(1993) Iain M Banks, Orbit, £6.99, pbk, 487pp. ISBN 1 85723 179 1
Against a Dark Background tells the story of a noble-woman, Sharrow, and a group of her friends as they travel around the planet Golter and its neighbours. They are they are in search of the last Lazy Gun, a devastating weapon with a sense of humour, and they are pursued by the Huhsz, a religious cult who wish to kill Sharrow to ensure the birth of their prophet.
The group move at a furious pace through a wide variety of well-imagined locations, such as the Log Jam, a city built on a raft of thousands of ships, and the Entraxrln, a plant the size of a continent. The plotting is rather flimsy in places (the final stage of the journey to the Lazy Gun in particular, seems to have come out of a D&D game). On the other hand, there's plenty of action, the characters are well developed, and Banks' black humour is put to good use, so the book is good fun to read.
If there's a serious point to this book, it seems to be that it acts as a counterpoint to the Culture novels. Golter has never outgrown its atavistic tendencies, and so it has suffered devastating wars that have wiped out the technological achievements of past civilizations, leaving behind only destructive relics such as the Lazy Guns. Sharrow's own past seems to mirror the violent history of the planet, the story pits her against both of them, and the ending of the book leaves little room for optimism about anything but survival, either for her, or for Golter.
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