Thursday, November 01, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

Inversions

Iain M. Banks, 1998

Inversions is a science-fiction novel masquerading as fantasy. It’s part of his “Culture” series in which a hyper-sophisticated civilisation intervenes in the development of less enlightened societies, sometimes with adverse consequences. Inversions is unique in the sequence in that the viewpoint is that of the quasi-medieval locale rather than the Culture.

The novel is structured around two narratives which support (while “inverting”) each other. In one of them, a female Culture agent, Vosill, acts as court physician to King Quience, all the while subtly influencing him towards a more enlightened rule. (She also covertly assassinates his enemies to ensure that her programme is not inconvenienced). In the second narrative, the other Culture agent DeWar, is the bodyguard to the regicidal Protector UrLeyn. The two Culture agents exhibit different philosophies: Vosill is highly, if subtly, interventionist, while DeWar is more aligned with Star Trek’s Prime Directive, largely allowing matters to take their course.

At the end of the novel, UrLeyn is assassinated by an agent of Quience, thus endorsing Vosill’s philosophy. By Banks’ standards the novel is low-key. There are neither stylistic nor narrative pyrotechnics, but the book is remarkable for the way in which the two stories inform each other, and for the indirection with which the plot unfolds: Banks never directly tells us that Vosill is the assassin, nor indeed that this is a Culture novel. Such sleights have always been the Banks way. Students of narrative technique will find much to enjoy.

How has it influenced me?

Of all the books we have looked at, none has been such an obvious influence on The Dog of the North as Inversions. There are many similarities: two linked narratives whose relationship is not immediately obvious, a central identity puzzle, a pre-industrial civilisation and lashings of court intrigues. I didn’t consciously have Inversions in mind when writing The Dog of the North—indeed my story originally had a very different structure—but it’s a book I’ve never forgotten. I use the structure for different purposes, but Banks is a fine example of how such a structure can be made to work.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Twin narratives can be difficult to handle but sometimes they are the best way to tell the story.

You don’t always have to tell the reader what’s going on directly: you can trust them to find their own way.

Setting a fantasy in a quasi-medieval society allows the writer to invoke the fictional world with very little explicit detail.

An ambiguous ending does not weaken a story.

5 comments:

Aliya Whiteley said...

The Culture novels have had a huge impact on me too, particularly The Player of Games. It's funny how we can be influenced across genres - it's the quality of the mechanics of the writing that matters.

Tim Stretton said...

The Player of Games is another novel I enjoyed a lot. Use of Weapons and Consider Phlebas are other favourites. Among his mainstream fiction Espedair Street and The Crow Road stood out for me. In fact I like most of Banks' work--although I freely admit that The Bridge was one of the most impenetrable novels I've ever reached the end of!

David Isaak said...

I haven't read any of these--only his more mainstream stuff.

Guess I should take a look. I gather I'm missong out on something? (And where should I start?)

Tim Stretton said...

It's hard to go wrong. Consider Phlebas was the first one I read, and it hooked me. I'd probably go for The Player of Games, though - I've never found anyone who enjoys science-fiction who hasn't rated it.

Despite my blog post, I wouldn't start with Inversions - you need to have read some of the other Culture novels to get the full sense of what he's trying to do.

David Isaak said...

Player of Game is it, then.

My to-read stack is threatening to topple over.