Why Should I Read?...
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.