Iain Banks’ latest novel, Transition, is perhaps his strongest work in recent years, straddling his science fiction persona (Iain M Banks) and his non-genre, non-M persona (Iain Banks). For me, it combined his fantastic world-building imagination that we see in his Culture novels with the more rooted nature of his traditional novels – with a good splash of the mystery and weirdness that characterised The Bridge (another crossover novel that sits among my favourites).
A common complaint of Transition is that it leaves too many unanswered questions. It certainly seems that way, but a closer reading of the novel suggest that answers to most – if not all – of those questions can be uncovered, and it’s quite fun to speculate on them.
Since there isn’t much speculation about the book online yet, I’m starting a resource here where I explore some of the questions raised. Obviously it contains MEGA SPOILERS so if you haven’t read the book, you really should go away, right now.
I’ve tried to root all of these speculations in the text of the book, with relevant quotes. I’d be very happy if anyone with alternative theories contributed in the comments – I’ll then add them to the blog post if appropriate. I intend to keep on updating this post as more and better theories are generated.
So, let’s start:
Who (or what) is Mrs. Mulverhill?
There are several unusual things about Mrs. Mulverhill:
- She almost always wears a veil. Even when she isn’t, her eyes are often obscured, e.g. “hair veiling her face.” Why? “Madame d’Ortolan had always assumed this was mere affectation, but perhaps the lady wished to conceal some angle from which she looked less than racially pure, when the race concerned was human. Who knew?”
- She never provides a first name.
- We get to see her eyes on two occasions. Adrian Cubbish sees “catlike slits for pupils, not round ones,” and Temudjin Oh sees “slitlike pupils in amber irises.”
- Adrian Cubbish describes her as an astonishingly good dancer: “…she moved round me, curling and uncurling and rising and falling, circling about me like she was caressing my personal space.”
Let’s face it: Mrs Mulverhill has something to do with cats. She has cat’s eyes, and she dances like a cat. Her clothes often seem catlike (all black, etc) and she occasionally speaks in a ‘purr’. Madame d’Ortolan doesn’t even think she’s fully human. And interestingly, her lack of a first name may then be related to the fact that Madame d’Ortolan’s cats do not have first names either (M. Pamplemousse, and Mme Frenolle). All of this has a bearing on the next question…
Of course, Mrs Mulverhill isn’t actually a cat – she looks like a human. But Adrian Cubbish does find it hard to place her: “The face behind the veil looked Asian, I thought. Maybe Chinese, though less flat than Chinese faces usually are. Sort of triangular. Eyes too big to be Chinese, too. Cheekbones too high as well. Actually, maybe not Asian at all.” Later, he says, “You look a bit alien yourself, Mrs M. No offence.”
Adrian’s difficulty may simply be down to the fact that Mrs Mulverhill comes from another world in which the standard racial types are different. However, there is a tantalising possibility is that she’s from Calbefraques – a world in which the Mongols had a much greater influence over world history, and could conceivably have mixed genes in interesting ways. Does this have any significance? It’s not clear yet.
Are Mrs. Mulverhill and Madame d’Ortolan the same person?
Perhaps – and if they aren’t, they’re certainly related (but not necessarily in a familial sense).
The word ‘Ortolan’ comes from ‘Ortolan Bunting‘, the name of a bird that’s eaten in a rather interesting way:
For centuries, a rite of passage for French gourmets has been the eating of the Ortolan. These tiny birds – captured alive, force-fed, then drowned in Armagnac – were roasted whole and eaten that way, bones and all, while the diner draped his head with a linen napkin to preserve the precious aromas and, some believe, to hide from God. – The Wine Spectator
Draping a linen napkin over your head to hide from God – it’s a bit like wearing a veil, no? And Mrs Mulverhill always wears a veil! Very curious, but not conclusive of any extraordinary relationship. (Thanks to Naomi Alderman for spotting the ‘Ortolan Bunting’ connection!)
But this isn’t the only time veils are referred to in the novel. When Temudjin Oh first meets Mrs Mulverhill (incognito, at the Venice ball as a pirate), he notes a particular painting of a Doge that’s covered by a black veil. Mrs Mulverhill explains:
“He was Doge for a year in the mid thirteen hundreds [...] He’s covered up because he’s in eternal disgrace. He tried to make a coup to sweep away the republic and have himself declared prince.”
“But he was already Doge,” I said.
She shrugged. “A prince or a king would have had more power. Doges were elected. For life, but with many restrictions. They were not allowed to open their own mail. It had first to be read by the censor. Too, they were not allowed to conduct discussions with foreign diplomats alone. A committee was required. They had much power but they were also figureheads.” [...]
