Wednesday 25 June 2014

Inversions – Half-Time Report

A confession. I started reading Inversions with the full intention of going up to Chapter 12, then pausing and writing this up, seeing what everyone else was saying, going for a sit down and a cup of tea to cogitate upon the undoubtedly excellent and insightful comments of my fellow travellers on this here readalong, then sleeping on it, seeing how I felt in the morning, and only then forging ahead armed with new and varied insight and a vastly improved appreciation for the joys of reading, the singularly uplifting experience of sharing a journey with like-minded folk, and the wit and craft of the dearly departed Mr Banks. And then some 36 hours later I finished reading the epilogue and realized I’d rather fucked it up. Oops.

Nonetheless, rules is rules and I did manage to make a few cursory notes early on. I shall try my level best to flesh these out without giving the game away beyond the end of Chapter 12, though obviously what follows will be SPOILING THE SHIT out of everything up to that point.

Are you guys familiar with the Noble Savage? It’s a concept intimately tied to the White Man’s Burden and is, or used to be (but shamefully still is, really), one of those ‘good’ prejudices. Basically it’s the grossly patronizing and paternalistic conception of any significantly less technologically developed society as possessing this innate nobility, representing the purest expression of man (and it is man) at his most primitive, and the more primitive the man, the more noble the society. These people are simple, ethical, worthy of investigation, admiration, and protection, but one would never consider treating them as equals. This is part of the meme vacuous fashionistas invoke whenever they describe something as being indiscriminately ‘ethnic’ and make me want to strangle them with their batik kimonos, or whatever the fuck is ‘in’ this season.

Actually, before we go on, this is a Culture book, right? Are we all comfortable with exactly how it’s a Culture book? Or should I leave those revelations for the next and final installment? If you don’t want to deal with that, then you might want to skip down a couple of paragraphs to the bullet points, where I’ll pick up with some more general stuff.

Still here? Right, well, the Noble Savage. Compared to the usual run of things (Azad in The Player of Games, Issorile in Excession) the late-medieval society the Culture has decided to stick its nose into this time is decidedly less savage than the norm. I mean sure, there’s the torture and rape and the institutionalized oppression of women and the poor, but in general the world of Inversions seems like a fairly reasonable place to live for a while; backwards, as opposed to out and out degenerate. I guess you could argue that this is the in-universe justification for intervention: it’s at a point where a little gentle nudging could tip it in the right direction and save a whole lot of grief further down the line. This isn’t to dismiss the grimmer stuff as unimportant or not actually all that bad – there is certainly a discussion to be had about the presence of these things in a work written primarily for enjoyment, however clearly it might wear its political and social commentary on its sleeve – but the inhabitants of Haspidus and Tassen are certainly nothing like the Affront, whose cruelty is a defining aspect of who they are as a species; here it seems more like a sadly inevitable but potentially brief waypoint on the road to enlightenment.

DeWar’s (rather clunky, if I’m honest) little parable in Chapter 6 pretty much lays out the terms of engagement: Vosill/Sechroom’s active interventionism versus DeWar/Hiliti’s more lassiez-fair attitude. (The obvious extension to that though is to wonder exactly why he eventually decided to get his hands dirty. It can’t all be down to that unfortunate love triangle business could it?) Do you try to steer the bad guys to the course of righteousness, or do you try to offer support to what you consider to be the ‘good’ guys – a course of action that worked out so well for Rambo and his buddies? Or do you just leave the whole sorry mess well alone? As my reread continues it’s becoming thunderously apparent that these are really the central tensions of the whole series, so there’ll definitely be more of this in the wrap-up. In the meantime, however, let’s get back to the spoiler-free stuff, shall we?

Observations –
l  I am a little bit in love with Perrund, and her conversations with DeWar are things of scalpel-soft wit and beauty (“So you became unconscious out of pique?”). She’s obviously where she is not solely because of her looks and is a very sharp cookie indeed; her little exchange at the end of Chapter 12 where she hints at a concubinial spy-ring suggests she’s well capable of weaving some webs of her own.
l  DeWar’s actually a bit flat as characters go, isn’t he? In fact I’d go as far as to say that it’s the women (Vosill and Perrund) who are by far the most interesting people in the book. And both have to deal with unrequited longing from the men closest to them (Oelph and DeWar). At least Oelph doesn’t punch holes in walls when he gets cock-blocked, which still represents a better response that whining about being 'friend-zoned' on reddit.
l  Conspiracy! Conspiracy! They’ve all got con spi ra cy. Or something. Locked room mysteries abound and it can all get a little tiring trying to work out who’s jockeying for position with whom. Let’s boil it down to some questions, shall we?

1.      Who is Oelph’s ‘master’? Having forgotten from my first reading, at this point I’d got it down to four possibilities: King Quience himself, Commander Adlain (based largely on the wonderfully bathetic descriptions of him and Walen in Chapter 3), UrLeyn or one of his immediate underlings, or the leftfield choice of DeWar. Though the last of those is almost solely due to fact I remembered a bit of a twist at the end and that would fit. To be honest running a spy in another country, even just to keep an eye on Vosill, seems like too proactive an approach for DeWar.
2.      Who killed Nolieti and Unoure? Don’t even know where to start with the suspects for that one. And to what end? All the repercussions appear to be are slight embarrassment for Quettil, potential demotion for his Guard Commander, and, well, the absence of a royal torturer.
3.      What to make of the tale of Munnosh in Chapter 2? Is it just to set up the device of DeWar as a guy who likes to tell stories, or does it hold a deeper meaning. If the latter then I guess it boils down to: forshadowing or backstory?
4.      After the Baretheon-esque close-shave with the boar ort (AGOT was published two years before Inversions, borrowing fans), where does that leave us with the allegiances in the Protector’s court? UrLeyn is obviously modelled on Cromwell, and seems to display some similar failings. If you’re going to style yourself as a break from the old regime, then you actually need to break from it; UrLeyn seems a little too comfortable with his harem and all the other trappings of a king, and seems to be perpetuating a monarchy in all but name. Do we and his court assume that Lattens will inherit the Protectorship a la Richard? Is Landescion to Tassen as Ireland was to England?

That’s probably enough to be going on with for now. You’ll notice that most of those questions are based around the plot. That’s because it’s difficult to discuss much of the wider themes without giving away the big reveal. I’m imagining that if you’ve read much of Iain M. Banks’ other stuff you’ll have got it by now (clue: the hint’s in the name), but I wouldn’t want to seem presumptuous. See you all on Monday (by which point I might have actually written the damn thing…).


  1. hmmm.. me thinks I should have paid better attention in those history, literature, and general "this is important stuff for your life" classes.

    " apparent that these are really the central tensions of the whole series,"
    in my minimal Culture books readings, I've noticed that "what the book is about" isn't at all what it's about, and I adore that kind of round abouting. "round abouting" is probably the worst term, but my vocabulary (like my education) is pretty terrible, so I hope you know what i mean.

    I wrote a rather intelligent sounding comment last night, and blogger ate it, and i can't remember what I put. It boiled down to your discussion of the book pulls from literature, history, philosophy, everything, and my blog post um, is me saying "wow this is so cool!"

    1. "Important stuff for your life" is all relative, eh? God a bit of coding aptitude wouldn't go amiss round these parts every once in a while.

      In the absence of anything to say otherwise, I shall assume that your previous comment was as witty as it was insightful, and as urbane as it was wise. I'd expect nothing less ;) And, to be fair "Wow, this is cool!" is as valid response as any other. The sign of a good book is that it can work on different levels, after all.