49 of 52 people found the following review helpful
Not for the idle brain,
By A Customer
This review is from: Inversions (Paperback)
I've read a lot of the Iain Banks' novels but this was my introduction to the *M* and thus his Sci Fi. And yes - I was a bit confused. I liked the story but now - having read more of his Culture novels - I like it much better. I would say that to get central points, and not just plot wise, you would have to be at least familiar with the Culture.
The story works on its own level: We follow two people, cousins from a very distant place to where they are now. One is a doctor, one is a body guard. Both serve the rulers of almost medieval courts, although not in the same place and without being aware that they are in fact on the same planet. Their relationship is never fully revealed. Just like a lot of other aspects you have to work it out for yourself, but the clues are all there.
Certain parts of the plot are basically unexplained (and unsatisfactory) if you are not familiar with the Culture: How the doctor escapes from certain rape, torture and death, how a number of people are killed, how she vanishes and the origins of the Never Never Land that the body guard keep telling stories about.
Reading it for the first time I considered this a fantasy novel. Now it clearly belongs with the Culture novels: It compels you to be the judge of how a civilisation that considers itself superior should treat cultures on a much lower level. Do you interfere? Or do you leave it alone in the trust that its members will find their own way?
The doctor and the body guard disagree (and have done so since childhood). She believes in interference - and through her very subtle methods actually succeeds in making a better than average ruler a very good ruler (a symbol of this is his turning the torture chamber into a wine cellar!). The doctor basically tries to educate, to influence, to argue. She doesn't use force except to protect herself. To readers of the Culture novels it becomes clear that she is in fact an agent, armed with a knife missile or a drone or some other technological wonder from her homeworld. Eventually she has to leave, extremely unhappy on a personal level but with her mission accomplished.
The body guard believes in not interfering directly, only to see that everything he tries to protect falls apart. Had he intervened he might have prevented the suffering of thousands. He gains his own happiness but not the greater good. Which one of them did the right thing?
The real trick here is that it is all seen and described through the uncomprehending eyes of the 'innocent natives'. Interesting viewpoint and highly relevant in these days: Should we allow any culture to play cop to the World? And how do people in the 3rd World consider our standards and values? How to explain technological wonders when you don't know what they are?
This is not for the idle brain and Iain M. Banks does - as often - demand that you fill in part of the story yourself.