Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Inversions - Iain M Banks

There was a really, really terrible interview with Iain Banks in a local free magazine last week. The questions were longer than the answers, and were full of self-important smugness (eg. Interviewer: "My favourite font is [xxxx]. Which font do you use to write your books in?" Banks: "Well, Courier, for manuscripts..." Interviewer: "Aha! I tricked you into answering a geek question!"). Painful reading, but on the plus side it inspired me to resume my trawl through my Banks back-catalogue, which I'd been doing earlier this year until I got interrupted by something or other.

This is only my first reread of Inversions, which is unusual - being a huge Banks fan, I bought this the very instant it was published and probably read it all the same day, but it's been sitting in the bookcase ever since. Probably this is to do with hardbacks being heavy and therefore less tempting for casual rereads, but I also suspect I may not have been that impressed with it the first time round. Ah, the follies of youth - it's actually a very good book.

Inversions is two almost-overlapping tales with a late mediaeval/early modern setting. A female doctor is making enemies by her proximity to the King and by the fact of her gender; in a neighbouring country, the bodyguard of the regicidal Protector has enough enemies of his own, trying to protect the head of the fledgling republic from assassins both foreign and domestic. At first glance, this looks like a new departure for Banks, whose Iain M persona usually sticks to space-based SF, but it soon becomes apparent that these two characters are actually members of the Culture, the pan-galactic anarcho-socialist utopia from many of his other books. However, the SF aspects of this remain understated, and the book deals more with the characters' personalities, and their outsiders' views and impacts on the barbaric society they are living in.

I lent this to my dad a while ago, and he gave up halfway through, saying that it was too predictable and that he could guess what was going to happen in the end. I never found out what his actual predictions were, but it's almost guaranteed that they were wrong, as nothing quite turns out how you'd expect. One of Banks's hallmarks, at least in his earlier work, was the subversion of expectation and plot twists that ranged from slightly gimmicky to brutally realistic; Inversions falls towards the realistic end of the scale. Like real life, it doesn't have a neat and satisfying conclusion, so if that's what you're after then you may be disappointed; likewise for those expecting GCUs, drones, Minds and the rest of the usual Culture trappings. However, for an elegant and ambiguous tale of intrigue and revenge, you could do a lot worse.



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