Details: (c) Iain M Banks 1993; Pub Orbit 1995; ISBN 1-85723-179-1
Verdict: Against a Dark Background is emotionally powerful but not really my thing.
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.