Reasons for reading it: I was wildly enthusiastic about The player of games, and lethargic_man admonished me that I shouldn't go off and read everything of Banks' I could get my hands on, as the quality is mixed. So when he happened to be with me in a charity shop that had a fair number of Banks' SF books available, I was able to get him to remind me which were worth having, and he pointed me to this.
How it came into my hands: I went on a shopping spree in the big Oxfam Books in Cambridge last month.
In some ways, Against a Dark Background typifies the reasons why people say they don't read SF. And most of those reasons are spurious because they assume all SF is badly written, which is certainly not the case for AaDB; it is technically excellent. But even well-written, it is about worldbuilding and ultra-futuristic technology and incredibly elaborate descriptions of weapons and battles. The characterization is not at all bad but it's not the main point or the main strength of the novel. And the plot is based on the heroine going on a quest to find the magical item and save the world from evil... sorry, that's a fantasy stereotype more than an SF one. I think in many ways AaDB is playing with and commenting on the conventions of the genre, but neither that nor the surface level of the story are things that really grab me.
Even though I couldn't get really excited about the basic plotline, I found the writing very emotionally powerful. I don't read a lot of horror, but I imagine if I read some good horror I would have a similar sort of emotional response. The best way I can describe it is that it felt strongly nightmarish. The structure with a lot of flashbacks and jumping around between scenes and viewpoints, and the postulating of technology so advanced that normal cause and effect don't always apply, and the ludicrous but scary villains such as the Solipsists, and the way Sharrow is both pursued and manipulated by multiple unknown enemies, and the way her situation getting steadily worse and more frightening, as well as the very gory descriptions of all the horrible things that happen to various characters, all contribute to this.
I read this reasonably slowly, though I don't have to ration my reading quite so much now I have my books here. And I'm glad I did because there's a lot of depth and complexity, and I had to concentrate to keep the not entirely linear structure in my head. There are moments where the language is rather fine, but too much description, however lyrical, in proportion to the action is off-putting even when it's Homer, let alone any mortal writer. AaDB veers slightly towards being a vehicle for world-building. The world-building is indeed very impressive; one could almost read it as a character novel where the "character" is Golter and its system. But it gets in the way of the story, and that was exacerbated for me since it's a story I'm not that inclined to care about anyway. One thing that works particularly well is the way that the "anything you can imagine is possible" level of technology is justified in the back story that is eventually revealed, and becomes a feature of the book rather than an annoyance.
The viewpoint is patchy as hell, and that's the one technical weakness. Some of Banks' other books have a hidden narrator which provides an internal excuse for that sort of thing, but there's nothing like that here and I just found it annoying. It jumps about between very tight third and very detached omniscient, as well as being inconsistent in whether the non-Sharrow chracters get any internal point of view at all. The tighter bits of the viewpoint are used to set up surprises and twists, but in a way that feels like cheating when some of the narration is a rather didactic description of how the political system works and fits into the context of history.
I didn't completely understand the ending, but I enjoyed it anyway because I suddenly realized that the Lazy Gun is at least partially the One Ring. And some of the ways that earlier themes in the book are drawn together are impressive too. There is lots to like about AaDB but it's just not the book for me personally.
Against a Dark Background is emotionally powerful but not really my thing.
Oh, well. You win some, you lose some.
The world-building is indeed very impressive; one could almost read it as a character novel where the "character" is Golter and its system.
Which was what I was going to say in response to your comment about characterisation further up. I think this is very much the case; even the title implies it. The book is an exploration of what the consequences would be if it were truly impossible, no matter how high your tech, to get out of your home system (a scenario, in typical Banks manner, set up so subtly beforehand that you failed to notice—did you, like me, swallow the reference to junklight in chapter 3, convincing yourself that there must be so many satellites and junk up there that it was the primary source of light rather than stopping to consider the simpler scenario that was no starlight?).
On a lighter note, you may be amused to know that when I was carting a big box file back and forth to the Writer Bloc EoSSFF<H group in Edinburgh, I took the trouble to decorate it like this:
Now rather tribulated by the admixture of Edinburgh weather with water-soluble ink... (I had to open it just now to see whether I'd put "THINGS WILL CHANGE" on the inside!)
