Monday, 6 September 1999

Iain M. Banks: Inversions (1998)

Inversions coverEdition: Orbit, 1998

Iain Banks is fascinated by the idea of a novel constructed from seemingly independent strands which turn out to be connected. Inversions is at least the fourth time he has done this (Walking on Glass, The Bridge and Feersum Endjinn are earlier examples). Inversions is rather simpler than these earlier novels for two reasons: there are only two stories being told in parallel, and there is a prologue in which we are told that there are connections between the stories, instead of having to work it out ourselves from hints in the narrative. (The nature of the connection, though, is something the reader is left to speculate about; Banks gives clues but doesn't specify it exactly.)

Both stories are set on the same world, where a large empire has recently disintegrated into warring kingdoms at a late medieval level of technology (hand guns are new technology, so about the level of fifteenth century Europe). The background seemed to have an Eastern flavour for some reason that I can't quite put my finger on; it is possible that the cover illustration, of some Chinese-style architecture, has something to do with this.

The two stories are set in two warring kingdoms, each telling of the influence of a manipulative stranger on the kingdom's affairs. A heavy hint is given that the strangers - or at least one of them - are agents of the Culture, the advanced galactic civilisation which forms the background of many of Banks' science fiction novels. The one, Vossil, whose access to advanced Culture-style technology shows her origin with a degree of certainty, is acting as physician to the king of one state. The other, DeWar, is bodyguard to the ruler of another. Thus both are protecting life, though DeWar perhaps in a less sophisticated way than Vossil. DeWar tells stories which seem to be about himself and Vossil before they came to their current positions - the stories present the Culture as fairy tales for children, a neat irony. This is the main evidence that he too is from a more sophisticated culture. DeWar is the most interesting character in Inversions, and this interest starts with his name: a multilingual pun in our world not that of the novel's setting, as well as ironically a famous Scottish name.

It is hard to see the exact reason for the title Inversions. Possible ones which occurred to me include that it is a Culture novel set on a low technology world, that it is about a relationship between two people who never interact, that it is something to do with how it is meant to reflect our world, that it is a science fiction novel that appears to be fantasy (though what "magic" there is in Inversions is clearly advanced technology, recalling Arthur C. Clarke's famous saying) or even a historical novel.

Despite being an engaging novel which raises questions in the minds of its readers, Inversions is not as profound as any of the three earlier Banks novels mentioned above. It is more accessible since it is less complex while offering appetising interesting ideas, and so might perhaps serve as a good introduction to his writing for anyone who hasn't read any of his books before.

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