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.

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 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.


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.

mark monday

the only Iain Banks book (so far) that i couldn't finish. too shallow, too snarky, too full of confusing cyberbullshit. so many ideas (like that Lazy Gun) that seem brilliant but go nowhere. words can't express how disappointed i was with this one, it was like catching someone i worship in the middle of some brazen lie - a lie designed to dazzle its audience with a display of insouciant hipness. FAIL. but before you take this review seriously, you should also keep in mind that i am the kind of jackass who disliked the beloved Snow Crash, which i found to be equally tedious and cringe-worthy and full of opportunities for me to laugh derisively.


** 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.


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...


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.


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.

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!


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.


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.


** 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.


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.

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