially Use Of Weapons, and The Steep Approach To Garbadale. But this is less good than either of those, unfortunately. The writing is generally good, and the plot usually canters along, but I rarely felt particularly gripped or shocked: the heroes are captured and escape too many times for the tension to really build up, and more than most SF even the story depends on you remembering a huge cast of characters with unusual names and ambiguous motivations, as well as the geography of an alien planet. Some settings were excellent: the monorail through the desert (reminded me of one of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, actually, The Waste Lands), the planet covered entirely in a single plant, the android city abandoned by humans because of the radiation. But the bleakness and grimness is wearying, death is omnipresent, and the dual themes of regret and revenge make for some dark, dark stuff. Some of the elements he introduces don’t seem to ‘go anywhere’ – the neuro-bonding that ties the combat team together and help them predict each others’ actions, for example, sounds an interesting idea but is barely explored, really. This is still worth a read, but probably only for hardcore fans of Iain Banks: it doesn’t quite match up to his other stuff.

Mike Pollitt

Iain M. Banks is without doubt one of my favourite authors of any genre. This is one of his earlier books, which I'd put off reading because of a review on the frontispiece, which said something like "...he warned us it's a dark book." Having now finally read it, I can say it's definitely not one of his darkest books, by any means. I would say Use of Weapons is far darker. There's a fair bit of arbitrary bad-stuff-happening in this book, but it lacks the psychological edge of some of his other novels.It meanders a bit more than his later books. Early in the book, it is established that the lead character, Sharrow, is part of a biologically-attuned combat team (no spoilers there, it's on the back cover). However this is only referred to once more during the entire novel. Nevertheless, it's an interesting and enjoyable read, and is replete with Banks' characteristic dry humour. Definitely worth reading, if you want to complete your Banks, but if you're new to him I'd suggest one of his later books, such as Look to Windward.


** spoiler alert ** Wow. Two dark books in a row for me. Still, I can never, ever resist Iain Banks. He's just so good.This is a dark, dark story of war and betrayal. Sharrow, our protagonist, is an aristocrat on a distant world named Golter. (Aristocrats get to have only one name.) She comes from a tainted family and grew up under a gothic cloud of madness and death.Even though she grows up relatively stable and together, her big problem is a religious cult called the Huhsz. The Huhsz have decided that their Messiah cannot be born until the female line, of which Sharrow is the last, is extinguished. Worse, the Golter World Court has recently given the Huhsz legal permission to hunt Sharrow down and kill her. Can she survive for the year that the "hunting passports" are valid? Can she find the lost artifact that will appease the Huhsz?**SPOILER ALERT**This is really a book about the horrors of war and power. In the end, everyone, every single character, except for Sharrow dies. And she's been betrayed in nearly every conceivable way by her own family. In the end, she's more alone that she's ever been. It's a sad and powerful testament to the darkest side of human nature, because I can see much of this kind of thing happening.In many ways, this reminds me of China Mieville's The Scar: Female protagonist who's used and betrayed by a society that really doesn't care about her. I suspect Mieville is a fan of Banks from reading the books so close together.


Lady Sharrow is a gal on the lamb. The Hughsz want her dead because they believe it is the only way their messiah can be born, and varying factions are after a weapon only she can genetically find and take ownership of. What follows is 600 pages of pure madness and brilliant British humor at its best. Sharrow gets her army crew back together to help her through the ridiculous task of finding an ancient book said to be lost for millennia, which will lead them to the legendary 8th and final Lazy Gun, a weapon of mass destruction unlike any other ever created. In the end you have loyal friends to the death, AIs that become endearing friends, and family love and betrayal at it's ludicrous best. My first Banks novel and I wasn't prepared. I LOVED it. The cooky characters, the laissez-faire attitudes, the hints of no love lost on cultish and border cultish organized religion, the separation of people from each other and their own humanity are all big themes in this novel. And trust when I say this is something you should give your full attention to. I didn't and there are parts I had to go re-read again and I was thoroughly lost at the end (although I did manage to guess correctly who the big baddies were). I adored this book, I love the way Banks writes, and the non stop action that reads like a big blockbuster film def feeds my inner boyish glee. The ending I am not crazy about, half because it was a bit confusing and half because I feel so unsatisfied with the result. Unless there is a sequel I feel like I've been cheated. What was very interesting about this book for me were the characters because that is what they were. They were literally people created that were characters (in the sense that you might explain that your uncle ted is such a character to those who've not met him). Banks manages to combine the extreme in personalities and flaws and still make them into 'people' that are believable and you care for. His take on AIs was interesting as well though not totally convincing. While he claims they cannot have emotion and are unbiased, Feril many times exhibits these qualities in his befriending and initial like of Sharrow, a biased loyalty to her, and a constant need to do as asked for the thrill of excitement. However if an android were written as a true android naturally they would most likely be a boring character. So that always fails a bit in the end.


Against a Dark Background is the first Banks book I have read outside of the culture series. Like all of Banks' work Against a Dark Background features his tremendously vivid prose (particularly in his action sequences) and the his consistently fun wit. Against A Dark Background follows the Lady Sharrow, a noble from a family that has lost much, on a series of adventures as she tries to keep herself alive and find different old antiquities. The plot is interesting and the universe is original, but really Against a Dark Background is a never ending sequence of brilliant action sequences. I think it'd be hard not to read this book and be very entertained. The story gets its depth more from Sharrow's flashbacks to her childhood with her half sister and her time in the military than from any of the current interactions between the characters. This certainly was not my favorite Banks story, but none the less it was engaging throughout. If you enjoy Banks' other work than you should definitely read this book.

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