“I thought perhaps he was only veiled for the ball,” I said.
She shook her head. “In perpetuity. He was condemned to Damnatio Memoriae. And mutilated, and beheaded, of course.”
“Of course.” I nodded gravely.
She might have stiffened a little. Was I talking to a local?
The story of the Doge almost exactly parallels that of Madame d’Ortolan, who seeks to supplant the Central Council to gain more power, and is ultimately shot in the head – a modern equivalent of beheading. This doesn’t mean Mrs Mulverhill and d’Ortolan are related; Mrs Mulverhill might simply think it’s poetic justice for d’Ortolan to have the same fate as the Doge, but it is curious – as is the use of the veil (incidentally, Banks didn’t make this up – the disgraced Doge, the veil, etc, it’s all true).
What I find most interesting is the astonishing amount of information Mrs Mulverhill knows about Madame d’Ortolan’s origins, history, intentions, and even thought processes. Madame d’Ortolan herself remarks that Mrs Mulverhill is “rapidly approaching the stage where she will know what I intend to do shortly before I do myself.” It’s possible that Mrs Mulverhill simply found out all of this through hard work, but it boggles the mind that anyone could know quite as much as she does about d’Ortolan (and still be alive, that is).
So here’s my theory of how they’re related: Mrs Mulverhill is an older version of Madame d’Ortolan. After d’Ortolan is ‘headshotted’ at the end, she somehow survives and becomes Mrs Mulverhill. In the process of getting a new head (by flitting to the world of the humanoid cats, I don’t know), she gains her characteristic eyes. I suppose another, more believeable mechanism might relate to the fact that d’Ortolan has cats on the brain and this influenced her post-headshot flit.
Anyway, this new Mrs Mulverhill is filled with remorse at what she’s done, and wants to stop herself, but as we know, time travel isn’t possible. Instead, she finds a lagging world (or worlds) as similar as possible to the one she’s left, and she attempts to stop that world’s version of Madame d’Ortolan. Being a different world though, Mrs Mulverhill can’t be entirely sure of what will happen this time around, which makes things a little more difficult.
Of course, you may not believe any of this speculation. Instead, you’ll just have to read Banks’ own heavy-handed clue right at the start of the book, where the narrator (Temudjin Oh) says “…Mrs Mulverhill herself said that, I think. Or it might have been Madame d’Ortolan – I get the two confused sometimes.”
Why is Calbefraques unique? and ALIENS!?!11
Calbefraques was the ultimate Open world, the mirror image of the numberless perfectly Closed Earths where nobody knew about the many worlds; a place where possibly every single adult soul who walked its surface knew that it was merely one world within an infinitude of worlds, and a nexus at that, a stepping-off point for as much of that infinitude as it was possible to image.
And a world, an Earth that was close to unique. Logically there had to be other versions of this Earth that were close to the Calbefraques that we knew, but we seemed to be unable to access them. It was as though by being the place that could act as a gateway to any other version of Earth, Calbefraques had somehow outpaced all the other versions of itself that would otherwise have existed. It seemed that in the same way that the true consciousness of a transitioner could only be in one world at a time, there could only be one world that was perfectly Open, and that world, that unique Earth was this one, called Calbefraques.
Later on, Mrs Mulverhill says this:
Plus I believe that – at the behest of Madame d’Ortolan – there is something else, some already hidden agenda [The Central Council is] working to – the uniqueness of human intelligent life and the singular nature of Calbefraques itself may well point to the nature of that secret – but I never got close enough to the centre of power to find out.
I find this hard to believe; Mrs Mulverhill almost certainly does know why Calbefraques is unique, and how it’s related to the uniqueness of human (as opposed to non-human) intelligent life. The clues lie in her conversation with Temudjin Oh:
I see consciousness as a matter of focus. It’s like a magnifying glass concentrating light rays on a point on a surface until it bursts into flame – the flame being consciousness. It is the focusing of reality that creates self-awareness [...] There is no intelligence without context [...] Just as a magnifying glass effectively casts a partial shadow around the point of its focus – the debt required to produce the concentration elsewhere – so meaning is sucked out of our surroundings, concentrated in ourselves, in our minds.
This conversation is so important that it’s repeated towards the end of the book, after Temudjin’s first septus-less flit, when his powers are expanding and he apparently flits to another world where he’s having the same conversation again.
