Transition, p.1Iain M. Banks
Copyright © 2009 by Iain M. Banks
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The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
By Iain Banks
The Wasp Factory
Walking On Glass
The Crow Road
A Song Of Stone
The Steep Approach To Garbadale
Also by Iain M. Banks
The Player Of Games
Use Of Weapons
The State Of The Art
Against A Dark Background
Look To Windward
For Alastair and Emily, and in memory of Bec
With thanks to Adèle, Mic, Richard, Les, Gary and Zoe
Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator, though of course if you believe everything you’re told you deserve whatever you get. It is, believe me, more than a little amazing–and entirely unprecedented–that you are reading these words at all. Have you ever seen a seismograph? You know: one of those terribly delicate and sensitive things with a long spideryfingered pen that inscribes a line on a roll of paper being moved beneath it, to record earth tremors.
Imagine that one of those is sailing serenely along, recording nothing of note, drawing a straight and steady black line, registering just calmness and quiet both beneath your feet and all around the world, and then it suddenly starts to write in flowing copperplate, the paper zipping back and forth beneath it to accommodate its smoothly swirling calligraphy. (It might write: “Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator…”)
That is how unlikely it is that I am writing this and anybody is reading it, trust me.
Time, place. Necessary, I suppose, though in the circumstances insufficient. However, we must begin somewhere and somewhen, so let me start with Mrs Mulverhill and record that, by your reckoning, I first encountered her near the beginning of that golden age which nobody noticed was happening at the time; I mean the long decade between the fall of the Wall and the fall of the Towers.
If you wish to be pedantically exact about it, those retrospectively blessed dozen years lasted from the chilly, fevered Central European night of November 9th, 1989 to that bright morning on the Eastern Seaboard of America of September 11th, 2001. One event symbolised the lifted threat of a worldwide nuclear holocaust, something which had been hanging over humanity for nearly forty years, and so ended an age of idiocy. The other ushered in a new one.
The wall’s fall was not spectacular. It was night and all you saw on television was a bunch of leather-jacketed Berliners attacking reinforced concrete – mostly with hammers, rather ineffectually. Nobody died. A lot of people got drunk and stoned – and laid, no doubt. The wall itself was not a striking structure, and not even very tall or especially forbidding; the real obstacle had always been the barren, sandy killing ground of mines, dog runs and razor wire behind it.
The vertical barrier was always more symbolic than anything else; a delineation, so the fact that none of the crowds of cheerful vandals scrabbling for a perch on it could do much to destroy it without access to heavy equipment was irrelevant; what mattered was that they were clambering all over this famously divisive, allegedly defensive symbol without getting machine-gunned. However, as the expression of a sudden outburst of hope and optimism and an embracing of change, one could ask for no more, I suppose. The al-Qaida attack on the USA – well, given that a nation was invaded and occupied using this as an excuse, and that this was done in the name of democracy, let’s be both nationalistic and democratic about it: the Saudi Arabian attack on the USA–could hardly have offered a greater contrast.
Slung between these two wide-reaching levellings, the intervening years held civilisation happily if ignorantly scooped, as in a hammock.
Sometime about the centre of that sweet trough, Mrs M and I became lost to each other. We met again, then parted again for the final time just before the third Fall, the fall of Wall Street and the City, the fall of the banks, the fall of the Markets, beginning on September 15th, 2008.
Perhaps we all find such coincident place marks in the books of our lives reassuring.
Still, it seems to me that such congruencies, while useful in fixing what one might call one’s personal eras within our shared history, are effectively meaningless. Lying here, during all this time after my own small fall, it has become my conviction that things mean pretty much what we want them to mean. We’ll pluck significance from the least consequential happenstance if it suits us and happily ignore the most flagrantly obvious symmetry between separate aspects of our lives if it threatens some cherished prejudice or cosily comforting belief; we are blindest to precisely whatever might be most illuminating. Mrs Mulverhill herself said that, I think. Or it might have been Madame d’Ortolan – I get the two confused sometimes.
I am getting a little ahead of myself, so, in the light of the above, let us embrace rather than resist this effect.
You may, even as we begin, wish to know how my part in this ends.
So let me tell you.
