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Literature / Against a Dark Background

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"I'd been a difficult child; I became an easy adolescent."

A 1994 stand-alone science fiction novel by Iain M. Banks, better known for his Culture novels.

Sharrow, a cynical, emotionally scarred aristocrat who once led a personality-bonded combat squadron, is warned by her cousin that the cult who killed her mother when she was very young has obtained a Hunting Passport against her, a legal license to murder for a year and a day. There are only two ways out; survive the year, or return what her long-ago female ancestor stole from the cult: the last Lazy Gun, a whimsical weapon of destruction.

She reassembles her team to search for the Gun, but bad luck in the present and the events of the past stalk her as she gets closer and closer to her goal.

There's an epilogue not printed in the novel which Iain Banks published online; it's available here. It provides further detail on the ending, changing the tone of the book to some degree.

This novel features the following tropes:

  • Absent Aliens: Possibly. Golter orbits a star which sits out in deep space, between galaxies, and they expressly don't have the technology to detect any aliens, let alone reach them. The fact that they're all alone in the universe is posited as a possible factor in why Golter's history is so warlike.
  • Ace Pilot: Sharrow, during the flashbacks to the Five Per Cent War.
  • Action Girl: Sharrow.
  • Alien Sky: The story is set within a lone solar system that is outside a galaxy. This is revealed two-thirds through the book, but hinted at a several points, notably in night-time scenes where starlight is not mentioned but "junklight" (light reflected from satellites & space junk in orbit above) is.
  • As You Know: A convenient Mr. Exposition, in the form of one of the various maybe-clones who keep trying to hire her, tells Sharrow her own backstory.
  • Artifact of Doom: The Lazy Guns, reality-warping pistols with minds of their own. The second-to-last one annihilated half of a city when scientists tried to take it apart; the last Lazy Gun is the central MacGuffin of the novel.
  • BFG: A group of solipsistic mercenaries dump an advanced weapon that they have been gifted after falsely assuming that it has run out of ammo. Previously they had used it to shoot down several jet fighters.
  • Bookends: The online epilogue puts us back on a cable car, just like the one Sharrow's mother died on. She's understandably on edge, but it goes a long way to showing she's starting to finally move on.
  • Brain Uploading: Androids can back up their current selves in the event that something happens to their physical body. There is, however, a waitlist of nearly a century to receive a new body, since the construction of new androids has been banned for centuries since they're one of many ways Golter has gone to war with itself.
  • Broken Bird: Sharrow, with a big chunk of Don't You Dare Pity Me!. Seeing her mother killed by assassins is pretty much her earliest memory, and there's not a lot of happiness in her upbringing.
  • Bumbling Dad: Well, Loser Dad, really. Sharrow's father pisses away the remains of the family's wealth as she grows up on "casinos and courts; father had an obsession with screwing money out of one of them. Mostly, they did it to him."
  • Cain and Abel: Sharrow and her half-sister Breyguhn loathe each other.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Literally! Aside from the Lazy Gun, Sharrow always carries her HandCannon with a round in the breech (against the manufacturer's recommendation), which we're told within the first few pages, becomes important much later on.
  • Clarke's Third Law: Most of the ancient technology is sufficiently advanced, particularly the Lazy Guns, which destroy anything by extra-dimensional, whimsical means.
  • Cult: Almost too many to count. A cult is responsible for the death of Sharrow's mother and the contract on Sharrow's life, while many other cults with strange beliefs and practices are encountered during the novel. A common Banks trope.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Sharrow indulges in one as she approaches the final climax.
  • Date Rape Averted: Sharrow's cousin Geis on Sharrow, in flashbacks.
  • Dead Man Switch: Geis again claims to have one on a grand scale. He may or may not be lying to protect himself.
  • Decoy Leader: Warlord Chrolesser is introduced as the architect behind the book's events. It very quickly turns out that he's just a puppet, a hired actor covering for Geis.
  • Double-Meaning Title: It's a dark novel, which begins with the violent death of the protagonist's mother, taking place in a star system where any neighboring galaxies are far, far out of reach, on a planet which has spent ten thousand years tearing itself apart in meaningless, unfathomably destructive warfare.
  • Dwindling Party: The first casualty is Cenuij, about three-quarters of the way through the book. By the end, only Sharrow and Feril are left.
  • A God Am I: Sharrow is captured by a team of solipsist mercenaries, each of whom believe that they are God and everyone else, including the rest of their team, are figments of their imagination.
  • Groin Attack: Sharrow takes great pleasure in kicking the gatekeeper monk at the Sea House in the nuts as she leaves. He kind of deserves it, though.
  • Hand Cannon: Invoked. Sharrow's sidearm is a FrintArms HandCannon
  • Last of Her Kind: Sharrow is the last of the female line of the Dascen family.
  • Load-Bearing Boss: Big Bad Geis claims to be one, saying that he has contingencies in place for their death which amount to hundreds if not thousands of hostages. Sharrow kills him anyway. The reasons for the postmortem explosions are ambiguous.
  • MacGuffin: The Lazy Gun, an Artifact of Doom and a truly Smart Gun.
  • Missing Mom: Sharrow's mother is assassinated by the enemy cult when she is five.
  • Mr. Exposition: the clone inside the automated beachcomber machine in the first chapter. Comes complete with Sharrow asking him (paraphrased) "So, what do you know about me?" as an excuse to drop big heaping spoonfuls of backstory.
  • Only One Name: Sharrow. The highest level of aristocracy only have single names, while each lower class has more.
  • Parental Favoritism: Sharrow is their father's ungrateful favorite, much to the hatred of her half-sister, Breyguhn.
  • Psychic Link: Sharrow and the rest of her combat squadron (originally eight) were linked together with a synchroneurobonding (SNB) virus.
  • Putting the Band Back Together: Sharrow must reassemble her team to find the Lazy Gun, which is the only thing that will buy off the cult after her life.
  • Really Gets Around: Sharrow, especially in her younger years (see the quote above).
  • Silly Reason for War: Deconstructed, and implied to be Golter's hat: the scars of wars fought over the past Decamillennium are everywhere (they're one part of the "dark background" of the novel's title): sometimes only hinted at, other times described in loving detail, with many a war fought with the express intention of being the last, bringing a new order that will finally result in lasting peace. Sharrow met her True Companions while serving in one such conflict: the Five Per Cent War, which was apparently fought over a tax hike.
  • Single Line of Descent: Sharrow is the last of the female line of the Dascen family, which the Huhsz cult has pledged to wipe out.
  • Smart Gun: The Lazy Gun that drives the plot is self-aware, apparently communicates with Sharrow through her dreams, and has a capricious sense of humour.
  • Spoiled Brat: Sharrow as a child and teenager; filled with resentment about the death of her mother and indulged by a father she had no respect for due to his losing ways, the child Sharrow sounds like an obnoxious little brat. Volunteering for the Five Per Cent War (to spite Geis, she joins the other side) cured that ... at quite a cost.
  • True Companions: Sharrow gets the band back together to track down the Lazy Gun and get the Huhsz off her family's back once and for all. Everyone but Sharrow and Sixth Ranger Feril dies before the end of the book.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Sharrow and her friends journey across the face of Golter and beyond, only to find the true puppetmaster behind all their troubles is none other than Sharrow's cousin Geis.
  • Where It All Began: After traveling around the world and across the system, Sharrow ends up right back at the Sea House, squaring off against her cousin and sister.
  • World Half Empty: Essentially the title of the book. The population of Golter was nearly wiped out ten thousand years ago; the past Decamillennium has been punctuated by any number of lesser wars which have nevertheless pocked the surface with wastelands and ruins.