So what does it mean? On the surface, Mrs Mulverhill is talking about human consciousness and how it comes into effect. At the same time, though, she’s talking about humanity as a whole – she’s saying that humanity is focusing its collective attention, spread across the many worlds, onto itself. This focus is what results in there being only one Calbefraques – it’s why it’s totally unique, the point of the focus.
But there’s a debt involved, a shadow cast on the surroundings. For humanity, that debt is paid by the rest of the universe, which has any meaning sucked away from it – and by meaning, we’re talking about stuff that’s interesting. Like aliens. And so all the talk of solipsism in the book refers to the fact that human consciousness and attention is required to make them exist.
(this reminds me of Asimov’s The End of Eternity, which has a similar message)
All of this is confirmed by the next two lines:
“I’d have said that we give, even… Even that we radiate, emanate meaning. We ascribe context to external things. Without us they exist, I suppose -”
“Do they?” she murmured.
Clearly Mrs Mulverhill doesn’t think that ‘external things’ exist independent of our observation; that it really does matter that we always look inwardly, depriving the rest of the universe (and aliens!) from existence and meaning. Hence the importance of SETI, which Mrs Mulverhill claims d’Ortolan is trying to shut down. Finally:
“- but we give them names and we see the systems and processes that link them. We contextualise them within their setting. We make them more real by knowning what they mean and represent.”
“Hmm [...] Maybe. [...] But everything requires a leavening. Everything.”
In other words, Mrs Mulverhill believes that humanity needs to observe and attend to the external universe to effectively kickstart it into existence. Once we’ve done that, perhaps it can continue on its own, but our attention and imagination is required.
To return to the subject of Calbefraque’s uniqueness, Mrs Mulverhill says this in her lecture:
The closer you go, the deeper you look and the higher you turn your magnification, the more of the same you see. Only the scale has changed.
It might be useful to see Calbefraques as being the ultimate magnification of humanity’s focus towards itself – it’s just the same, and it’s populated purely by flitters – people who are defined by their selfishness. There can’t be more than one Calbefraques because you can’t zoom in any more (and obviously humanity’s problem is that it isn’t zooming out). Madame d’Ortolan wants to prevent any zooming out, as she says in her final confrontation with Mrs Mulverhill:
…It’s all about power, you fuckwit bitch. Not mine; humanity’s. no diminution, no subjugation, no ‘contextualisation’, no aboriginalisation. [...] [I'm] a human racist, and proud to be so.
Why do Transitionaries need to be confident and selfish?
Mrs Mulverhill says of transitionaries:
We try to choose pragmatic, selfish people for such positions [...] All our best people are highly self-centred. It’s the only thing that holds them together in the chaos.
Transitionaries need to concentrate on themselves and keep their imagination on track, otherwise they might flit to undesirable places. Perhaps this is why Temudjin is such an expert flitter – he starts out being self-centred, which allows him to get started, but then becomes less selfish and thus more able to expand his abilities. d’Ortolan is the opposite – she’s totally selfish, very skilled at what she knows how to do, and nothing else.
Why are the alternate worlds so cliched?
They’re all pretty banal, aren’t they? Post-apocalyptic wastelands, neo-Victorian worlds, dirigibles – we’ve seen it all before. But that’s the point. The reason why Banks has only uses cliched alternate worlds is because they are the only ones that the flitters and humanity can imagine – and so they’re the only ones we see. His claim is that humanity doesn’t have the imagination for anything else – we’re too solipsistic. As Mrs Mulverhill says:
We have access to an infinite number of worlds and have visited some very strange ones. We suspect there are some so strange that we are unable to access them just because of that strangeness: they are unenvisagable, and because we cannot imagine going to them, we cannot go to them. But think how relatively limited is the type of world we do visit. For one thing, it is always and only Earth, as we understand it. Never the next planet further in towards or further out from the sun: Venus or MArs or their equivalents. This Earth is usually about four and a half billion years old in a universe just under fourteen billion years old. Usually, even if it supports no intelligent life, it supports some life. Almost without variance, it exists as part of a solar system in a galaxy composed of hundreds of millions of other solar systems, in a universe composed on hundreds of millions of other galaxies [...]
…Infinity seems to be failing somehow, wouldn’t you agree? [...] It hasn’t produced any aliens. It has produced only us. A single intelligence species in all the wide universe does not smack of infinity. [...]
…It could simply be due to what the transitioneering theorists call the problem of unenvisionability, as mentioned: we cannot imagine a world that includes aliens – or perhaps, deep down, we don’t want to.
