Inversions

by Iain M. Banks

Cover image

Publisher: Pocket
Copyright: 1998
Printing: May 2001
ISBN: 0-7434-1196-X
Format: Mass market
Pages: 376

Buy at Powell's Books

Inversions poses a special challenge for book metadata for reviews that try to avoid spoilers. If you've looked at my index of reviews, I may have arguably already spoiled you. I'm going to discuss the book with that spoiler, as most reviews do, because I think it's a better book knowing that information up-front. But if you want to avoid any spoilers, stop reading here, and avoid looking at its placement in my review index.

Inversions consists of the interleaved stories of two people: a strange female doctor to the king of Haspide, and the bodyguard of the Protector of Tassassen. The doctor's story is told in the form of letters written by the doctor's apprentice to his "Master," who has clearly told him to spy on the doctor. (The identity of this person is revealed during the story.) The bodyguard's story is told in the third person and presented as a reconstruction of events. The stories never meet, although the two countries have some indirect political exchanges. The doctor becomes entangled in court intrigue and several murders, and the bodyguard protects the Protector (a general in charge of what was effectively a military coup against the former regime) during a war with neighboring barons who had initially supported him. Both stories reach conclusions, but somewhat unsatisfactory ones. The two characters never meet in the book.

All of this is set among countries at a medieval level of technology. The doctor faces scorn and derision, not to mention outright opposition, both because she's a woman (she's only permitted to claim the title of doctor due to the king's favor and her claimed citizenship in a far-away land with strange customs) and because she uses more effective and more modern techniques. Other physicians still bleed patients, but the doctor is clearly aware of the germ theory of disease, dismisses contageon via bad odors, and otherwise strikes the reader as someone with advanced medical knowledge trying to practice it in primitive conditions.

The spoiler, which is never stated outright but which is relatively apparent from various hints and allusions dropped by the characters, as well as at least one event that would otherwise have to be supernatural, is that Inversions actually takes place in the Culture milieu. How this planet and these stories fit into that milieu remains unexplained throughout the story, but we do get some clues in supposedly made-up stories that the bodyguard tells the son of the Protector, stories that are recognizable to Culture readers as less fictional than they sound in a medieval context.

Banks has a tendency to play with unusual narrative structure and to fall on the mainstream side of SF plot construction. Inversions is a very closely-observed pair of entwined stories told in a way that downplays most of the dramatic structure and rising action and that undermines feelings of conclusion or catharsis. Despite having, on later reflection, two clear plots with clear conclusions, it feels more like parallel slices of life and stubbornly refuses to advertise any conclusions or deeper meaning. Whether that works will probably have a lot to do with the reader's tolerance for trying to draw one's own conclusions. I found it frustrating and unsatisfying, but knowing going in that it's a Culture novel helped by adding some deeper structure to give the story a modicum of meaning.

Insofar as there's a larger theme, it's the exploration of the conflict between the two Culture citizens that is presented, thinly disguised, in the bodyguard's stories. This connection is not obvious; even determining how to map the two characters into the stories is a touch challenging. But if one is aware of it and looking for it in advance, it provides a bit of broader structure and some basis for judging the actions of the doctor and the bodyguard against a larger plan. I needed that to wring enjoyment from the book; I never cared enough about the characters otherwise to fully engage with either story. With the puzzle, and the constant search for connections to Culture concepts, it's somewhat more interesting, but it's still maddeningly indirect. (And, from various other Internet reactions, I don't think I'm missing something obvious.)

It's possible that I went into the book with some incorrect assumptions that undermined my enjoyment. Hopefully this review will help other readers. Knowing that this is a Culture book and enjoying the process of finding references makes it more fun (and most of the references aren't too hard to find). But don't expect lots of closure from the stories, and don't expend to find out "what's really going on." It's not that sort of book. If you enjoy the individual stories for themselves, you'll have the best chance of enjoying the book as a whole, with the Culture references providing a fun additional layer. If the basic stories don't appeal, the Culture material probably isn't enough to make the book engrossing.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-11-18

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04