In the winter palace, the King's new physician has more enemies than she at first realises. But then she also has more remedies to hand than those who wish her ill can know about. In another palace across the mountains, in the service of the regicidal Protector General, the chief bodyguard, too, has his enemies. But his enemies strike more swiftly, and his means of combating them are more traditional.
Spiralling round a central core of secrecy, deceit, love, and betrayal, Inversions is a spectacular work of science fiction, brilliantly told and wildly imaginative, from an author who has set genre fiction alight.
©1998 Iain M. Banks (P)2013 Hachette Digital
"A fantastic, awe-inspiring book ... I can't imagine anyone not being won over by this deeply entertaining, thought-provoking and humane story" (Express)
"Taut, hilarious and wicked" (Mail on Sunday)
"Compulsive Banksian reading ... thoughtful, intelligently bloody stuff" (SFX)
"Captivating ... incisive ... as sublime as ever" (Time Out)
I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
Inversions (1998) is the least obviously science fictional of Iain M. Banks' Culture novels, which are usually replete with imaginative and sublime far future science and technology. The Culture is an interstellar anarchic utopian confederation of artificial and natural worlds populated by humanity, aliens, and sentient machines, and run by AI space ship "Minds." As resources have become practically limitless, everyone is theoretically free to do whatever he or she or it wants. The Culture tries to be an enlightened civilization, being intolerant only of aggressive civilizations. A frequent Culture dilemma is what to do when faced with bellicose civilizations that just won't listen to reason or play fair: improve them, crush them, or ignore them. It is in this context, then, that Banks, in his words, tried "to write a Culture novel that wasn't."
Banks upsets his normal Culture pattern by setting his novel on a single world (with two suns and multiple moons) in a medieval-monarchic-patriarchal civilization that knows nothing of interstellar travel, let alone the Culture. The novel is comprised of two alternating and inverting stories, one about the Doctor, a mysterious woman named Vossil who has become the personal physician to King Quience of Haspidus, the other about the Bodyguard, a mysterious man named DeWar who has become the personal bodyguard of Protector UrLeyn of Tassasen. Even readers unfamiliar with Banks' other Culture novels should gather early on that Vossil and DeWar hail from some much more advanced civilizations. And if you've read some Culture novels you might wonder about a suspicious rain of fiery rocks that caused an empire on this world to fall. . .
The two story strands and their two protagonists mirror each other while remaining tantalizingly separate. Both Vossil and DeWar are trying to keep their respective rulers alive, she through medicine, he through violence. Both retain their integrity, morality, and humanity while surrounded by torturers, assassins, aristocrats, and spies. Yet one gets the impression that Vossil is subtly nudging her King towards progress while DeWar is passively watching his Protector try to establish a new form of government. The two stories are told by different narrators. Vossil's naive young assistant Oleph is spying on her for an unknown master and telling the story of his youthful infatuation with the Doctor when he's an old man, while a sophisticated person who wants to keep his or her identity secret is telling the story of DeWar's attempts to protect the Protector and to explain himself.
Banks being a fine writer, he writes some neat lines, as when Oleph tries to avoid seeing some horrible implements of torture, but "they attracted my wide-open eyes like suns attract flowers." And he writes characters it's easy to care about. DeWar and Vossil are compelling, as are some of the characters around them, Lady Perrund (the maimed and beautiful former first concubine of the Protector), the Protector's little son Lattens, Oleph, and the subtle King Quience.
The philosophical base of the novel rests on shifting sands. Oleph recalls the Doctor telling him that although "We can never be sure of anything. . . yet we must live. We must apply ourselves to the world." But how to apply ourselves? Oleph points out that "We never like to think that we are sinning, merely that we are making hard decisions, and acting upon them." DeWar tells Lattens a story in which some people live in a utopian world where they can fly on invisible wings and everyone has everything they need and is reasonably happy, and wherein two cousins, a man and a woman, friends since childhood, have an argument regarding the savage tribes around them:
"Was it better to leave them alone or was it better to try and make life better for them? Even if you decided it was the right thing to do to make life better for them, which way did you do this? Did you say, Come and join us and be like us? Did you say, Give up all your own ways of doing things, the gods that you worship, the beliefs you hold most dear, the traditions that make you who you are? Or do you say, We have decided you should stay roughly as you are and we will treat you like children and give you toys that might make your life better?"
