When cancer tragically stole Iain Banks from our world in June 2013, I still had 4 of his books on my TBR-pile. Surface Detail, Inversions, The Algebraist and Transition. I decided to savour those, since there would never be the joy of waiting for a new Iain M. Banks to be published again. Surface Detail was the last Culture novel on my TBR, so I read that first. After more than a decade of near abstinence of fiction, it was the Culture series that turned me into an avid fiction reader again. A friend told me he liked The Algebraist – a non-Culture doorstopper with sentient gass giants – a lot, and found Transition to be one of the wildest books he ever read. That set the order for the remaining books: read Inversions first, then The Algebraist and end with Transition, spread out over a year or two, three.
Over a week ago, I decided to start Inversions. It feels more like fantasy than science fiction. It is considered a Culture-novel by some, since it’s probably set in the same universe, and Banks himself has hinted at the fact that two of its principal characters are Culture agents – for those of you that haven’t read a Culture novel: read the opening section of this page, and get yourself Player of Games asap. Banks has employed the technique of writing fantasy stuff in the context a bigger galactic SF context elsewhere – parts of the excellent Matter are set in a kind of medieval kingdom too.
Sadly, Inversions is one of the few Iain M. Banks books that have disappointed me. Reading Feersum Endjinn was a chore that didn’t really pay off, and Inversions, well, that simply felt uninteresting. It seems fantasy, but it’s not done well: there’s no interesting world-building whatsoever. No magic, no different societies, no mythos, no cool creatures, no nothing. It’s a standard medieval human setting on a planet with more than one moon.
The first 50 pages were great, I even was a bit awestruck by how easy Banks’ prose is on these eyes – I had forgotten what a smooth writer Banks can be. But by page 100 the book had me bogged down, as it turned out to be a 1st person recount that mainly consists of pages and pages of lifeless, uninspired dialogue. The two fictional narrators aren’t style champions: I counted the ‘X said’ or ‘said X’ construction 6 or 7 times on numerous pages, with a couple of ‘smiled X’ thrown in for variation. As a result, I lost interest in the characters, and more and more felt like I was reading really, really generic medieval fiction – aside from the book’s narrative construction. There’s no interesting mystery either, and hardly any action. If this hadn’t been a book by one of my favorite authors, I wouldn’t have finished it.
Some of Bank’s usual themes – morality, some discussion about a version of the Prime Directive, etc. – are so obviously present in the words of some characters that they come across as Banks’ hand puppets, instead of real people. That’s a downside of knowing an author well.
Inversions is about perspective too. The book is an epistolary novel – of the found footage type – and has 2 tales and 2 narrators. Both stories reflect on each other a bit. As a literary construction this surely has some merit. But as I said, not a lot happens. Some flat character ambassador tries to assassinate somebody else, and so forth. I didn’t connect with either party, since they felt constructed rather than real.
Flashes of Banks’ brilliance do shine through at times. There are some interesting scenes, and his talent for aphorisms still shows.
You can draw the blinds in a brothel, but people still know what you’re doing.
His main strength though – a wild, vivid, grand and daring imagination – simply isn’t played out here. Inversions isn’t grand scale utopian dreaming. Some reviewers have called this book subtle. I stick with dull. You be the judge, just don’t let this be your first Banks.