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Inversions by Iain M. Banks

InversionsIn the wake of the news that Iain Banks has contracted a terminal form of cancer, I've been inspired to take up the Culture novels where I left off. Excession was the last one I read, so Inversions was next up.

I was vaguely familiar with the fact that this is the oddball in the series that doesn't seem to be about the Culture at all. It feels more like a Medieval fantasy or novel of court intrigue, and if you aren't familiar with the Culture (or haven't been told that this is a Culture novel), you probably won't notice the signs of the Culture in the deep background. In fact, Claire Brialey told me that she read this one without having read any other Culture novels and enjoyed it perfectly well as a story and world unto itself.

So it's a very clever exercise in telling a story that can be read at least two different ways depending on what you know or don't know about the other Culture books. I found it utterly fascinating both on the level of a novel of intrigue and on the level of a novel of Culture politics and philosophy. Banks' main concern throughout the series has been with the implications of a more advanced civilization intervening in the affairs of a less advanced civilization, which can also be looked at as a more powerful society intervening in (or exploiting) a less powerful one. This is a theme that is infinitely variable, and if you toss in the idea that the personal is political, it gathers even greater depth, especially novelistic depth. Inversions moves through all of this with great flair and mystery.

There are two threads to the story. One is about a monarchy where a mysterious female doctor is tending to the king with unusual methods and causing consternation amongst the corrupt, conniving nobility. Another is about a former empire that has been taken over by a revolutionary figure who is trying to overthrow the old monarchy and establish a more democratic, or at least populist, form of government. He is protected by a mysterious male bodyguard who senses that there's a plan afoot to assassinate the Protector, as the revolutionary leader is called, but can't quite pin down where it's coming from. These two threads never quite meet directly, but they do interact from afar.

For those who know that this is a Culture novel and are familiar with the post-scarcity super-scientific anarchist utopia that the Culture has achieved, it soon becomes obvious enough that the doctor and the bodyguard are both agents of the Culture working to intervene in the affairs of this backward planet from opposing philosophies of how best to do it. However, not only does Banks never come right out and say this directly, what he shows us is so, well, inverted, that it raises more questions than it answers. For example, one version of what might really be going on is a fairy tale about a man and a woman who come from a Culture-like country called Lavishia, but our initial sense that this a story about the bodyguard and the doctor seems to be misleading. For example, the fairy tale seems to invert the genders, thus playing on one of the psychological meanings of "inversion". We may also be misled by our own assumptions about gender roles and political systems.

Banks plays with our expectations like this throughout the book. Both the doctor and the bodyguard become emotionally involved with the people they are trying to manipulate, and the outcomes of their political manipulations and personal desires are ironic and ambiguous in just about every direction. The only genre story in a similar vein that I can think of that may do this novel one better is Joanna Russ' novella, "The Second Inquisition", where it seems that the intervention of the far future agent in a backward planet has autobiographical implications. Banks does not implicate himself directly in Inversions, but his meditation on the perverse, contrary play of power and desire, selfishness and progress is still a masterful continuation of the dialectic constituted by the Culture series as a whole. As ever, even interstellar utopia is humbled before the neediness of the human heart.

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