Inversions (Iain M. Banks) 2008-05-28

I just finished reading Inversions. It's a novel set in Iain Banks massive Culture setting, but at the same time not. If you haven't read any Culture novels before, don't start with this. If you have, you may either love or hate this depending on whether you read Banks books for their "space opera" qualities or for the twists and turns and explorations of culture and alien societies. On the surface it's not even clear to a casual reader that it is science fiction. It reads like fantasy: The setting is clearly alien, with two suns and multiple moons, and it's set in a roughly medieval setting, perhaps sort of an early renaissance equivalent. But if you've read the other Culture novels, the book is littered with hints that the two main characters whose respective stories are intertwined, forming the "inversions", are clearly Culture. We don't know who they are - they could be agents of Contact or Special Circumstances, or they could be individuals with their own agendas, or perhaps just shipwrecked aliens waiting for their ride home? Sometime before the story starts the world it is set on is hit by a devastating catastrophe of "burning rocks" falling from the heavens, yet we don't know if it's a meteorite, an intentional interference, or perhaps a massive Culture ship crashing into the atmosphere? From other books, it's clear that Culture citizens have artificially expanded life spans, so the protagonists in Inversions could have been there much longer than you'd expect. The story is at once intensely annoying in its lack of answers (at a level only beaten for me by The Alien Years by Robert Silverberg, where the extremely infuriatingly annoying ending is at the same time genius) while at the same time on the surface the stories that are "complete" - the main protagonists, the Doctor and the bodyguard, each serving their respective rulers, conclude their "missions" with varying results. There is resolution. We just don't get to read the whys and hows. But we "see" knife missiles and possibly other Culture tech at work without getting any firsthand descriptions of any of it. There's technology or magic, or the characters are just better than we give them credit for, but the "technology" explanation is by far the easiest to accept. The book can be read with no thought of the Culture, and it's meaning is intact - a story told by DeWar the bodyguard to the son of the ruler he serves hints strongly at the role of DeWar and his counterpoint - the doctor Vossil - and their opposite viewpoints on whether it is right to "be cruel to be kind", or in other words whether it is acceptable to interfere with someone in ways that "teaches a lesson" or if you should leave other civilizations to develop at their own pace. I've seen many reviews claim that Banks takes a clear stand for one of them, but while he seems to favor one it's not that clear cut. One country prospers, and the other falls into disarray, but towards the end it is also clearly hinted that things have since improved again, and the book cuts off too early to see the longer term impact. While one character is also clearly interfering far more, it is also not black and white - why did both characters choose to serve the ruler of their respective countries? Both of them have put themselves in situations where their success or failure directly interferes with the political stability of their respective countries - even the character who supposedly favors non-interference ends up saving a life that ultimately affects the line of succession in that country. But is that interference different because it is "personal" and apolitical? An act carried out because of duty in a job, not because of ulterior motives? Inversions is Banks' most obvious work of social science fiction taken to the extreme, reminiscent in some ways of Ursula K. Leguin's scifi, which often is close to fantasy on the surface despite obviously alien settings, though the motives that are hidden in Inversions are very much in plain sight in novels such as The Left Hand of Darkness. Both are about the people and at the same time about culture-clashes and explore interactions between highly developed cultures (The Culture and the Ekumen) vs. relatively primitive societies, but in both cases societies that are describe with a certain level of sensitivity. The "natives" may be primitive, but they are not bad as people, just products of their environment; and both sides learn - it's not a one way street. But all of Banks' scifi fit in this category - it is just often easy to ignore behind all the glitzy space opera and the vast vistas spanning planets and systems and involving billions of beings. Indeed, Banks' other novels are so good at combining both that you can read them for one or the other and be quite happy, while Inversions will seem to fall flat on it's face for you if you don't enjoy social scifi. I'd say you're likely to enjoy it if you like Ursula K. LeGuin, or the social aspects of books like Brian Aldiss' Non-Stop, Kim Stanley Robinson's Three California's trilogy (i.e. if you enjoy all three and the way they juxtapose different societies rather than enjoy them just for the technological aspects), than if you mostly prefer "hard SF" or pure space opera and demand visible techonology to accept something as SF. Inversions is perhaps the "hardest read" of Banks' science fiction books exactly because it's so much on the fringes of sci-fi and hides so much of the "real story" from the readers, forcing you to pay more attention than most sci-fi, which has a tendency to shove it's ideas in your face even when those ideas are deep and profound. But that serves as a reminder that there is a lot of subtlety in Banks' other Culture books, and the casual reader that read them just as space opera will miss a lot.

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