Transition by Iain Banks is a novel about the large and the small: the largeness of the universe and the smallness of human minds. One of its central concerns is how one’s view of the world informs how one treats the world exemplified in the question of how one would react when faced with the infinitude of a multiverse: would you accept something larger than yourself or retreat into self-regard and the seeking of individual power?
The novel’s plot revolves around The Concern, a secretive organisation who train elite individuals to flit between parallel worlds of the kind predicted by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. As powerful figures enact their political machinations, a number of characters – transitioning assassins, torturers, and a hedge-fund manager – are drawn into The Concern’s internal politics.
The novel is overtly philosophical and its central theme concerns the intermingling of two separate strands of philosophy. First, there is the metaphysical philosophy of parallel worlds: an infinite number of universes, some slightly different from our own like the Judeo-Islamic worlds, some massively different like the worlds without humans. This metaphysical position informs the second strand of philosophy, the ethical and political philosophy. In a scene where the powerful renegade transitioner, Mrs. Mulverhill, has taken the ‘greed-is-good’ hedge-fund manager Adrian to an alternate world where Moscow lies in ruins, she says that how he reacts to his new metaphysical viewpoint – knowing the truth of an infinity of parallel worlds – will reveal something about himself. One’s view of the metaphysical nature of the world impacts how they behave ethically towards the world: are they a single person in a larger group or a solipsistic self-important individual?
The book’s ethical philosophy focuses on self-interest. The story is set between those golden years for capitalism: between the falling of the Berlin Wall – the symbolic end of the West’s war against communism – and the fall of the Twin Towers – the symbolic beginning of a guerrilla war on Western capitalism. Banks mentions the third fall – the 2008 fall of Wall Street and the Markets – once at the beginning of the novel but for the most part the reader is left to consider the consequences of unbridled egotism and capitalism from our present position, deep in recession.
At one point, Adrian – a character whose main purpose is to show everything that’s wrong with the sociopathic self-regard of the financial ‘Masters of the Universe’ meets a girl in a bar who gives a speech on the psychology of the self-interested libertarian:
“The point is, because of that or not, he decided that everybody’s out for themselves and nobody really cares for anybody else, though some people pretend to. He’s looked after ‘Number One’” – she did that fingerwaggly inverted-commas thing – “exclusively ever since and he can’t see there might be something wrong with that. In fact, he can’t even see that what he’s got there is just a single point of view, and a pretty perverse one at that; as far as he’s concerned it’s some great truth about people and life that only he and a few other realists have worked out. Thing is, he’s got a problem. Maybe he’s still infected with some tiny remnant of human decency or something, but he can only really be content with himself and his despicable egotism if he’s satisfied that his self-centred attitude doesn’t make him a freak. For his own peace of mind he needs to believe that it’s not just him, that anybody who claims to care for others is lying; maybe because they’re frightened to admit they only think of themselves too, or maybe because they actively want to make people like him feel bad about themselves.”
Selfishness is a central theme and drives the entire work: the plot turns out to be driven by one character’s ultimate self-involved narcissism manifesting itself as racism.
Yet despite the book’s overt condemnation of the greedy, self-obsessed idiots who led our financial institutions to ruin, there’s a suggestion that not all self-interest is an evil. In the parallel world ruins of Moscow, Mrs. M says, “All our best people are highly self-centred. It’s the only thing that holds them together in the chaos.” Metaphysics again informs ethics: a view of the universe as a hostile and chaotic place begets a rational, ethical self-interest required for survival.