Monday 30 June 2014


(June 2014)

How do we judge those who find themselves on the wrong side of history? That question is easier to answer in some cases than others, of course, but it’s not too difficult to conceive of someone who makes bad decisions for good reasons, or even someone who makes good decisions that ultimately turn out badly. Unexpected consequences and all that.

‘I’m the smartest thing for a hundred light years radius, and by a factor of about a million… but even I can’t predict where a snooker ball’s going to end up after more than six collisions.’
- General Contact Unit Arbitrary
The State of the Art

While the entirety of Inversions, and indeed the whole Culture canon, is an extended exploration of the dangers of good intentions, I think this dilemma is never quite as transparently painted as it in the case of DeWar. Last time I intimated that Banks may have been inspired by George R.R. Martin (though to be fair the ‘hunting accident gone awry’ trope is fairly well established), and this time I’m going to claim some even stronger parallels with Kazuo Ishiguro, and Remains of the Day specifically.

If you haven’t read the book (or seen the movie, I suppose), Remains of the Day focuses on Stevens, a butler to a minor member of the English aristocracy on the eve of WWII. Stevens invests his entire identity in a patently flawed ideal, that being of devoted service to his master. This investment is so strong it overrides both the possibility of genuine love with another of his master’s servants (the head housekeeper in this instance) and the fact that Lord Darlington is a fairly open Nazi sympathizer. Stevens has very grave misgivings about his master’s actions, but his conception of duty overrides all else. Hopefully you can see why this sprang to mind, but unlike DeWar Stevens definitely doesn’t get the girl.

Failure to choose is sometimes worse than choosing badly (though the abdication of choice is of course a choice itself), and I think it’s significant that in the final reckoning DeWar is put in a position where he must choose, where reacting is no longer enough and he must act. He spends the whole novel advocating non-intervention and yet circumstances conspire, as they inevitably must, to force some kind of reckoning. And of course the nature of this novel is that we must compare this with Vosill, whose every action appears precisely calculated to, inversely, force reckoning upon others.

She is fairly obviously responsible for the death of Walen the Elder, and is strongly implicated in those of both Nolieti and Unoure. Everything seems designed towards pushing out the Haspidian old guard by whatever means necessary and hastening the pace of change wherever possible. However, even given all this, I’m still not sure what to make of her rebuffed declaration of love to the king. Clearly there are a good amount of crocodile tears, you don’t get to be a Special Circumstances agent without an aptitude for emotional manipulation, but to what end? Is it just that she’s aware things are coming to a head and, however it pans out, she’s going to need a plausible reason to leave the King in the near future? Social embarrassment is as valid a reason as any other, and at least saves (everyone else’s) face.

It was either this or Whitney

Anyway, to return to DeWar. While I stand by my assertion that it’s the women in this story who are the most interesting characters, DeWar’s relative blankness and inactivity makes it easy to see him as the control group in this little social engineering experiment. Though you could go further, and claim that he’s not just the control, he’s stasis personified and represents the untampered-with society (or the Noble Savage, if you prefer): violent, aggressive, male, and yet still limited and constrained by its/his own inability to conceive of anything outside the box.

Here’s a thought – Perrund is the most game-changing Outside Context Problem in any of the Culture books.

And on that bombshell, I’ll round out what is becoming an increasingly stream-of-consciousness post, by suggesting this: by abdicating his potential choice to interfere directly, DeWar gives tacit permission to those who would seek to do so more actively. Let’s not forget those oft-mentioned ‘rocks from the sky’ which destabilized the old empire and allowed UrLeyn, Quience, and assorted other princelings and pretenders to establish their own little kingdoms – the Shake the Jar, Make Them Fight approach to liberal interventionism (or divide and conquer, if you prefer). I don’t think DeWar is SC, I think he’s gone native in the manner of Linter or Genar-Hofoen, but let’s not forget either that Gurgeh in The Player of Games was laboring under the impression that he’d made a (relatively) free choice to go to Azad.

Ultimately, I think that’s the take home message of Inversions: the right to choose is perhaps the most valuable right of all, and like all rights it must be both fought for and constantly exercised, whether you realise it or not..

Maybe. That’s a rather grandiose note to finish on, so I’d point you all in the directions of the Little Red Reviewer, TwoDudes in an Attic, and Feet for Brains, who all have slightly less inflated conceptions of the import of their ideas and have made this book a very satisfying experience. Thanks guys, and I hope you had as much fun as I did.


  1. This will be a hard act to follow. Maybe I can add some joke about Arjen Robben plummeting to a painful-looking but ultimately harmless pratfall.

    I'll let my post do the heavy lifting (once I write it!), but merely say that I am glad we're doing this together. Otherwise I would have just said something like, "Culture with swords instead of funny ships" and be done with it. Yours and the other's musings have certainly deepened my appreciation of the book.

    1. Having a little bit of external pressure's useful every once in a while, ain't it? "Swords instead of ships" is probably about where I would have pitched it otherwise as well..