Critical Inversions: Rationality and the Reenchantment of the World

“An inversion is produced”  (de Certeau, 1984,  179)

My use of the word “inversions” derives from the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks, whose 1998 science fiction novel Inversions followed what was ostensibly the last in his “Culture” series, Excession (1996). (I’ll discuss later Culture novels another time.)

Excession bends the conceptual limits of genre sf by deploying the literary topoi of sublimity in a literal and scientific manner. Excession coverBanks’ use of the verb “to sublime” denotes a voluntary civilization-based choice by so called “elder” species to—simply put—up and vanish. The problem posed by sublimity is that those elder civilizations that do sublime don’t seem to pay attention to what continues to happen in the galaxy under their superlative lintels: for instance, they don’t interfere with apparent evil, such as genocide, and they don’t bother to communicate anything of their state post-sublimation (82). Banks’ emphatic reiteration of the problem of sublimity makes it an insistent preoccupation of the novel, marking the antithetical limit and other of the quasi-utopic “Culture,” which is the epitome of  secular and scientific progressive rationalism. The fact that sublimed species don’t even bother to communicate their discoveries from the great beyond is an anathema to the Culture’s insistent progressive science.

If the sublime marks the antithetical limit of progress represented by the Culture, the excession proper of the title marks the limit of science itself.  In the Culture series, Banks  reinvents space opera by pushing the plausibility of science fiction to its hyperbolic but sincere limits on pretty well every possible scientific front. The Culture builds orbitals, habitats on a planetary scale. Its plate class General Service Vehicles (GSV) are the size of small moons, housing millions of people, and moving between the stars through hyperspace at speeds approximating 100 000 times light. Artificial intelligence is ubiquitous, in ships, drones, suits, and even weapons, and the Minds of the ships are certainly godlike in scope. And the list of excesses runs on: the Culture represents almost total scientific and technical mastery.  Against this backdrop, the Excession intrudes exhibiting technology “outside all known parameters and precedents” (114) alongside impossible data, namely the ember of a trillion-year old star (65), literally marking an intrusion from another universe.

If the sublime and the Excession intimate the  limits of a scientific worldview, the novel’s extension of the Culture’s technological capacity achieves a sort of apotheosis of science in its realization of almost total control over the body. The extreme modification and control over the body is a staple of the Culture series: one merely focuses on one’s internal body image to set changes in motion, whether these be body-mass in relation to gravity or one’s sex. Alteration of face or any body part is routine. In Excession, one character has grown wings, while another alters her face to resemble another person.  Neural laces afford telepathic communication, not to mention assisted intelligence. Average lifespans routinely exceed four centuries. The key development in the novel involves what is called a mind-state abstract, a sort of record or print of a psyche that allows a person to be reconstituted virtually, say for the purpose of communicating with someone far away, or to be reborn, as in the case of accidental death.  Banks engages in a pervasive examination of mind-state abstracts that blurs the line between machine and human, self and other, and soul and simulacra.  For example, Genar-Hofoen’s uncle Tishlin’s mind-state abstract is used to create a holographic version of him that has a conversation with the nephew (61-73). Later Tishlin ponders the morality of disposing of mind-state abstracts and notes that he refused to have his reincorporated afterwards: “What if it had changed a lot while it was away?” (234). Genar-Hofoen is sent to “steal the soul of a dead woman” (54), meaning that her mind-state abstract has been stored long after her death and the destruction of her body. Yet another character is reborn into a new body (with the same genetic properties) after his violent death. The spiritual implications emerge most forcefully when the sentient module Scopell-Afranqui contemplates death before committing suicide: “There was a certain continued existence, of course. He had faith in that; the assurances of the priests that his soul was recorded in a great book, somewhere, capable of resurrection” (298). In the climactic scene of the novel, characters faced with imminent death are offered the opportunity to have their mind-state abstracts broadcast and their bodies reconstituted elsewhere so they can continue the conversation. By exploiting the conceptual limits of science and technology underlying the radically progressive galactic culture of the series, Banks plausibly erases dichotomies between natural and supernatural, science and magic. In a literal sense, he reinvents the soul and imagines a scientifically viable immortality. Upon reaching a certain old-age, many people choose to be stored and revived at a later point. Many choose to be revived when and if the Culture ever chooses to sublime.

Before turning to Inversions proper, I want to note that the tendency seen in Excession is one that occurs in a number of works of genre Veve of Papa Legbafiction between the 1980’s and the early 21st century. In general, I characterize this tendency as a genre inversion in which science fiction and fantasy reinvent themselves by reconstituting basic genre premises and effects. An early glimpse of this inversion can be seen in William Gibson’s flirtation with voodoo spirits in the matrix in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  A couple years after Inversions, China Mieville’s brilliant production of artifical intelligence based on steam technology in Perdido Street Station (2000) signals the reinvention of fantasy as a genre. And there is a pervasive tendency in genre sf, seen in Karl Schroeder’s Ventus (2001) and Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon (2002) and Broken Angels (2003).

Inversions coverIn Inversions, Banks draws on genre innovations found in steam punk (e.g., Gibson and Sterlings’ Difference Engine) and techno-slip fiction, which involves discordant or anachronistic technologies that occur simultaneously. In this novel, Banks appears to drop the Culture series and take up a post-medieval world, albeit the two stars and three moons subtly signal a world other than Earth. The novel consists of two interleaved stories about  a kingdom and a protectorate. The key characters in each story are foreigners: a woman doctor who practices unorthodox but remarkably effective medicine attends to the king in a society in which only males are doctors; and an obsessive bodyguard to a Protector, who dawdles over the Protector’s only son. The stories occur within the bounds of a nascent renaissance society: torture is still employed to force confessions, but crude firearms are changing rules of warfare, especially when calvary is involved, and so on. The key to the novel is the point-of-view of the narrators, who are both indigenous to the adopted societies of the foreign doctor and the bodyguard. As a result of the narration, inexplicable events and curious details remain unexplained, relying on a reader familiar with Banks’ Culture series to infer the identity and roles of the doctor and bodyguard.

The arranger of Inversions’  two stories (also as the narrator of the Prologue and Epilogue) is a more mature Oelph, the spy who tells the story of the Doctor. This is a time when belief in the old gods has given way to a more unifying understanding of Providence, which the younger Oelph tells the doctor is “the rule of laws” (126). The older arranger Oelph, speculating on “progress,” puts it somewhat differently: “Providence is the name of the mystical, divinely inhuman Court before which we wish our actions to be judged, and which we hope will agree with us in our estimation both of our own worth and the culpability or otherwise of our behaviour” (2). Oelph, appealing to the reader of  his “chronicle,” acknowledges that “the Reader” is “a sort of partial providence” (3). And as the second narrator emphasizes, such “partial providence” includes the granting or withholding of belief from the story: her motive, she tells us, is “to present the reader with a chance to choose whether  to believe or to disbelieve what I have to say about the events of that time” (22).

Oelph’s emphasis on judgement is juxtaposed by attention to belief by the narrator of the second story, “The Bodyguard.” This narrator, we find out much later, is Perrund, one of the Protector’s concubines, who eventually murders the Protector and tries to kill his son because the Protector raped and slaughtered her family when she was young.

What to believe eventually becomes a matter of genre as readerly belief is played against appearances constrained by limited narration. That is, it is by way of genre conventions developed through the Culture series that a reader invests the details of these stories with alternate accounts that are impossible from the cultural reference of the story tellers.

Readers of the Culture series identify the good doctor and the devoted bodyguard as sorts of alien Cultural (big C) anthropologists visiting this proto-renaissance world from the transgalactic Culture, and so read certain inexplicable events as underwritten by a superlative science and technology. In this way the novel inverts conventional representations of magic and miracles. But Banks goes beyond these showy demonstrations to touch on narrative and philosophy. The bodyguard tries his hand at telling what amount to fairly poor children’s stories about Lavishia, a country in the “land of make-believe” (107), a land where there are “wizards” and “enchanted swords,” where “everybody is able to fly” (145-147). We might ask whether a wizard is an appropriate name for a Culture Mind, but we probably would be forced to admit  that a knife missile, a sort of sentient nuclear capable short sword featured in The State of the Art, falls aptly into that fantasy category of enchanted swords. As to everybody flying, well, we know that is only possible in the quasi-socialist delusions of Banks’ utopian science fiction. The re-enchantment of the world comes by way of science and technology, or almost, but not quite, because re-enchantment or dis-enchantment occurs by perspective and investment of belief (or the lack thereof).

“The investment of belief passes from one myth to another, from one ideology to another, or from one statement to another. Thus belief withdraws from a myth and leaves it almost intact, but without any role, transformed into a document.”  (de Certeau, 1984,  181)

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

One thought on “Critical Inversions: Rationality and the Reenchantment of the World

  1. […] Hainish Cycle, which includes seven or so novels and a few stories, is marked by lucid instances of genre inversion. This might be expected given that Le Guin is writing in the late sixties when she also begins the […]

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