Notes on Iain Banks’ Transition

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:

  1. 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?”
  2. She never provides a first name.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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”

Spooks: Code 9 – They Got it Backwards

sc9

Note: I am not about to reveal any secrets about Spooks: Code 9 or its production. A dedicated fan of Spooks could have written this, and while I’m not one, I did spend a lot of time thinking about, and watching, the show. These are my own opinions, and not that of Six to Start.

Last year, I worked on the online extension of a BBC 3 TV series called Spooks: Code 9. When I tell people this, they’re often excited and impressed when they hear the word ‘Spooks‘, and I have to explain that it wasn’t the long-running BBC 1 spy thriller that many know and love, but a spin-off.

Except Spooks: Code 9 (SC9) wasn’t a spin-off of Spooks. It was set in 2013, a year after a nuclear bomb had blown up London, and there was no continuity of events or characters from the original series (set during the present day). The only thing in common it had with Spooks is that it involved MI5 and it shares the same name (originally, it was just going to be called ‘Liberty’).

It’s easy to understand why SC9 was made; the BBC had a successful and popular thriller in Spooks, and the production company, Kudos, was clearly smart and reliable (they’d also made the excellent Life on Mars). Why not try and extend the formula to the younger end of the market? After all, the CSI brand had two spin-offs, so who’d begrudge the BBC just one?

But it wasn’t that simple. As the show neared launch, ‘Spooks’ was tacked on to the name, and ‘Liberty’ turned into the impenetrable ‘Code 9’, which meant absolutely nothing except for being a codeword in the show. Tying the show to the Spooks brand was a risky move – it helped raise its profile and increased the chance that fans of the original series would tune in, but it also set the expectation that it would be just like (or at least, similar to) Spooks. This was bad, for two reasons.

The first was that the show clearly wasn’t like Spooks – it was aimed at a far younger audience, and so it had younger characters and younger themes; anyone expecting the sort of characters and interactions from the original, decidedly middle-aged, series, would be disappointed. Secondly, anyone who didn’t like Spooks but might have tuned in to a younger, edgier show might now be turned off because they’d think that – yes – it’d just be like Spooks.

So what happened? Firstly, many criticisms of SC9 mentioned the fact that it wasn’t Spooks – and it got worse:

Spooks Code 9 is an utterly cynical venture and a damning indictment of the lack of imagination at work in commissioning new drama … Moreover, given its patronising awfulness, SC9 actually damages the Spooks brand. And that’s what it’s about – the brand.

The unthinkable had happened – the branding plan had backfired and SC9 was now dragging the golden goose down with it! Sadly, I think that if SC9 had a different name (i.e. not Spooks), everyone would have given the show more of a chance.

Not that that would’ve helped much, because regardless of it was called, SC9 was bad. Really bad. I couldn’t find a single positive review of the first episode, and believe me, I looked; reviewers criticised the script, the absence of anyone over 40, and the show’s consistent focus on the youth market through various club scenes, drinking, and romantic angst. What should have been the opening to an intriguing and exciting new world had emerged as a bland show that used tired tropes, like newsreel montages and all six main characters explaining why they thought they should become a secret agent.

After the first two episodes, which were shown back-to-back and were equally painful to watch, the audience numbers plummeted. Ep1 had 810k viewers, Ep 2 had 703k viewers – and Ep3 had 447k viewers. In a week, the show had lost almost half of its audience. By the sixth and final episode, SC9 had a mere 245k viewers.

I thought this was very sad, and not just because we were making the online extension. Episode 4 wasn’t bad, Episode 5 was pretty decent, and Episode 6 was really quite entertaining. In fact, the first minutes of the finale are captivating.

We open with a man (of apparent Arabic descent) pacing around a room in agitation. He’s throwing things into a bag while dialling the same number again and again on his mobile, and it’s always engaged. The man jumps into a car and drives out of the city, still dialling without success. Finally, on the motorway, instead of getting an engaged tone, he gets nothing at all; and then the radio turns to static. The traffic all around slows, then stops, and everyone gets out, because there’s a mushroom cloud behind them.