Oh, I don't think it counts as a loss if you recommend me a book and I fail to adore it with a consuming passion! I got a lot out of AaDB and I'm glad I read it. I really like your two references to stuff within the book, too :-)
I definitely did appreciate the pace at which the backstory about Golter is revealed and the way that the later revelations make the earlier stuff make sense. Very cool. I hadn't quite picked up the implications of junklight; I did assume there must be rather a lot of junk, but didn't think of whether there was starlight or not.
Speaking of playing around with the reader's preconceptions, I like the way Banks messes with the automatic suspension of disbelief specfic induces: when a character claims to be immortal, even if there has been no reason to suspect magic of this kind to date, the reader automatically believes it.
I don't know, I didn't take it as read that the chappy was really immortal, he was such a parody of the cliched mad evil overlord that it seemed much more likely that he was deluded or lying than telling the truth.
Also, I could believe that with medical technology at the level of implanting a crystal virus in someone's head or healing Sharrow from her crash, it wouldn't be completely out of proportion for someone with access to serious resources and a fair amount of good luck to live for 400 years (something like the Holy Fire scenario). You don't necessarily have to accept magic for that claim to be true.
Yes, it is very complicated, and I might well like it better on a second reading. I was very unsure about the humour, partly because it's black and partly because it's based on making fun of ridiculous people, notably Elson Roa, and neither of those is a style of humour I like.
I do agree that Sharrow is a very memorable heroine. I might wish that the other characters were a bit more developed, but that's partly a viewpoint thing, Sharrow is rather self-centred and not terribly aware of other people. The thought that you identify with her is a bit distressing though, given that most of the book is about all the truly horrible experiences she goes through!
I've not read this one. I've almost always liked Banks' SF, though. He writes very good stories in a properly consistent background universe (although I've only read Culture novels like Player of Games). Might I ask which other of his books you've been recommended?
If you like consistent background you'll adore Against a Dark Background. It's very, very good SF, but it's almost nothing else, and I'm not quite enough of a hardcore SF fan to appreciate it, I think.
I was recommended Use of Weapons, which I found overly gory and didn't entirely understand, though the parts of it that I got are really great. Also this, and Look to windward which I haven't got round to yet.
Hmm... I agree that the quality of all of Banks's writing is variable, but his SF has never disappointed me yet. It's his non-SF fiction (written as Iain Banks) that tends to irritate me, such as Complicity
Use of Weapons is a nasty little story, but remains one of my favourite Culture novels despite that. It's intricate and bleak - qualities it shares with it's siblings to a fair extent. As others have suggested, ymight find Excession or Look to Windward easier going, but I suspect not too much easier. The black humour quotient is higher in each though, and the Minds delight me on a regular basis.
I definitely intend to reread Use of Weapons. I don't deal well with violence, and I was scared to engage too much with the book because I wanted to protect myself from the nastiness. And as a result I didn't appreciate its power as much as I would have done. But even with that attitude I could see that it's a really strong book. And I will probably pick up the disrecommended Banks books when I've run through the ones that lethargic_man approves of! His writing is amazing, even if I don't always care for his subjects.
I'm glad you enjoyed it at the levels you did; there's a sort of manic glee to the inventiveness of it which I connect to, as well as the general unfolding of the scale of the emptiness of it - I love the timing of the revelation of what their calendar's zero point is - and the way in which it is doing genre-fantasy quest shapes and making them work. That sort of textured deep time is something I really like and would love to be able to do, though AaDB is not quite as good at it as The Book of the New Sun, which I suspect would unfortunately be too nasty for you in too many places to be worth your reading.
I have a theory that the Golter system is just too full of habitable worlds and resources to exist by chance, and that it's possibly an experiment by something like a Culture Mind in seeing how humans evolve in an environment contained in that way. A theory sort of tangentially supported by what could just about be a Lazy Gun showing up in Use of Weapons.
The pacing of revealing key background information is absolutely perfect, I agree. It's like a very good mystery novel except the mystery is the background instead of the events. (In its own right, the scene where the prostitute's identity is revealed is masterful too; I just felt that that particular trick is cheating because it relies on shifting the viewpoint so much to pull it off.) Can you explain more what you mean by textured deep time?
I like the concept that the whole set-up is a Culture experiment, yeah. It adds a nice extra dimension to the book.
Why the Oscar Wilde icon for this comment? I'm probably missing something really obvious here but I can't see the connection.