Spoiler Check: I have completed Inversions by Iain M Banks
Inversions by the late Iain M Banks is regarded as a novel in his science fiction Culture series. But would anyone reading it as a stand-alone book recognise it as science fiction? It is set on a world which is clearly not Earth, not least because it has two suns and umpteen moons, but is populated by humans living in a pre-industrial age society, maybe the equivalent of sixteenth century Europe. Does that setting alone make it science fiction? Any more than say Utopia, Narnia or Oz?
All of the Culture novels can be read as self-contained works, and Inversions is no exception. It can be enjoyed as a quite excellent book in its own right, requiring no familiarity with the other books in the Culture series. Taken on its own it is an engrossing story, actually two parallel stories, about political intrigue with a lot to say about society, morality, the human capacity for barbarity and how people deal with its consequences. The familiar trappings of sci-fi are however entirely absent. No spaceships, time machines, technological marvels, or at least none in plain view.
It all comes down to the perspective of the reader. Anyone who has read at least a few of the other Culture books will have no trouble reading between the lines. There is no shortage of clues dangling before the noses of the Culture cognoscenti. To them, Banks’s intentions are clear and obvious.
The respective protagonists of the two interleaved stories, Vosill and DeWar, are incognito off-worlders. They are humans but of the Culture, an advanced, benevolent multi-world society which is continually enlarging itself through discovery and integration of less technologically developed worlds. Vosill is the female personal physician to Quience, king of the chauvinistically male dominated state of Haspidus. DeWar is bodyguard to UrLeyn, Protector of Tassasen, effectively emperor over a sizeable chunk of the planet. The stories are narrated from the point of view of Oelph, Vosill’s doting and faithful apprentice, who is indigenous and has no idea that his mistress is an alien.
Vosill is the most enjoyable character in the book. Her knowledge of medicine is clearly at a highly advanced level, totally out of line with that of her peers, even if her circumstances prevent use of modern medical technology. That’s certainly one clue. In fact she is very knowledgeable all round, confident and composed with remarkably modern social attitudes. Again seriously at odds with the society around her, making her a favourite of the king and a target of suspicion and resentment for a number of the nobles at court.
She is aware of plots against her by some of those nobles. Oelph discovers she has transcripts of conspiratorial conversations she could not possibly have been able to overhear. Interesting that. And the conspirators all meet unexplained premature deaths involving bladed weapons that are never found. To top that, when the nastiest dukes finally frame her for a murder, and she is shipped off to be questioned by Ralinge, the torturer, the latter gets sliced to bits, along with two guards, just at the point where she is strapped naked to a table and about to be raped. Oelph, who was present, could not bear to witness the rape so missed the manner of her escape, remaining puzzled about it to the end of his days. The reader is aware that the resourceful lady doctor has an old dagger with her at all times. Not hard for Culture aficionados to guess that said weapon is probably a knife-missile or drone, a miniaturised technological powerhouse, quite possibly sentient and certainly capable of independent action to defend its owner.
In the other story thread, DeWar tells a child a story which is obviously a reference to the Culture, at least to anyone in the know. The story indirectly identifies Vosill and DeWar as two Culture operatives (Sechroom and Hiliti respectively) who are close friends but have different views on how the Culture should handle newly discovered civilisations. Sechroom has the distinctly more interventionist philosophy, as evidenced in the book’s intertwined narratives.
There are a couple of other clues. One of Quience’s dukes describes Vosill as being “of a different culture”. And her eventual disappearance from the world, presumably via a Culture spacecraft, is preceded by her apology for missing a dinner engagement due to “special circumstances”. Readers of the Culture series will with a wry smile recognise that as an oblique reference to the undercover operations arm of the Culture’s Contact division.