This is how it ends: he comes into my room. He is dressed in black and wearing gloves. It is dark in here, just a night light on, but he can identify me, lying on the hospital bed, propped up at a slight angle, one or two remaining tubes and wires attaching me to various pieces of medical equipment. He ignores these; the nurse who would hear any alarm is lying trussed and taped down the hall, the monitor in front of him switched off. The man shuts the door, darkening the room still further. He walks quietly to my bedside, though I ought to be unlikely to wake as I am sedated, lightly drugged to aid a good night’s sleep. He looks at my bed. Even in the dim light he can see that it is tightly made; I am constricted within this envelope of sheets and blanket. Reassured by this confinement, he takes the spare pillow from the side of my head and places it – gently at first – over my face, then quickly bears down on me, forcing his hands down on either side of my head, pinning my arms under the covers with his elbows, placing most of his weight on his arms and his chest, his feet rising from the floor until only the tips of his shoes are still in contact with it.
I don’t even str
He is no fool; he has anticipated that I might merely be playing dead.
So he lies quite calmly on me for a while, as unmoving as I, checking his watch now and again as the minutes tick by, to make sure I am gone.
I hope you’re happy. An ending, and we have barely even begun yet! So we shall begin, first with something that in a sense has yet to happen.
It begins on a train, the highest train in the world, between China and Tibet. It begins with a man in a cheap brown business suit walking from one swaying carriage to another, his gait a little unsteady as he holds a small oxygen cylinder in one hand and an automatic handgun in the other. He steps onto the sliding metal plates that separate the carriages, the corrugated collar linking the passenger cars flexing and wheezing around him like a gigantic version of the ribbed tube connecting the oxygen cylinder and the transparent mask round his nose and mouth. Inside the mask, he finds himself smiling nervously.
The train rattles and jiggles around him, moving ponderously up and down and side to side, throwing him briefly against the ribs of the connector. Perhaps a place where the permafrost has proved less than permanent; he has heard that there have been problems. He steadies himself, rebalancing as the train straightens and resumes its smooth progress. He sticks the oxygen cylinder under one arm and uses his free hand to straighten his tie.
The gun is a People’s Army issue K-54, decades old and feeling worn smooth with age. He has never fired it but it is meant to be reliable. The silencer looks crude, almost home-made. Still, it will have to do. He wipes his hand on his trousers, cocks the gun and extends his fingers towards the code panel above the handle of the door leading to the private carriage. A tiny red light pulses slowly on the lock’s display.
They are approaching the highest part of the line, the Tanggula Pass, still most of a day away from Lhasa. The air feels cool and thin here, five kilometres up. Most people will be keeping to their seats, plugged into the train’s oxygen supply. Outside, the Tibetan plateau – a symphony of dun, beige and brown with a bitty overlay of early-summer green – has ridged and buckled over the last hour to create foothills that harbinge the crumpled parapets of low encroaching mountains in the distance.
The chief train guard had demanded a lot of money for the override code. It had better work. He taps it in quickly.
The tiny pulsing red light turns steady green. He feels himself swallowing.
The train rocks; the handle feels cold beneath his fingers.
And it begins with our young-sounding, young-looking, young-acting but in the end middle-aged friend Mr Adrian Cubbish waking up in his Mayfair home one London morning in – oh, let’s say late summer 2007; the routine is the same for the majority of days. He is in his bedroom suite, which takes up most of what used to be the attic of the town house. A light rain is falling onto the slabs of double-glazed glass which point at forty-five degrees to the light grey sky.
If Adrian were to have a symbol, it would be a mirror. This is what he says to the mirror each morning before he goes to work, and sometimes at the weekends when he doesn’t have to go to work, just for the sheer hell of it:
“The Market is God. There is no God but the Market.” He takes a breath here, smiling at his still-waking face. He looks young and fit, slim but muscled. He has tanned Caucasian skin, black hair, grey-green eyes and a wide mouth which is usually fixed in a knowing grin. Adrian has only ever slept with one woman who was significantly older than him; she chose to describe his mouth as “sensuous,” which he’d decided, after a little thought, was cool. Girls his own age and younger would call his mouth cute if they thought to describe it at all. He has a shadow-beard a night old. He lets his beard grow for a week or so sometimes before shaving it off; he looks good either way. He looks, if he is being honest with himself, like a male model. He looks just like he wants to look. Maybe he could be a little taller.
He clears his throat, spits into the glass bowl of one of the bathroom’s two sinks. Naked, he runs his hand through the dark curls of his pubic hair. “In the name of Capital, the compassionate, the wise,” he tells himself.
He grins, winks at his own reflection, amused.
And here, in a low-rise office suite in Glendale, Los Angeles, blinds slicing the slanting late afternoon sunlight into dark and shining strips draped across carpet tiles, chairs, suits and conference table, the noise of the freeway a grumbling susurrus in the background while Mike Esteros makes his pitch:
“Gentlemen, lady… this is more than just a pitch. Don’t get me wrong – this is a pitch but it’s also an important part of the movie I’m going to convince you that you want to help me make.
