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

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.

Simon Mcleish

Originally published on my blog here in November 2003. I obviously liked it better when re-reading again more recently.The novels which Iain Banks publishes with his central initial usually share the space opera background of the Culture, even if only tangentially (as in Inversions). In Against a Dark Background, however, the setting is carefully differentiated from the Culture, even if it is apparently quite similar on the surface. (Banks distances the setting from the galaxy-wide Culture by describing Golter, the planet on which Against a Dark Background is set, as orbiting a star a million light years from any other, something which makes the standard space opera device of inhabiting the planet with a disctinctly human race of beings ludicrous, presumably deliberately so.)Like several of the Culture novels, the plot of Against a Dark Background concerns an attempt to acquire a missing technological relic, a lost ancient weapon. In this case, it is a quest to find the last remaining Lazy Gun, one of eight whimsical weapons produced for a long ended war. Sharrow and her companions are also the surviving parts of an eight-fold weapon - a unit of commandos with an enhanced ability to predict each others' actions, a useful skill in combat.The planet of Golder is an interesting, anarchic background, full of the trademark whimsical touches that Banks delights in - the Solipsist mercenaries, the Useless Kings, and so on. It is a background typical of some of the more recent writers influenced by Banks - MacLeod or Reynolds, for example - and is really more designed to fascinate than to be believeable. The story contains many flashbacks, and sometimes (undoubtedly deliberately) it is hard to tell for a few pages whether the story is in the narrative present or past.This is not one of Banks' best novels (I seem to have felt that quite regularly about the ones I have reread recently). The plot and much of the background are by now over familiar (the Culture novels are more successful if a lengthy gap is left between reading any two of them); the flashbacks may illuminate Sharrow's character and explain how she came to be in her current situation, but they don't have the kind of explosive purpose that they are used for in Use of Weapons. For someone who did a lot of narrative experimentation early in his career, Banks has seemingly employed less care than usual in putting this novel. Nevertheless, even "Iain Banks by numbers" is enjoyable enough.

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.


Inspired by Brad's recent review of Night of the Living Trekkies, I'm going to present this one in checklist form. Here we go:• Convoluted, non-linear exposition: ✓ It's an Iain Banks. Enough said.• Weird takes on religion: ✓ He's so imaginative at this game. I loved the church who hate God, and insult Him instead of praying to Him. Almost as much fun as Luskentyrianism in Whit.• Badass heroine: ✓ Lady Sharrow could take on Lara Croft and Modesty Blaise together with one hand tied behind her back. But why would she bother? She's got better things to do.• Exotic weapons: ✓ The only thing I can think of that compares to the Lazy Gun is the Bomb in Dark Star . Maybe they're cousins.• Plot that makes sense: ... hm. Well, ah, how exactly do you define makes sense? For example, is it important to have a proper ending? No, no, I'm not trying to evade the question, I'm just trying to establish what you mean...

T.L. Evans

Against a Dark Background was Iain M. Banks' fourth Science Fiction Novel, and his first not explicitly set in the Culture universe. It is a marvelously interesting read, with strangely dark humor and filled with wonders from Banks’ vivid imagination. While not as dark as The Use of Weapons or Complicity, it certainly has its fair share of grim humor and deep overtones. The plot revolves around Lady Sharrow and her hunt for the last remaining Lazy Gun, the only weapon ever invented that demonstrates a sense of humor. Created by a lost civilization, no one understands how these guns work, only that when fired they frequently destroy their target in a random way whose ridiculousness is inversely related to the size of said target. Thus, target a city and it will probably just blow up, but shoot a person and it will probably kill them in a manner more commonly seen in Bugs Bunny. Prepare for anvils from the sky, giant electrodes popping out and electrifying them, or the like. Funny, dark and thoughtful, this is an excellent book for anyone who likes science fiction. For a full review go to or shortlink straight to the article at:


** 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.


Iain M. Banks is one of my favorite authors, but this is not as good as the Culture novels. A main theme of the book is the "dark background" of the protagonist's (Lady Sharrow's) life, with her complex and messy relationships, and her selfishness and cynicism. The other "dark background" is the solar system Lady Sharrow lives in, where almost every social and technological niche has been explored at some point in the system's long past. One of the book's strengths is the way Banks communicates the feeling that "everything has been tried at least once" in the last 10,000 (perhaps 30,000?) years (without actually coming out and saying so), and so everyone is on the edge of an existentialist funk. Strange religions, fashions, politics, polities, sports and wars have all been tried. What makes a person special, or significant, in the face of such a long "dark" history, where everything good or bad will be trivialized in the long run? But this major strength is also the book's weakness. Every few pages (or even every few paragraphs) of plot are interrupted with flashbacks, which explore Sharrow and her world. Every time I got excited by the plot, it went sideways for awhile. Ultimately, all this background pays off. But only when you reach the last 100 pages or so -- when the main plot line is allowed to continue for awhile without interruption. THE WORLD. The solar system has been thoroughly populated, with numerous terraformed living spaces. But the solar system is not in a main galaxy, and so is isolated by an impassable distance from any other stars. What would the system's inhabitants have become if they could have expanded to other star systems? They will never know, and they are conscious of that fact. THE TECHNOLOGY. Lots of very cool weapons. A cool psychological synchronization between the 4 members of Sharrow's military team -- but that is never really developed. Some key events take place in a cool old mansion/castle, where everyone is confined to certain locations by an ingenious system of chains that are hooked in grooves in the ceiling -- only the most important can access certain areas. And of course the "Lazy Gun," a cool "magic" weapon that can destroy anything -- unless you ask too much of it, in which case it will destroy itself, which is why this book involves finding the last of the 8 original guns. CHARACTERS. Despite all the depth about Sharrow's "dark" past, the main members of her team are bit flat (perhaps they are really just different aspects of Sharrow? her apparances?). But the two key bad guys are very fully developed. Sharrow herself doesn't seem to do much -- other people seem to do everything. She is on the verge of being a victim all the time, until the last scene when she makes life and world-changing decisions. PLOT. The plot is quite fun, but rambling, and I lost the thread during all the flashbacks. But in the end of the book really delivers, and all of the side-tracks ultimately make the ending more worthwhile. The ending is quite ambiguous, which is a great way to end a book that is all about the "dark background" that leads Sharrow to the cusp, and then causes her to make the decisions she makes. Well worth it in the end.