Has Madame d’Ortolan seen or met any aliens?
Probably not. But there is a tantalising possibility in Mrs Mulverhill’s Doge-parable about d’Ortolan, where she says:
A prince or a king would have had more power. Doges were elected. For life, but with many restrictions. They were not allowed to open their own mail. It had first to be read by the censor. Too, they were not allowed to conduct discussions with foreign diplomats alone. A committee was required. They had much power but they were also figureheads.
It is perfectly natural and believeable to think that the references to ‘mail’, ‘censor’ and ‘foreign diplomats’ are perfectly innocent; after all, it’s true. Banks didn’t make up this fact, it actually happened. However, I like the idea that ‘mail’ is actually ’signals from aliens’, ‘foreign diplomats’ are ‘aliens’, etc etc. It’s interesting, at least (although I freely stipulate that it’s probably complete nonsense).
Who is Patient 8262?
Temudjin Oh, of course – we find out at the end.
How does Patient 8262 apparently talk to the other patients?
Either he is mad, or the other patients are. Perhaps there’s a better answer to this, though?
What is the hospital in which Patient 8262 hides?
Given all the strange events in the hospital, you do wonder whether this is actually real or not. Could it all be in Patient 8262’s head, a solipsistic moment? Or is he really hiding from the Concern (but why, if he – Temudjin – is so powerful?)
Why is Patient 8262 violated in the hospital?
Not sure about this one yet…
What is Septus?
It’s a drug, of course! Just like the drugs that Adrian likes to go on about. But it’s about expanding horizons, making you imagine more. It’s not necessary to take it to flit, but it helps.
A septum is “A dividing wall or partition, a general term for such a structure. The term is often used alone to refer to the septal area or to the septum pellucidum.”
Perhaps it breaks down walls – or builds them up.
Why is Mike Esteros important?
Here’s how he feels about his movie idea:
He still believes in it. It’s just a dream, but it’s a dream that could be made real and this is the place where that happens. Your dreams – not just of your idea but of your future self, your fortunes – get turned into reality here. He still loves this place, still believes in it.
In a sense, Mike is a hero; he’s a guy who continues to have a real imagination, to keep his thinking zoomed out and to consider the possibility that other things in the universe might exist and might be made real. He’s incredibly important to the world, partly because he exists across so many of them.
Why does Mrs Mulverhill pay Mike Esteros to look for aliens?
Perhaps just to look for aliens. I find this rather weird though – why not fund someone to start a proper SETI programme? Or is the point that his crazy theory of sightseeing aliens just as possible as anything else, and that if Mike looks, he’ll find something, thus conjuring aliens into existence in full?
Why is Madame d’Ortolan watching eclipses at the end of the book?
I can’t say I understand this yet. Does she expect to find aliens? Does she want to kill them? Does she want to kill Mike Esteros? It seems rather small fry compared to (say) blowing up radio telescopes, which might be more effective, but then we know The Concern is very concerned (sorry) about him because he exists across so many worlds.
What’s the significance of Adrian’s story?
Adrian Cubbish is a man who cares only about himself; he’s a solipsist, and one that readers might be able to relate to (and hate) a little better than d’Ortolan. In a way, he’s a human-sized version of what Banks is suggesting humanity has become – something that is only concerned with itself, rather than what else might surround it.
When Adrian meets Chloe, her rant about her father and his single point of view parallels exactly that of d’Ortolan; it’s not enough that he’s selfish, he is convinced that everyone else is, or at least should be, selfish. On a surface level, Adrian’s story is a criticism of unbridled capitalism; on a general level, it’s a criticism of humanity’s consistent selfishness.
What’s the deal with all this talk about solipsism?
The critical section is described by Patient 8262:
Often, in practice, one would be talking to the solipsist concerned in a sheltered institution or outright lunatic asylum. Why did they appear to be there, with all the restrictions such establishments tended to involved, rather than living some life of maximally efficient hyper-pleasure – a god, a super-heroic master-figure capable of any achievement or state of bliss through the simople act of thinking of it?
How this argument affected theh individual solipsist apparently depended entirely on their degree of self-deception and the history and development of their delusional state, our tutor informed us, but the depressing truth was that it pretty much never resulted in a eureka moment and the solipsist – now happily convinced of the existence of other people – returning to society as a rational and useful part of it. There was inevitably some underlying psychological reason why the individual had retreated to this deceptive bastion of selfish untouchability in the first place, and until that had been successfully address little real progress towards reality was likely.
So – this describes Patient 8262’s journey, and humanity’s.