Thus after all Inversions really is a Culture novel, for Banks can't help writing sf that reveals the culture of our developed countries here and now.
Inversions is also an anti-war story in which, unusually for anti-war stories (and for Culture novels, which usually feature a fair amount of large and small-scale violence), the war here (quite horrible in its effects on individuals and nations) happens far off-stage or in the past. The only war shown in real time is a cool and creepy game (recalling Uncle Toby's hobby in Tristram Shandy) played by DeWar and Lattens in which they fire mini-catapults from a balcony into the landscaped garden below, trying to destroy each other's miniature towns and ports. Are we watching a future warlord being made by playing this "innocent" version of the real war taking place elsewhere in the world.
Peter Kenney reads the audiobook engagingly, giving Vossil an indefinable accent to highlight her foreignness, reading female voices without straining to be feminine, and enhancing the story and characters.
Like each of Banks' Culture novels, Inversions is a self-contained and relatively compact story. It reminds me of the Strugatskis' Hard to Be a God, or of Le Guin's Ekumen stories. It might disappoint fans of heroic or epic fantasy, as well as fans of big spectacle space opera, but people who like Banks' Culture novels and thoughtful and moving sf or fantasy novels about the difficulties in helping people or doing the right thing (or deciding what the right thing is to do) would probably like it.
"Not exactly SciFi, a view from outside The Culture"
Although not a Culture book as such, being set in a medieval world of wars and scheming factions, it follows the lives of two people: The Doctor, and The Bodyguard. Written from the point of view of someone from this medieval planet, we are never sure where these people come from, but the way they act and the events that ensue, you are left with the feeling that they are an example of The Culture interacting with a less advanced race.
"A very good story, well read."
This is a very nice story that is well read. Despite recording a lot of books Peter Kenny seems to have actullaly read the script before reading. He has a good range of voices and speaks with emotion.
The story is typical Iain M Banks perfection and shows full time fantasy writers how it should be done.
"Banks - we have lost your wonderful imagination"
He died this week - been dreading it for a couple of months - no more Banks!
Inversions is a pleasant and relaxing listen and is pretty well read by Kenny, sorry this review is rubbish, because Banks can do no wrong.
So the characters are interesting and it is imaginative and sufficiently paced to keep the attention. An award winning story or pair of stories, but I think he has done better.
Banks is a hero of my generation!
Do you think he could have arranged for someone to 'channel' more stories form the other side? Just joking!
"Not very culture"
Not the usual type of culture novel, being told from the point of view of the contacted, so no minds or drones or ridiculous tech involved
A solid tale nonetheless
"Do gods walk among us?"
I really liked the experience evoked in this book of being subjected to the Culture's influence.
I think this book and the whole Culture series bares positive comparison with Azimov's Foundation. Iain Bank's presents us with a richer and more elaborate universe.
I actually liked the scenes of blatant sexism and prejudice. They were comical and some might think a bit extreme. Literature of this kind can hold a mirror to us and if we don't like what is reflected then we know we need to do something. Sometimes seeing the extremes is the challenge we need to prevent it happening.
Once again Peter Kenny presents this book with outstanding skill.
"Only glancingly Culture, but good glances."
Good narration between the king and the doctor. Well worth a listen. Not a disappointment if it's the last culture novel you've got left. Can another great 'mind' please create more.
"One of his best if you prefer subtlety"
I think that this, like Feersum Enjinn is one of Banks' best novels. More relaxed and less in your face than some. A good read which leaves space for thought.
Peter Kenny is an excellent narrator.
"Banks brilliance! "
As usual, Banks (via the excellent Kenny) tells an absorbing and seductive tale sublimely well.
"Different but good"
Loved it, but you must read other Culture books to understand it. Not really a Sci fi story but very enjoyable.
"Well crafted and well read"
You need to have read the earlier books to understand what Is going on. The narration is very good, with good voices for the characters. The story unfolds from a different perspective to most sci fi.
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