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. Continue reading “Notes on Iain Banks’ Transition”