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.


One of Iain M Banks' non-Culture sci-fi novels, Against a Dark Background follows Sharrow, a member of an ex-military neuro-bonded team, who is being – legally – hunted by a cult that believes they must kill her to allow the birth of the messiah, and the only way to stop them is to find an immensely powerful weapon called the Lazy Gun. Sharrow is an excellent character, and her story, told in the story-present, and through flashbacks, is compelling and eminently readable. Moreover, Iain M Banks' work shows a talent for world-building that I really wish I could match. As one of his non-Culture sci-fi novels, Against a Dark Background was an entirely new world, and I loved many of the ideas thrown around with Golter, and its ancient, decaying/renewing civilisation, and complex politics. Banks also has a talent for making a world seem world-sized, which is lacking in some science fiction. The variety of landscapes and the feel for the time taken to travel between destinations made the scope of the novel feel huge, and the story really expanded to fill it. Like some of Banks' other work, this novel takes the form of an adventure story, with various events and settings tied together by the characters and an eventual plot goal, which leaves the plot feeling somewhat episodic. While I loved each episode individually, and there are some absolutely marvellous sequences, it sometimes felt like new points of conflict were being introduced a little too late in the game for them to have enough of an impact. By the end, most of the loose ends were wrapped up, but there were a few things that felt unresolved, which was a little dissatisfying, but not enough to taint my enjoyment of the rest of the book. In general, Against a Dark Background is a wonderful space opera, and I really enjoyed it, particularly for its characters and world.


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.


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 another wonderfully complex science fiction novel from Iain M Banks that combines Shakespeare tragedy, gritty cyberpunk thriller, treasure hunt, and comic picaresque. A rambling tour of fractured culture closer to Gibson and Sterling cyberpunk and Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius adventures than Banks’s usual milieu. His sense of absurd is as sharp as Schismatrix era Sterling and he is darker and funnier than Gibson. His culture (not the Culture though) is broken into absolutely bizarre groups; the Solipsists, a group that mutilates itself, and the useless kings(they hate books, technology, and God.) are some of my favorites. Some of the character’s motivations remain murky, the flashbacks aren’t as effective as Use of Weapons, and the complex plot is tough to keep track off but Banks’s imagination and pitch black humor makes it worth it. Sinister clones, a super weapon with a sense of humor(the wonderfully named Lazy Gun), bittersweet androids, a planet sized plant, a city of derelict ships(long before Mieville’s Armada) are among the many treats in store. Be warned this is pretty bleak with the last hundred pages being especially costly.


"Banks ain't kidding. He warned you up front this is a dark novel."- Norman Spinrad I generally don't pay much attention to those back cover blurbs praising (or in the memorable case of Banks' The Wasp Factory, decrying) a book I'm reading, but this quote really stuck with me after reading Against a Dark Background. While I wouldn't necessarily call it darker than, say, Consider Phlebas, the dramatic shifts in tone Banks takes you through in this book were for me truly disarming. It's a book that begins like a light-hearted sci-fi actioner (albeit salted with darkness from the memorable prologue onward) and ends in a nihilistic explosion of death, loss, and recrimination. Imagine the novel equivalent of a film that begins like Star Wars and ends like Reservoir Dogs and you'll have some idea of the tonal shift I'm talking about.If this sounds like a hot mess, don't be fooled: by building up Sharrow's past history in flashbacks sprinkled throughout the "front story", Banks prepares you to understand the degree to which her past is driving everything that happens in the present. I found Sharrow to be the kind of protagonist you sympathize with yet dislike at the same time, and Banks does an excellent job of bringing her contradictions out in high relief throughout the novel. Some other reviewers have described her as a Mary Sue, but I have to disagree: in my opinion, a Mary Sue is a character who is not only good at everything but also has everything work out swimmingly for her in the end. Sharrow may be good at many things, but she certainly has her human deficiencies… and more to the point, she experiences loss and grief at a level that I don't think any writer viewing their character through rose-colored Mary Sue glasses would have the *ahem* spine to put her through. A dark novel? Oh yes--like dark chocolate: rich, heavy, and leaves a lingering taste long after it's finished.

Rachel Brown

This starts off promisingly, with a woman on the run and on a quest for a bizarre weapon called a Lazy Gun, but devolves from there. All sorts of intriguing plot points are set up, such as the fact that Sharrow, the heroine, underwent a procedure to create a sort of psychic bond between herself and her military unit. Cool! Except that the nature of the bond is never made clear, and nothing in particular comes of it. This sets the tone for the whole book: neat ideas that are introduced, then never explored. Finally, everything is abandoned at the conclusion in one of those aggravating "it doesn't end, it merely stops" endings. A lot of individual scenes are excellent, but they don't hang together, and I found myself putting it down often. The villain was stock and predictable, too. Also, awesomely depressing.All build-up and no pay-off.


Moments of brilliant oases amid a general drought. The first chapter alone is worth it. If you've read the book, make sure you also peruse the epilogue published separately online by Iain M. Banks, making the story's ending a lot more satisfying and less abrupt. Here's a link.

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