Excession, Use of Weapons, The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks' 1998 Inversions continues to prove not only that the reader should expect the unexpected, but goes one step further. Explicitly starting out to write “a Culture novel that wasn’t a Culture novel”, the novel will undoubtedly divide fans of the series. Likely to be categorized fantasy by someone who knows nothing of the Culture, knowledgeable fans would sympathize upon finishing the work. There is a medieval feel to the royalty, court intrigue, sword fights and beautiful damsels, boys growing up to become men, and a few “supernatural” events that bend the story beyond realism. However, astute readers will recognize something deeper happening beneath the deceptively simple façade Banks has erected and realize the book is something more. That something more is not only the Culture, but the makings of a book which also steps foot into the realm of literary fantastika.
Inversions is told from two alternating viewpoints. The first is of Oleph, an apprentice to the doctor, Vollis. Vollis the king’s physician, the pair regularly attend to the king’s aches and pains, learning of the happenings in neighboring kingdoms, fiefs, and dukedoms in the process. But it is ultimately the doctor’s involvement in larger political affairs and her status as a woman in a world of men which build the suspense, culminating in a situation neither she or the reader can foresee. The second point of view is of the man DeWar. Bodyguard to another king, UrLeyn, DeWar takes a more relaxed view of life. Rather than meddling with the affairs of the protectorate, he performs his duties, no more, no less. And he performs them well. An assassination attempt always just around the next corner, UrLeyn’s enemies constantly keep DeWar on his toes. Try as hard as he likes to stick only to his job, DeWar is inevitably drawn in, however, his path crossing Vollis’ in a twist that Banks effortlessly pulls to close out the novel.
Glaringly pared down from the detail of Excession, Inversions is on the surface a lean, forthright novel. But don’t let this fool you. As the title implies, juxtaposition is the main line upon which the story’s elements are divided. Banks delineates a variety of analogous relationships. Leaving detailed elements of plot for the reader to discover, suffice to say the actions of the doctor Vollis reflect a reverse image of DeWar’s, the end results of each turning out like neither had hoped. One feels they are wielding influence, only to confront the larger web they’re intrinsically and inescapably a part of, while the other maintains position, but ends up acting out of conscience against their wishes.
To speak or not to speak in situations that do not directly involve you? To act or not to act when the immediate circumstances have no direct bearing on yourself? Similar to whether or not Western doctors should help Africans, Banks asks some profound questions in Inversions regarding the wisdom of actively and inactively involving one’s self in the affairs of others, cultural included. African children may have better health as a result of allowing Western doctors access, but they lose their cultural soul in the process. Native songs they’ve sung for millennia are in a short time replaced Britney Spears or whatever boy band happens to be popular. Similarly, by allowing Africans to develop in isolation from Western influence, health suffers while cultural value increases. Where is the balance? How to weigh the value of each? Banks attempts to answer this question in Inversions, and depending on mindset, readers will nod or shake their heads.
And there are additional, complementary layers to theme of "inversion", as well. Western vs. Eastern teachings (e.g. Christianity vs. Daoism or Buddhism) are readily apparent, as are many concepts innate to Greek mythology: powerful personas overseeing and intruding upon the affairs of lesser beings to a result not always intended. (Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven covers very similar thematic territory.) Clicking at such a number of levels, the analogous relationship between theme and plot is the biggest part of the book’s success, as well as its ticket into literary fantastika.
If the novel has any major faults it’s the lack of re-readability. Plot-wise, everything fits perfectly in place, but once the cats are out of the bag, nothing is left to discover. Banks leaves a few breadcrumbs which can enlighten or deepen the dialogue upon a second read. But with everything presented in clear, transparent fashion, the book is a unit of text, highly enjoyable for what it is, but lacking in incentive to re-read. A possible secondary blemish to the book is its lack of background details. Medieval-type fantasies depending to a large part on worldbuilding, Banks focuses on character development rather than the setting, and as a result some readers may feel short-changed that not enough details of the background were described. I did not.
In the end, Inversions is a perfectly configured novel. The book is consistent in plot development, style, title, and tone – which is not something to be said for some later Culture novels. Though the plot motifs seem typical epic fantasy, the book never has the feel of Tolkien, Jordan, Martin, or others. It remains Banks’ all along, the sci-fi edge of the Culture constantly lingering just beneath the surface. Playing with the genre’s tropes, the resulting novel is a meaningful and human story that does not belie typical fantasy storytelling, and Culture or not, is one of the strongest books in Banks’ oeuvre, realist or sci-fi. As such, the book can be enjoyed by anyone, but those familiar with the Culture will have a deeper understanding of the events which occur. In fact, of all the Culture novels, this one seems to most heavily depend on prior knowledge.