Friday, July 17, 2009

the last book I read

Inversions by Iain M. Banks.

The woman named Vosill is a doctor, personal physician to King Quience, ruler of the kingdom of Haspidus. The prevailing cultural conditions in Haspidus (broadly equivalent to something like mediaeval Europe, technologically speaking) make a woman achieving such a position unusual; even allowing for that Vosill is an unusual woman, one of disturbing directness and seemingly cavalier about observing some of the social norms of the society in which she finds herself.

The man named DeWar is a soldier, personal bodyguard to Protector UrLeyn, ruler of Tassasen. Despite (or perhaps because of) saving the Protector's life on more than one occasion, he is viewed with suspicion by those in positions of power.

The book is arranged with alternate chapters describing events in the two narrative strands involving the principal characters. There is a prologue which gives a bit of context to each strand, most usefully by revealing that each is based on a text by a contemporary author - Vosill's apprentice Oelph for the first (he is also responsible for the prologue and epilogue), and an initially unknown party for the second (though some clues are provided, and there is a revelation in the epilogue).

Each narrative strand describes the various plots and intrigues in each of the ruling courts and the efforts of the principal characters to influence events. Of course the alert reader will be on the lookout for links between the two stories, in the expectation that they will be revealed at the end. Early indications are that we're clearly on a different planet (one with multiple suns, a bit like Brian Aldiss's Helliconia), but that the two stories are set on the same one, indeed in two parts of it not separated by huge distances, since each knows of the other's existence. Each society is at about an equal level of technological advancement - hunting and warfare are still largely based on swords and knives, with the occasional trebuchet thrown in for good measure, though primitive musket-like firearms have been developed.

Further clues are provided by the stories DeWar tells to the Protector's son Lattens - these concern childhood friends Sechroom and Hiliti, their various adventures, disagreements and eventual separation as Sechroom leaves to become a "missionary". Over the course of these stories we're invited to draw the conclusion that Sechroom and Hiliti are Vosill and DeWar, and also that Sechroom's "missionary" work is what has brought her to Haspidus. But what of her medical knowledge, which seems far in advance of the blood-letting and leeches approach practised by her medical contemporaries? And how is she able to have transcripts in her private journal (which Oelph sneaks a look at) of conversations between senior courtiers that she couldn't possibly have overheard? And what is the purpose of the mysterious jewelled dagger that she carries with her at all times?

Experienced Banks readers will smell the whiff of The Culture in all of this, and with good reason. Banks and his publishers have been a bit coy about the whole thing, omitting the tag "A Culture Novel" from the front of the latest edition (all the others carry it) and also omitting from the latest edition the short paragraph which prefaced the original novel (reproduced here), presumably on the grounds that it provided too broad a clue to the uninitiated reader. A Culture novel is what it undoubtedly is, though, for all that: when the doctor is the victim of a plot to frame her for murder and have her raped and tortured the ornamental dagger is revealed to be a Culture knife missile which she uses to escape, with impressively bloody results. With her cover compromised she leaves Haspidus by sea, declines an offer of dinner from the ship's captain with a coy reference to "special circumstances" (SC being the black-ops section of the Culture's Contact division which manages interaction with other civilisations - we are therefore invited to infer that Vosill is an SC operative), and then mysteriously disappears.

As for DeWar, he foils a plot to poison the Protector's son, but fails to foil a plot by the Protector's senior concubine (and DeWar's close friend) Perrund to kill UrLeyn in revenge for the murder of her family many years before. Many alternative readings are available for the level of DeWar's involvement with The Culture, for what it's worth mine is that he must have "dropped out" in some way before becoming UrLeyn's bodyguard. Certainly he appears to have no technological gadgetry at his disposal.

What we're being given here is a series of reflections on what hardcore Trekkies know as the Prime Directive, i.e. how much interfering should a technologically advanced society do in the development and advancement of a less advanced one? Generally The Culture have fewer qualms than Kirk, Picard and their chums about trying to push things in what they deem to be the "right" direction; presumably this is what Vosill's mission was. Certainly the kingdom of Haspidus appears in better shape when she leaves than when we join the story, while the same cannot be said of Tassasen under DeWar's watch.

The contrast with Inversions' predecessor Excession couldn't be more marked - these two are probably the extremes of the Culture series; Inversions a mediaeval political adventure thriller with just a hint of Culture involvement, Excession a techno-geek's wet dream with pages of inter-spaceship communication complete with message headers and various other nerdery. Some of the Banks fanboi community seemed a bit put out by the absence of intergalactic laser cannon battles and bleeping droids all over the shop, but for what it's worth I enjoyed Inversions more than any of the other Culture novels I've read except perhaps Consider Phlebas.

No comments: