|author||Iain M Banks|
|publisher||Pocket Books, 02/2000|
|summary||A novel of interlocking narratives which combines formal methods and informal prose into a strong story.|
Iain (M.) Banks is one of the more famous split personalities in recent publishing history. He has written ten non-genre novels as Ian Banks and produced eight books of science fiction as Iain M. Banks. His first novel was published in 1984. Reviews of his "literary" works have occasionally suggested a merging of the two streams of his career but this ignores the significant fantastic and science fiction elements present even in his early "mainstream" novels. His "science fiction" has been more clearly defined, with the majority of these works being shaped by the galaxy-spanning civilization known as the Culture.
Inversions, the latest novel by Iain M. Banks, is set in a post medieval world. It is a time after the end of empire, with a new model of devolved power emerging from the chaos. There are two narratives, intercut chapter by chapter and covering the same period but set in the capitals of different countries. The main subjects of the narratives are strangers to the society in which they live but have each made themselves indispensable to the leaders of their nations. One has become the personal bodyguard of the Protector, the leader of a revolution which has overthrown a hereditary monarchy and brought new power to the merchant classes. The other is the king's personal doctor, who has reached that position through her inordinate skill despite being both a foreigner and a woman. This has given each stranger the potential to influence without political office, and their stories reflect the story of their chosen country.
This novel could have been published in the black and white cover of a "mainstream" Ian Banks novel and would still have retained much of its value. However, as a work by Iain M. Banks there are significant resonances with the rest of his science fiction oeuvre. In this light the major inversion of the novel is that the tale of external interference with a developing civilisation is told from the viewpoint of the affected society rather than from the technological standpoint of Banks' previous novels. It does this by using narrators indigenous to the world and limited in their understanding of events. The book is largely successful in this use of fallible narrators and viewed from this angle the tales of mythical lands quickly decode to everyday life in a more advanced society.
Inversions is equally successful in the exposition of its themes. It is a book about change, catching societies at the cusp of advance and displaying alternative approaches. The story of nations is counterpointed by that of individuals and it is the telling of their stories which provides an avenue for understanding the lessons Banks is offering in this book. The resultant novel has a very formal format, being balanced between personal and national viewpoints and with each of the two stories providing a partial key to the other. This produces a roman a clef with the option of further keys through familiarity with Banks' other science fiction. In this context, the mapping of personal development to that of a culture is striking. There is a full involvement with the lives and emotions of the central characters which gives a rounded understanding of these protagonists. Their interests and struggles offer sufficient insight into the larger story of nations to be able to infer a long span of the history of this world from the events of a short period. The combination of formalized style for the novel and the writer's informality work well together. The writing flows easily and the story rapidly draws the reader in. Inversions is an interesting alternate in Banks' science fiction, both for its viewpoint and its formal framework, and as such has much to offer.
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