Nominally set in the Culture universe, Inversions is seemingly bereft of of the technologically-advanced and galaxy-spanning utopia that looms large within Banks’s preceeding novels. Instead the focus is on the effect of two undercover Culture agents on a backward planet, as narrated by two of its inhabitants. The result is a completely different perspective of the Culture and its methods of intervention with other civilisations.
The coupled narratives are interwoven via alternating chapters, telling of the Culture agents Vosill and DeWar. DeWar and Vosill are both advisors to the leaders of their respective countries, Vosill as the Royal Physician of the King of Haspide and DeWar as the chief bodyguard of Urleyn, Protector of Tassesen. Both seek to influence their respective leaders towards the creation of a more equal society, but have to contend with courtly intrigue and treacherous conspiracies that may prove to have fatal consequences.
The inversions of the title are everywhere, from the opposing methods used by the Culture agents, to the contrast in style between the objectivity of DeWar’s unknown narrator and the subjective viewpoint of the Doctor’s assistant, Oelph. More inversions become apparent when the link between DeWar and Vosill is revealed, along with a possible explanation for their presence on the same planet but on opposite sides.
Prior knowledge of the Culture is not an absolute requirement but those who choose to read Inversions without this benefit will miss out on the numerous references to the Culture that are strewn throughout the book. The knowledge of an alien superpower that exists beyond the scope of the human civilizations on the planet subtly informs all of the book’s preceedings and explains the ‘magical’ events that one narrator finds perplexing, and also allows the reader to draw their own conclusions about the nature of the two protagonists as suggested in the book’s prologue.
Inversions is a book that rewards re-reading for many reasons, not least of which are finding subleties that were missed on first reading, and enjoying the excellence of Banks’s stylish prose. This is not a typical Culture novel by any means, yet one whose intricate nature must rank it highly amongst its fellows.
Envisioned by Westerfeld as “a space opera for my 14-year-old self, who always wanted big, ass-kicking space battles and hostage rescues and armor-suited ground actions, but ones that made some kind of scientific sense”, this novel is widescreen baroque through to its core.