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Inversions continues the basic trend that began with The State of the Art whereby Banks writes Culture stories whose premises amount to attempts to break the Culture. Having essentially exhausted the two extremes of premises with the form “what if the Culture met X,” however, Banks moves in a different direction by asking, essentially, “what if you took the Culture out?” This is, obviously, quite the feat, and there are aspects of Inversions that clearly don’t quite work outside of the original publication context. When Excession was first published, it very clearly declared itself a Culture novel on the cover. Inversions, on the other hand, was published with no such description. There were significant clues, including a “note on the text” omitted from subsequent editions that contained a conspicuously capitalized reference to one of the characters being “from a different Culture,” but broadly speaking, other than the fact that it was an Iain M. Banks novel instead of an Iain Banks novel, the book was not even overtly science fiction, little yet overtly a Culture novel.
Instead it unfolds with a structure that’s a sort of simplified version of the two-threads approach in Use of Weapons, only without the non-chronological storytelling. Instead the two narratives, titled The Doctor and The Bodyguard, unfold in parallel, switching back and forth between them. Each is set in a different territory on a planet with obvious resemblances to medieval Europe, and focuses on a mysterious outsider who’s a key confidante of the territory’s ruler, and who, it emerges, is clearly in fact a Culture agent. Neither chapter is told from this character’s perspective – the Doctor’s tale is related by her assistant, while the Bodyguard’s is simply told in the third person. And so audiences sit at a remove from the Culture for once, watching its manipulations from the outside, albeit with more understanding of what’s going on than any of the actual characters (including, by dint of the doubled narrative, the Doctor and the Bodyguard themselves).
The way this was intended to work, for a 1998 audience, was for the book to unfold with a shock of slow recognition. It’s not a particularly subtle problem – the reader is clearly supposed to figure it out fairly easily. But the moment of figuring out what’s going on in the book is clearly intended to be part of the book’s impact, and it’s something that’s diminished by calling it “book 6 of 10 in the Culture series” The question that unfolds instead – “in what sense is this a Culture novel” may seem only subtly different from “what sort of novel is this,” but it’s a difference with teeth, moving the book from one about discovering its structure to one about working backwards from a solution.
It’s impossible to say with certainty, but this doesn’t seem likely to have helped the book. On a basic level, a book that at first glance appears to be about a quasi-medieval setting but that gradually reveals itself to be a Culture novel is an easier sell than a Culture novel that doesn’t actually feature the Culture. In one a familiar genre of medieval skullduggery deforms in interesting ways. In another, the reader follows along as the author explains their trick. Banks has said the book was an attempt to write “a Culture novel that wasn’t.” Fundamentally, making it one isn’t going to go well.
This isn’t completely fair – it’s not as though Inversions is a one-trick pony any more than Use of Weapons is. There’s at least one decent mystery, some great characters, and the usual sparkle of Banks’s wit. Still, like Use of Weapons, it’s trick is a big part of the point. But the comparison is revealing in other ways too. Use of Weapons still unfolds majestically if you know the twist; indeed, that’s the more satisfying pass in most regards because of how well the twist is set up. But Inversions has no such extra reward for the already knowledgeable reader. Once one knows how all the pieces fit together, the whole is in this case diminished slightly.
Part of the problem is that its interleaved narratives simply don’t measure up to one another. This is always a risk when a writer does the “discrete plot strands”” trick with a book, whether that writer be George R.R. Martin or William Gibson: if one of your strands is distinctly not up to par with the others it immediately becomes a focus point for the book’s ills. And in Inversions the Doctor narrative is head and shoulders above the Bodyguard one. This is partially by design. Inversions explicitly sets up Vosill and DeWar as having a longstanding debate about interventionalism. The book emphatically comes down on Vosill’s side, and this preference extends far beyond having her story work out better. She’s simply the more fun character. She gets moments of warmth and humor where DeWar is taciturn and brooding. She takes the proactive interventionalist standpoint, and so gets to do things, while DeWar’s passivity mean that large swaths of his strand are devoted to him telling thinly veiled stories about the Culture that explain his history with Vosill. And so every Bodyguard chapter lands like the second helping of vegetables you have to finish before you can go back to watching television.
A deeper and more fundamental problem, though, is the basic fact that Banks comes down so emphatically on one side of the interventionism debate. This debate, after all, has been one of the most basic thematic components of the Culture series to date. And the heart of this theme has been a certain ambiguity: the Culture’s interventionism is at once sympathetic – the means by which they morally justify their expansive hedonism – and troublesome. The reader was routinely called on to ask whether the Culture’s interventions were worth their cost, whether in material suffering or in the corrosive morality involved in working with Zakalwe. But the question was never answered.
Here, however, Vosill and DeWar have an active debate going on about whether active intervention is a good idea or not. And then it meticulously shows Vosill’s position to be better. At the end of her story she’s generally increased the welfare of the kingdom she was working in, gotten important reforms passed that decentralize power, quietly introduced several medical breakthroughs, and had a bunch of vicious assholes killed, a fact that the book never really tries to make the reader feel bad about. (If anything, Vosill’s tendency to quietly murder anyone who’s irritatingly reactionary is treated as a source of mild entertainment.) DeWar, on the other hand, dithers about ineffectually, making only occasional suggestions to UrLeyn, and generally not ones that are focused on reform so much as on short-term political or military gain. Eventually everything comes apart for UrLeyn after he gets sucked into a military engagement DeWar tentatively warned against, and then he gets killed by his chief concubine, who DeWar spent the bulk of the book failing spectacularly to suspect.
It’s not that this position is a surprise per se. Banks’s sympathies were always clearly with the Culture, and he’s the one who set up their interventionism as a form of moral justification. For him to come out with an explicitly anti-interventionist position would be jarring, weird, and ultimately out of keeping with what the Culture is as a series. But equally, coming out emphatically in the “pro” camp is just… boring. It replaces ambiguity with didacticism. Sure, countless writers strive to be as subtle as Banks is when he’s being didactic, but that doesn’t make Inversions less of a drag within the context of Banks’s work.
The problem is not, to be clear, the idea of doing a Culture story from the perspective of the civilization they’re intervening in. That’s a great hook of the sort you’d expect from Banks. The problem is more the sort of society that Inversions depicts. This isn’t the parodically depraved Affront, the zealous yet arguably effective Idirans, or the fascinatingly pathological Azad. This is a by-the-numbers quasi-medieval kingdom whose problems amount to nothing more than “it’s not at the liberal democracy stage of history yet.” There’s no sense of actual depth to the ideas here. It’s the most generic possible perspective to look up at the Culture from. And as novel as the basic idea of a ground-level view of the Culture is, by book six in the series we need a more interesting viewpoint on them than generic medieval politics can provide.
Instead we get a book where all of the elements seem to point inevitably towards a frustratingly obvious conclusion. There’s only one thing, from its setup, that Inversions was ever going to be, and it proceeds with straightforward deliberateness towards being that exact thing. It’s not bad at being that thing. Parts of it are excellent, and not in some sarcastic Curate’s Egg way. But all the same, the book ends up illustrating something that any artist who spends time stalking the extremes and breaking points of concepts eventually realizes, which is that, for all that one learns a lot about the concept itself by doing that, the edges of a concept aren’t actually where its best work tends to be done. As with The State of the Art and Excession, there’s a sense in which exploring the Culture wouldn’t have been complete if something like Inversions hadn’t been done. But for all of that, the major effect of it is that its box has been checked off now, and Banks can move on to other and hopefully more interesting things.