Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
Consider Phlebas, the first of Iain M. Banks’s CULTURE novels, introduces readers to the Culture, a machine-led intergalactic civilization that offers its biological humanoids a carefree, utopian lifestyle. Though most centuries are free from worry, Consider Phlebas takes place in the middle of the Idiran-Culture War.
The Culture is an intergalactic utopia, but readers should not come to Consider Phlebas expecting dystopian narrative. The machines, led by their brilliant and sentient Minds, are benevolent and they seek to offer a paradise to the humanoids in their care. The novel is not even a dystopian narrative in the way Thomas More’s Utopia often seems disturbing in its stringent rules and guidelines. Readers are meant to envy life in the Culture.
The Culture is perfect, or almost, but the universe is not. The Culture, at times, is forced to send its sentient ships to war. Here, the Idirans, a powerful and militant biological race, threaten the Culture. They seek to spread their order to other galaxies and civilizations. They consider the Culture’s Minds an abomination and they hire the mercenary Bora Horza Gobuchul, a shape shifter, or “changer,” to capture a Mind that has crashed and remains trapped on Schar’s World. Here’s the twist: Horza, who hates the Culture, is our hero.
Consider Phlebas is a “space opera,” which offers readers long action sequences filled with starships and laser guns, but there is also a sense of humor at work in Banks’s writing. When we first meet Horza, for example, he is drowning in a vat, a punishment for one of his many crimes. Horza is subjected to many trials, but he is also a gritty and resourceful protagonist. Before long, he takes up with a mercenary band of pirates. Their ship is a bucket of bolts called the CAT, which stands for “Clear Air Turbulence.”
Horza can be cruel and ruthless, but many readers will find themselves rooting for him because he is an underdog. After all, he has taken on perhaps the most difficult assignment in the universe: outwitting a Culture Mind. As if that were not enough, Banks seems to almost enjoy twisting circumstance against Horza. In spite of his best-laid plans, things never seem to go as planned.
However, I eventually grew tired of Horza’s constant frustrations and plot digressions. The novel has a clear objective — capture the stranded Mind — but Horza does not spend much time pursuing it or even engaging with it. Instead, much of the novel is spent on long action sequences, unusual intergalactic games of chance (and manipulation), and even a quick encounter with cultists. The novel’s episodic plot at times felt as much like a short story collection or a video game with constant side quests as it did a novel.
Still, Banks does offer readers an introduction to what has become one of the most popular science fiction settings in the last thirty years. Although there are high points in Consider Phlebas, it is worth noting that each CULTURE novel offers something unique, and these novels can be read independently of the others.
This is Iain M. Banks’ first novel (1987) set in his now famous CULTURE universe, and although it’s a well-written book with lots of clever ideas, I wouldn’t say it’s the best book in the series. Then again, if like many readers you would have feelings of angst and guilt if you were to read the books of a series out of order, then it makes sense to start with this one.
To be very brief, the Culture is a wide-flung galactic civilization in which artificial Minds co-habit with a hundred variants of humanity in a fairly symbiotic relationship, although there is always some sense that the Minds are basically running the show but allow the humans to feel more in control than they really are (like how cats seem to treat their ostensible ‘owners’). In any case, there isn’t much struggle for supremacy in the Culture, because it is a decentralized and post-scarcity society, one in which the ideals of self-expression and self-fulfillment are considered the highest priorities, so that humans and AIs are free to pursue whatever interests them most, and can enjoy long, hedonistic lives simply doing their favorite hobbies (or not, if that’s what they want). But of course a lack of conflict and danger make for a pretty boring existence, so Banks has wisely chosen to populate his universe with dozens of non-Culture species who come into contact with the Culture, sometimes peacefully and sometimes not. Frequently the cultures that the Culture encounters are far less sophisticated, and the Culture is not above interfering with them (via its Contact units) in order to improve their situations (at least, that’s how the Culture sees things).
So Consider Phlebas is about a military conflict between the Culture and the Idirans, a powerful and militant race that is united by its belief that its mission is to spread its religion to all other races, generally by force. The Culture is diametrically opposed to such behavior, so it reluctantly finds itself embroiled in a far-ranging galactic war that will eventually involve trillions of casualties and the destructions of thousands of planets, Orbitals, GSVs (General Systems Vehicles), Minds, etc. In the book, despite its length, we only get to see a tiny glimpse of this massive conflict via a few key characters and events.
Perhaps the most interesting authorial decision in Consider Phlebas is that the protagonist, Bora Horza Gobuchul, is a Changer (a shape-shifter) who chooses to side with the Idirans, despite the fact that they are religious extremists who don’t mind exterminating other species, because Horza despises the Minds of the Culture, choosing the “side of life” instead. Although he freely admits that the Culture has never done him wrong, he categorically hates what he considers a decadent and arrogant civilization that considers its lifestyle and values superior to all others.
