Inversions Part One

Inversions Part 2

Iain M. Banks

The subtitle of my slightly late post should probably be, “Dorks Wax Eloquent About Political Science.” If this sounds too pompous/nerdy, it’s probably best to bail out now and come back for Part Two. Alternately, visit the Read Along Compendium that Kamo is hosting to find other views of the story. Everything I’ve read so far has been spot on with analysis and packed with intelligent things that hadn’t occurred to me.

Flattery dispensed with, it is time to look at the first half of the book. Or, to be more accurate, it’s time to wander off on a couple of tangents, while saving the book itself for Part Two. It’s kind of hard to resist the tangents, because Banks packs so much into the Culture books. One can read this at the superficial level and appreciate his wit and narrative pace, but there is plenty of other juicy goodness below the surface for those who want to look for it. Not everyone will want to, I suppose, since Banks is from Scotland, a country that gravely worries this American columnist. I don’t think there’s much of controversy in Inversions though, just questions that none of us have good answers to. (Alright, I admit it. I just wanted to get everyone reading that article because it makes me laugh so hard. I’m glad Scot patriot and SF luminary Charlie Stross tweetered it.) I am digressing before my planned digression even gets off the ground.

During early discussion of Inversions, I pointed out that it reminds me the most of Player of Games. Answering why requires going back to something else I read about The Culture: that the books nominally stand alone, but can frequently be sorted by pairs that are in thematic dialogue with each other. Certain themes run throughout the series, but I found Inversions and Player of Games to have the greatest focus on certain questions of any of the books I have read thus far. The central issue underlying both is the best way to deal with a state or civilization less advanced, and whether or not it is even right to meddle in the first place.

This question is hardly unique to Banks. In its most famous guise, The Prime Directive is mainly honored in the breach, though Star Trek would be pretty boring if, every time The Enterprise stumbles on a new planet, Kirk says, “Well, the ol’ Directive says to leave these savages alone too, so let’s go somewhere else.” The exact opposite approach is the basis of David Brin’s popular Uplift series. Not only are they meddling with the natives there, but it’s considered best practice to give whole species sentience, then guide them along until everyone agrees that the new kids are grown up enough to join the country club. I’m sure we can all think of many examples that fall somewhere between the two. We humans even make some appearances in the role of Noble Savage, with the most graceful treatment perhaps being Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

It should be pretty clear from this brief survey that we haven’t yet arrived at a consensus for how to deal with alien races further back in the sprint to Utopia. Banks spends many of the Culture books looking at ways that the Culture, the only game in town worth playing, handles its lesser neighbors. The Culture waffles from book to book on how best to “help” those around them, though Player of Games makes the strongest case for intervention. Here, an entire civilization is (SPOILER ALERT) ingeniously undermined through the national pastime, as we are gradually shown why a superficially stable and decent society is in fact degraded and abusive enough to warrant a change. (SPOILERS OFF) It is one of my very favorite SF books, if only for the brilliant way that Banks weaves game theory and the Liberal paradigm of international relations into the plot.

Now, a few books further on, both the author and the Culture are questioning the very basis of that sort of intervention. The two main characters, who are pretty obviously Special Circumstances agents, find themselves on the opposite ends of intervention practices, though at least they seem to agree that it’s worth it to prevent Game of Thrones from happening. (Thanks to‘s for that angle.) They argue on and off throughout the book on the best ways to intervene, without either really gaining the upper hand. The story is non-committal about it all, eventually settling on a cautious endorsement of meddling (I think), but, like the Culture itself, fully aware that even the most careful intervention carried out with the best of intentions spawns a whole boatload of unintended consequences.

Banks is hardly writing in a vacuum. We aren’t even close to settling these questions here on Earth, let alone in Outer Space. Western powers are criticized for not giving enough aid to poorer nations, or for giving too much when they should be doing something better with the money. Religious groups try to help, but come under fire for spending more time giving Bibles than food. China doesn’t take human rights into sufficient account when showering favors, the US worries about human rights too much when people are starving. Japan earns frowning disapproval from “The Washington Consensus” because their patterns of aid invite government intervention in ways not sufficiently capitalist. I think most of us agree that getting rid of things like slavery and dysentery is a positive step, but nobody seems to know how best to go about it. We won’t even start into America’s recent nation building excursions.

Does Banks have the answers in Inversions? No, but he doesn’t shy from asking the questions. The Culture is, for all practical purposes, all powerful and the best place ever to live. There isn’t any debate anywhere that they’re doing things right. And yet, even then, nobody seems to have solutions to the slow burning problems of cultural development. They are at least self-aware enough to realize this, unlike real world types who barge in with their iron clad solutions and end up dropping giant bales of food on hapless civilians or something. “Here, catch this half ton brick of tinned ham! Have some democracy while you’re at it!”

This sounds a bit cynical, which is not, I think, what Banks has in mind. Not all of the Special Circumstances agents leave things in a better state when they leave, but the pair in Inversions seems to make a real difference. Banks poses difficult challenges, but always returns to the basic, science fictional optimism in progress that is a hallmark of the Culture books. We may not know how to get there, but for Banks the future is always brighter.

Tune in next time when we put the poly sci texts down and actually talk about the book!


2 thoughts on “Inversions Part One

  1. That Scotland piece was definitely worth the digression. As someone with sufficient Celtic roots and blood that I’d be qualified to play for them were I both young and indeed good enough, it’s especially heartening to see the entire nation reduced to the “bonnie banks of Loch Lomand [sic]” by someone who, a) is happy base their opinions on mainstream ideology largely on what they experience at the FRINGE Festival, as it’s not like the name should tip you off or anything, and b) can’t even fucking spell ‘Lomond’.

    I’ve lost my thread completely now. Inversions, wasn’t it? Yes. Hard to argue with any of this, except that I’m not entirely sure that DeWar is SC. I think there are enough hints (the absence of any obvious hi-tech back-up for one) that he’s gone native/rogue and is there pretty much as a private citizen . Given how it all eventually plays out regarding the merits and efficacy of different strategies/philosophies I have a sense that this is significant. Or at least not insignificant. Still need to work through exactly how, though…

    • I am familiar with the writer of the Scotland bit; her columns don’t get any better. I’m sure that Scots everywhere felt properly chastened and immediately adopted US Republican values.

      I think you’re right on the second bit. I’m not sure what it means, even though I have since finished the book. This will require more thought.

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