Review: Inversions, by Iain M. Banks

After I had read the book I reviewed previously (The Ouroboros Wave) I, for some reason, felt like doing a reread. My choice fell on Surface Detail, by Iain M Banks, and of course it was an enjoyable reread so naturally influenced my choice in what to read next; Inversions, a Banksian Culture novel that isn’t a Culture novel.

The story is told by a narrator who purports to tell something that happened in the past, intermingling it with another story, a story which, at the beginning, it is hard to understand how it connects with the other storyline, other than supposedly being from the same planet and region, and with a shared theme; two stories about two strangers working to protect the “kings” of two different kingdoms, a woman Doctor and a male Bodyguard, with the story retold by the Doctor’s assistant.

The scene is one that could well had been medieval Europe. Relatively low-tech, lots of superstitions regarding medicine, rivalling regional kings, the misogynistic world-view. But somewhere during the read I found myself thinking about Clarke’s Third Law; that of “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. The reason is some things which are beyond explanation to the narrator, and thus seems like magic, happens, in a low-key sort of way, every now and then – things which the reader familiar with the Culture might start suspect of being Culture technology. Like, isn’t perhaps the Doctor’s blunt dagger a knife missile in disguise, and how come her journal hold so many detailed transcripts from meetings she couldn’t had attended…? So when the epilogue mentions how the Doctor declines a dinner due to “special circumstances”, only to disappear mysteriously, it is not a revelation but a matter of fact establishment of realities.

As I realised this I started to view some of the things that happened through those eyes, no longer seeing a semi-fantasy/semi-medieval tale but a tale about different approaches to meeting a culture existing on a technologically and scientifically “lower” level than your own – one of intervention (the Doctor) and one of no-intervention (the Bodyguard). Which is the better is up to the reader to judge, if it is even possible to do that.

I can see how Inversions doesn’t attract the hard core SF fan. But to me it shows some of the strength of the Culture novels and their universe; that the whole really can be greater than the sum of the parts. Enjoyed this read a lot.

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Review: The Ouroboros Wave, by Jyouji Hayashi

I picked The Ouroboros Wave from the SF bookshop shelf on instinct, partly driven by the idea that I ought to find something else, something not approved of by all and everyone, and so started reading with open eyes and an open mind. Instead of getting rewarded for my intrepidity – ha! – I soon got bogged down in infodumps and diagrams of a magnitude not even Kim Stanley Robinson manages to achieve in his Mars trilogy. And that definitely says something.
Add to that dialogue so stilted it felt pasted on afterwards and I was not very keen on reading past, say, page 30 or so.

Why did I continue? What made me slog on?

Well, in part the fact that it is a thin volume. Only 267 pages, and that includes the afterword. But I also felt that, infodumps aside, some of the issues I had with the language might be an artefact of translation, and that I ought to give the author a decent chance.

So on I read.

The story, such as is, is told through a series of interconnected stories – some of them sharing characters but some of them just same-universe tales – telling a tale of a stumbling first contact made not the swashbuckling face to face way but rather by inference, and over long time.

Parallel with this the author paints a familiar scenario were spacers are culturally and societally separated from their earthling cousins, making some of these differences and disagreements fuel for the individual stories.

As the afterword tells it the separate stories were, originally, published just as stories, in a magazine, and not in the order they appear in this volume. I think having known this prior to reading had been valuable because it explains the slight feeling of disconnect between the separate yarns.

The ideas expressed are interesting, the story framework is good, but the execution is lacking – somehow this feels more like an outline than the real deal – and my guess is the author is heavily influenced by the old masters rather than the host of modern SF writers. Definitely not recommended for the SF beginner. Others might find it interesting, if not enjoyable.