So essentially we have a complete inversion of the usual space opera tropes, in which the main character (it’s hard to consider him the hero) has sided against the more ‘enlightened’ Culture by fighting for the intolerant religious extremist Idiran Empire in their holy war against the machine-dominated Culture. Horza also encounters his counterpart and rival, female Culture agent Persteck Balveda. The story begins with him captured by a hostile government and about to be executed. The Idirans swoop in to save him at the last minute, while Balveda is apparently eliminated, but then a Culture ship attacks the Idirans and Horza is cast into space adrift until he’s picked up by a group of Mercenaries on the ship Clear Air Turbulence. Horza’s mission is to find a special rogue Mind that is hiding out on Schar’s World, a planet of the dead protected by a pure-energy race called the Dra’Azon. Horza previously was a caretaker on this world, so the Idiran’s think he is best suited to infiltrate the quiet barrier of the Dra’Azon and capture this Mind, which is of strategic value in the conflict.
The remainder of Consider Phlebas is a series of very elaborate, action-packed sequences as Horza moves from one crisis to the next, always trying to find his way closer to Schar’s World but with many setbacks and side adventures. You might assume that this is a typical picaresque space opera, but Banks is much more interested in subverting the reader’s expectations than fulfilling them. Time and again, where a Golden Age romp would have clearly identified heroes and villains, we instead find a thousand shades of grey, since both Horza and Balveda have legitimate reasons for being on their respective sides. Even the mercenaries don’t seem to be a bad lot. One of the most exciting and cinematic parts of the book (and something I remember vividly when I first read the story 20 years ago), was when Horza gets involved with a twisted game of Damage played on an Orbital about to be destroyed by the Culture to prevent it from being used by the Idirans. Not only does he commandeer the mercenaries ship, he isn’t afraid to create some mayhem to get where he wants to go. I would love to see this sequence in a movie with today’s graphics, something like in Guardians of the Galaxy.
What I found strange and somewhat confounding is that despite Banks spending a huge number of pages describing all these extended action sequences, I also had the sneaking suspicion that he cared less for the action and more for the ideas of the Culture and its conflict with other empires. In the end, the reason the Culture universe has become so popular and well-regarded is not because of elaborate space battles and destruction, but rather by exploring the ideas of what a post-scarcity civilization would actually be like. Just imagine for a moment that you no longer had to do your 9-5 job in order to enjoy your favorite hobbies and entertainments. Then picture having unlimited creature comforts at your fingertips, no need for money, and built-in drug glands that can supply hundreds of customized drug cocktails that can enhance any experience you’d care to undergo. Why would you NOT side with such a civilization?
This is the central dilemma in Consider Phlebas, and it isn’t really resolved with a satisfactory conclusion. If anything, I’d say that Banks deliberately refuses to give us the usual payoff in which the hero saves the day and gets his just rewards. The final passages set on Schar’s World as Horza tries to track down the missing Mind and fights with Idiran soldiers who don’t know he is on their side is basically too long and implausible, and ends in a way that I can’t imagine would make any reader happy. (If you’re interested in reading a spoiler for the ending, begin highlighting here.) It is then followed by a coda in which Banks pulls the camera back from the minutiae of our story and gives a much broader perspective of the Culture-Idiran war, and we come to realize that all the actions of the book haven’t amounted to much difference at all to the final outcome of the conflict. So if that’s the case, why write the story at all? What did Banks intend with this book? [end spoiler]
It’s not clear if Banks actually anticipated that his CULTURE series would eventually extend to 10 volumes, and mark him as a very literary and subversive practitioner of the SF genre, one who could be popular with a certain devoted fan base while at the same time thumbing his nose at the more low-brow wish-fulfillment aspects of space opera. Mostly likely he didn’t.
So in the end I would say that Consider Phlebas is not a complete success or failure as a novel, but its primary importance is in establishing the template and introduction to the fantastic and limitless potential of the CULTURE universe. I think the next two novels in the series, The Player of Games (1988) and Use of Weapons (1990), are frequently considered some of the best entries in the series, but I’ve also heard that Banks actually got better the further he refined his understanding of his own universe, so that later books in the series are also very good. That itself is unusual in a genre that is notorious for overlong series that essentially churn out the same stories shamelessly to an audience who reward this behavior by faithfully purchasing the next installment. So it’s quite unusual for an author like Banks to become so popular, but that’s a really good thing in my opinion.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Peter Kenny, and most of Banks’ CULTURE books are narrated by him. He does a very good job and strikes the right tone of irony when needed. It would be great to hear all the CULTURE books on audio, but I discovered that the American Audible website is missing four of Banks’ CULTURE novels, while the UK Audible website has them (Excession, State of the Art, Inversions, Look to Windward), and a number of non-CULTURE books as well (Against a Dark Background, Feersum Endjinn, and The Algebraist, though only an abridged version). That’s just frustrating and does nobody any good, so I wish that the publishers or estate could sort these problems out.
This is useful as an introduction to the CULTURE, but not necessary. The plot is often exciting and there are some awesome set pieces which would make a great movie, but there are no characters to root for (they seem to be created as anti-heroes) and the plot, which feels incohesive, takes much too long to accomplish. There are also fewer of the “big ideas” I’ve come to expect from Banks. I would love to see this condensed and produced as a movie.
I just started reading this last week. Haven’t made much progress yet. Mostly I’m reading this one because I’m OCD about reading in order. I’ve heard the other books in the series are better.
Agreed. Other Culture novels are better. The side stories may be fun from a space opera point of view, but they are simply digressive when evaluating the overall integrity of the book. It isn’t until Use of Weapons and Excession that Banks really starts to find form and make the Culture a focused as well as entertaining vehicle for his skills.