That’s how SC9 should’ve started – with a bang.

Books of 2009

I haven’t talked much about the books I’ve read recently, and having finished a slew of them recently, I thought I’d take a look back at all the books I’ve read this year. On the whole, there aren’t as many as usual; work, magazines and periodicals, and notably Infinite Jest, really took their toll.

January

The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World by Lewis Hyde. A beautifully-written book about why people make creative works, how they should be compensated (with reference to gift-based economies in the past), and the sources of inspiration. There was a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert doing the rounds a few months ago about nurturing creativity; it’s pretty good, but if you want to know more about the subject, Lewis Hyde’s book is absolutely the place to go. I finished this book in a couple of weeks, I think.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. An incredible novel that I’ve written about previously and took five weeks of sustained effort to get through. I probably finished this in March.

April

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. When I bought this in June 2008, I got a dozen pages in and developed a headache from the second-person narration and shamefully abandoned the book. My second attempt was much more successful and I came to appreciate the literally mysterious structure. I’ll admit that a few of the chapters dragged for me, but the rest of the book more than made up for it.

May

Many of these books were read on a four day cruise to Cork, Ireland.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Much has been written about Taleb’s assertion that people fool themselves into thinking they can accurately predict and/or quantify the chances of extremely rare events occurring (e.g. stock market crashes). Several people have told me they liked the book but can’t stand it because Taleb is so full of himself; I think this is besides the point. He is full of himself, but that doesn’t stop the book from being interesting and entertaining.

I found it irritating that the Guardian condemned David Cameron for talking to Taleb, because of Taleb’s ‘wacky’ views (which were subsequently clarified by Taleb). I’m no die-hard Taleb fan myself – and I’m not a David Cameron fan either – but I think Taleb has things that politicians would be well-advised to hear, and scare-stories from the Guardian do no-one any good.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. Much as I enjoyed Infinite Jest, like many others, I absolutely adore DFW’s essays and articles. His essay on television is incredibly foresighted for something written in 1993, although I would have been interested in his opinion of the HBO-style dramas of recent years; his coverage of the Illinois State Fair is wonderfully funny and characteristically introspective. Probably the best essay, which the book was named after, is about his trip on a cruise ship. I’d already read the essay online, but I was happy to re-read it, and I’m sure that I’ll never see the words ‘lapis lazuli’ in the same way ever again… (it also became obvious, from this book, that Neal Stephenson is a massive fan of DFW).

Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner. What are the minds (or ‘mindsets’) that are required to succeed and flourish in the information-rich, hyper-competitive, fast-moving, etc, etc, world of the 21st century? Gardner attempts to explain here. This was an interesting book, but not much stuck with me apart from the later sections on the ‘respectful’ mind.

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood. If you’ve ever heard me talking about Margaret Atwood, it is normally about one of two subjects. Firstly, the fact that British people think she’s either British or American. Secondly, the fact that she strenously denies that Oryx and Crake (and the new The Year of the Flood) are not science fiction – which they plainly are – while simultaneously decrying science fiction. Having said that, I have actually read and enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, and since I have a real interest in economics and history these days, no amount of science-fiction denial was going to get in my way here. Payback was a good look at the history of debt and the way in which it’s been treated and contorted over the centuries, although it ends on a bizarrely hard-line note (which is probably not surprising given the eco-apocalyptic nature of her novels, but there you go). Continue reading “Books of 2009”

Why Smokescreen is the Best Game Ever*

I just published a post, Why Smokescreen in the Best Game Ever*, on the Six to Start blog with some game design thoughts behind Smokescreen, our latest game. It goes into a fair level of detail about some of the interesting features in Smokescreen and provides the reason why we added them; if you’re into ARGs or games in general, I think you’ll find it interesting.

Over the next few weeks, I’m hoping to write several more posts going into more detail about the different aspects of the game (e.g. mission design, audio, story, interaction, etc), and we’ll also have posts by other people involved in the game as well! So this will be a good opportunity to see how we design games, and where our thinking is currently at.