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.