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


"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.


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.


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...

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.

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.

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.


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.


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.

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.


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.

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:


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.


Until I get around to any kind of real review:• Fun science fiction "heist" story. My friend likened it to Neuromancer ("...but only because of they're both science fiction heist stories") but I thought it was more like The Sting with lasers.• It's Banks, but it's not a "Culture" novel. I haven't read enough of his Culture novels to know if this is a good thing or not. Golter (the main planet in the story) is said in the text to be more/less "orphaned" -- as though it's simply too far for interstellar travel to be possible. (Which is like: "...O...K...?")• More fun than good. Which is not to say it is "bad", but in saying "good" we sometimes imply that something is not "great". Which is not what I mean. Not exactly. This book is fun.• Is Sharrow one of those ultimate Mary-Sue characters or what? Born into wealth and nobility? And then rejecting that nobility out of rebellion? Being born into prophecy? Attractive? Smart? Sharp as a whip? Good with a gun (in more ways than one)? And/but: Sharrow is part of the reason that the story is so fun...• What is it with Iain M. Banks and cousins? You know what I'm talking about? You know what I'm talking about.


** 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.


** 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.

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