“What I’m going to tell you here is how to find aliens. Seriously. When I’m done, you’ll believe it might be possible. You’ll think we can capture an alien. What we’ll certainly be able do is create a movie that will capture the imagination of a generation; a Close Encounters, a Titanic. So, thank you for letting me have these few minutes of your time; I promise you they won’t be wasted.
“Now, anybody seen a full eclipse? Anyone been in the path of totality, when the sun is just wisps and tendrils of light peeking out from behind the moon? You, sir? Pretty impressive, sight, yeah? Yeah, mind-blowing indeed. Changes some people’s lives. They become shadow chasers – people who track down as many eclipses as they can, journeying to every corner of the world just to experience more examples of this uncanny and unique phenomenon.
“So let’s think about eclipses for a moment. Even if we haven’t seen an eclipse personally, we’ve seen the photographs in magazines and the footage on television or YouTube. We’re almost blasé about them; they’re just part of the stuff that happens to our planet, like weather or earthquakes, only not destructive, not life-threatening.
“But think about it. What an incredible coincidence it is that our moon fits exactly over our sun. Talk to astronomers and they’ll tell you that Earth’s moon is relatively much bigger than any other moon round any other planet. Most planets, like Jupiter and Saturn and so on, have moons that are tiny in comparison to themselves. Earth’s moon is enormous, and very close to us. If it was smaller or further away you’d only ever get partial eclipses; bigger or closer and it would hide the sun completely and there’d be no halo of light round the moon at totality. This is an astounding coincidence, an incredible piece of luck. And for all we know, eclipses like this are unique. This could be a phenomenon that happens on Earth and nowhere else. So, hold that thought, okay?
“Now, supposing there are aliens. Not E.T. aliens – not that cute or alone. Not Independence Day aliens – not that crazily aggressive – but, well, regular aliens. Yeah? Regular aliens. It’s perfectly possible, when you think of it. We’re here, after all, and Earth is just one small planet circling one regular-size sun in one galaxy. There are a quarter of a billion suns in this one galaxy and quarter of a billion galaxies in the universe; maybe more. We already know of hundreds of other planets around other suns, and we’ve only just started looking for them. Scientists tell us that almost every star might have planets. How many of those might harbour life? The Earth is ancient, but the universe is even more ancient. Who knows how many civilisations were around before Earth came into existence, or existed while we were growing up, or exist right now?
“So, if there are civilised aliens, you’d guess they can travel between stars. You’d guess their power sources and technology would be as far beyond ours as supersonic jets, nuclear submarines and space shuttles are beyond some tribe in the Amazon still making dugout canoes. And if they’re curious enough to do the science and invent the technol
“Now, most jet travel on Earth is for tourism. Not business; tourism. Would our smart, curious aliens really be that different from us? I don’t think so. Most of them would be tourists. Like us, they’d go on cruise ships. And would they want to actually come to a place like Earth, set foot – or tentacle, or whatever – here? Rather than visit via some sort of virtual reality set-up? Well, some would settle for second-best, yes. Maybe the majority of people would. But the high rollers, the super-wealthy, the elite, they’d want the real thing. They’d want the bragging rights, they’d want to be able to say they’d really been to whatever exotic destinations would be on a Galactic Grand Tour. And who knows what splendours they’d want to fit in; their equivalent of the Grand Canyon, or Venice, Italy, or the Great Wall of China or Yosemite or the Pyramids?
“But what I want to propose to you is that, as well as all those other wonders, they would definitely want to see that one precious thing that we have and probably nobody else does. They’d want to see our eclipse. They’d want to look through the Earth’s atmosphere with their own eyes and see the moon fit over the sun, watch the light fade down to almost nothing, listen to the animals nearby fall silent and feel with their own skins the sudden chill in the air that comes with totality. Even if they can’t survive in our atmosphere, even if they need a spacesuit to keep them alive, they’d still want to get as close as they possibly could to seeing it in the raw, in as close to natural conditions as it’s possible to arrange. They’d want to be here, amongst us, when the shadow passes.
“So that’s where you look for aliens. In the course of an eclipse totality track. When everybody else is looking awestruck at the sky, you need to be looking round for anybody who looks weird or overdressed, or who isn’t coming out of their RV or their moored yacht with the heavily smoked glass.
“If they’re anywhere, they’re there, and as distracted – and so as vulnerable – as anybody else staring up in wonder at this astonishing, breathtaking sight.
Transition by Iain M. Banks / Science Fiction / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes