Iain Banks: the other secret Culture novel

*** WARNING: SPOILERS ***

It’s an open secret that Inversions, the SF novel by the late Iain M Banks, is set in the universe of the Culture. The book itself disguises this: the cover omits the “A Culture Novel” strapline of the other books such as Consider Phlebas, the narrative is solely about events on a late medieval world, and there is no explicit mention of Culture society or technology. However, there are enough subtle hints in the narrative for anyone familiar with Banks’s other works to deduce that the two main characters are agents from the Culture, who have infiltrated the pre-industrial society in order to influence it. At one point, one of them tells a child a fairytale about a land where people can fly betweens suns using “ships with invisible sails”; in the Epilogue, the other excuses herself from a dinner citing “special circumstances” (the name of the Culture’s black ops department).

Inversions cover, from Wikimedia

The most dramatic evidence of Culture presence occurs in the climax to the female agent’s story. Narrated by her clueless servant, it recounts how she is tied up and about to be raped and tortured. In a few seconds, while his eyes are closed in terror, she mysteriously escapes from her bondage, while the torturer’s head is obliterated and his assistants are also violently killed. Afterwards, bemused, the servant notices that “[her] old battered dagger had lost the last of its little white beads round the top rim of its pommel”. This is a clear reference to one of the Culture’s most distinctive pieces of technology, the “knife missile”: an autonomous, AI-controlled, self-propelled weapon in the shape of a dagger, carried by Culture agents in the field for protection. The “beads” mentioned by the servant are tiny bombs, disguised as decorative jewels. The missing last bead had not, of course, simply fallen off in the confusion as he supposed; it had been offensively deployed, presumably detonating inside the torturer’s head.

Although the book itself, including its cover and blurb, and the publisher’s descriptions, remains tacit about the wider context implied in Inversions, this fact is explicitly stated elsewhere. Banks confirmed it, most reviewers don’t seem to regard it as a spoiler to mention its Culture links, and it’s always included in any list of Culture novels. Hence its status as a “secret Culture novel” is very much an open secret.

However, there’s arguably another secret Culture novel hiding among Banks’s other works, which doesn’t ever appear on Culture lists. It’s a very minor link, but it’s there nonetheless.

That book is The Bridge.

The Bridge cover, from Wikimedia

Like a number of Banks’s other novels, The Bridge contains several different levels of narrative. The primary story is about a man who wakes up with no memory in the fantastical world of the Bridge, a vast Gormenghast-like reimagining of the Forth Bridge, with no visible ending in either direction, and an entire civilisation living within its structure. The man explores his new surroundings, interacts with its citizens, and attempts to recover his lost memories. Interleaved with this narrative are several dream scenes, some of which the man experiences, and others he invents to confuse his psychiatrist. Three of the dreams form a connected story, set (initially) in the sword and sorcery / heroic fantasy genre, about a barbarian swordsman who narrates in a broad Scottish accent.

In the first barbarian story, he encounters a familiar in the form of a winged black cat, who has the sort of sardonic personality Banks fans will know as characteristic of Culture drones, and makes casual reference to things like genetics and nanoseconds.

In the second section, the barbarian describes his “enchantit dirk that thinks itz a daggir”, and how he acquired it:

“Bludy daft wee hi-pitched voyce its got too, reely gets on ma nerves sumtimes, but the things cum in handy on a few okayzhins; it can see in the dark an tel whose frend and fowe an a coupil of times ahl sware its jumpt rite out of ma hands an flown like a bird intae sum basturts throat that was givin me a hard time. Usefyule gadjet. A lassy geeze it … sed it wiz oanly a copey, but it came from the fewtcher an might cum in yousefyul.”

Later, the barbarian meets the familiar again, who reacts in surprise to the dagger: “Oh good grief, a knife-missile. How on earth or anywhere else did you come to get hold of that? Or did it get hold of you? Whatever; if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s machines that talk back.”

Finally, the third part of the barbarian’s story re-visits him in old age. Under the familiar’s guidance, he has acquired various futuristic technology, as well as a slightly improved accent: “He hasn’t sat on my showlder since we got the flying castle (he calls it a ship, but then he likes confusing things; calls the bedroom the ship’s bridge, too).” With the ship, the two of them have been traveling between planets for centuries.

“Even found some new batteries for the old dirk; the ‘knife missile’ as the familiar calls it. Its batteries ran out about a century ago and it was just a no very sharp knife after that what I kept for sentimental reasons. Wee familiar was dead snooty about it at the time. ‘Just a cheap copy, I told you so,’ it said, but it found new batteries for it just recently and put it in charge of security, guarding the flying castle’s door.”

An enemy breaks into the castle/ship, armed with a “neuroscreening” helmet and a sword with “blade-fields” capable of cutting through the “monofilament reinforcing” in the airlock door. The dirk approaches the intruder, but deactivates. “‘Told you it was a cheap copy;” the familiar explains, “they had to equip it with an IFF circuit. Probably our chum’s sword – or that helmet – fed it a fake Friend signal. The real things are free agents, smart enough to make up their own minds … which is why they’re quite useless for the likes of you or me, of course.'”

So, does this qualify The Bridge as another secret Culture novel? It certainly has distinctive Culture elements. The knife missile is the most obvious. The familiar could be interpreted as a rogue Culture drone, and the other high-tech references are all typical of Banks’s SF works. I think there’s enough evidence to say that the barbarian sections, at least, are set in the world of the Culture.

The status of The Bridge as a whole is a trickier question. As you’d expect from Banks, the relationship between the different layers of the book is fairly complicated. Yet another major portion of the narrative tells the life story of a Scottish engineer, culminating in a serious car accident on the Forth Road Bridge. It’s this character’s post-accident coma fantasy which comprises the story of the amnesiac on the Bridge, who in turn dreams he’s a barbarian interacting with Culture technology. So the “real” setting of the book is modern day Earth, where the narrator is lying comatose in hospital.

(Of course, according to The State of the Art, Earth exists within the Culture universe and is also visited in our present by Culture agents, so all Banks novels, from The Wasp Factory to The Quarry, could be trivially classified as Culture novels. But I think we can ignore that level of inclusion.)

The Bridge is one of Banks’s most autobiographical novels. The character who ends up in the coma, imagining life on the Bridge, can be seen as an alternative version of Banks himself. There are big differences: one’s an engineer from Glasgow, the other’s a writer from Dunfermline, and their family and romantic situations are quite different. However, they’re about the same age, they’re both left-wing Scots who establish independent careers, and both like recreational drugs and fast cars. Also, Banks grew up in North Queensferry, almost underneath one end of the Forth Bridge, and even stated that the idea for the world of the Bridge came to him in a dream, as it comes to the other in his coma.

North Queensferry, from Wikimedia by Kim Traynor

The Bridge was the third of Banks’s novels, published in 1986. This was a year before his first science fiction and Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, was published, although the draft had been written several years before, so he already had the Culture firmly established in his mind. It’s as if Banks was testing the water, including elements of it in a mainstream novel before taking the plunge and publishing a pure SF book; or perhaps it’s more that he was so excited by the ideas, he couldn’t help but leak a few of them into his supposedly non-genre work, ahead of his first Culture novel proper.

The Bridge, then, is part of the Culture series in two senses. Firstly, it’s a story about an ersatz of Banks himself, who fantasises about the world of the Culture and its advanced technology. Secondly, it’s a collection of stories, some of which are set in the Culture universe and contain distinctive elements of the later novels. In this latter sense, it’s no different from the The State of the Art, a collection of short stories, some of which (including the title novella), but not all, are about the Culture.

Either way, it’s a cracking read, full of the multilayered ambiguity, titanic inventiveness, dark humour, puns and puzzles which are the hallmarks of Banks’s incredible body of work. I’d highly recommend it.

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