Review: Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas is the first in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. It’s a space opera, essentially, set in the very far future, when humans and other species have expanded into a populous galaxy. War is the background to the novel: a war between the Culture, a colonialist post-scarcity society run by computers (“Minds”), and the Idirans, a highly religious species to whom the Culture’s mission to, as they see it, take the struggle and meaning out of life is anathema.

Our Protagonist, Horza, is neither Culture nor Idiran. He’s a Changer, a shapeshifter from a dying race, fighting on the side of the Idirans because he thinks the Culture brings stagnation to the societies it subsumes. The novel’s action centres on his efforts to retrieve one of the Culture’s Minds for strategic reasons from a planet which is theoretically off-limits. The slightly meandering path Horza takes to this goal involves the spaceship the Clear Air Turbulence (CAT) and its band of cut-throat mercenaries (think Firefly without the bonhomie), which finds itself in a conveniently wide range of situations and places.

There are a couple of things that really struck me about Consider Phlebas. The first was the sense of wonder we get from Banks’ fictional universe; the variety and teeming diversity, the near-absurdity of the scenes we encounter as the CAT blunders through the galaxy. There are monks living in a temple made of crystal. Cannibals awaiting the end times. A cloud of thousands of people floating in anti-gravity, seen from far away. Banks is particularly good at writing about the sheer scale of space, something space operas often miss:

Vavatch lay in space like a god’s bracelet. The fourteen-million-kilometre hoop glittered and sparkled, blue and gold against the jet-black gulf of space beyond…The aquamarine sea, which covered most of the surface of the artefact’s ultradense base material, was spattered with white puffs of cloud…some of which seemed to stretch right across the full thirty-five-thousand-kilometre breadth of the slowly turning Orbital…Only on one side of that looped band of water was there any land visible, hard up against one sloped retaining wall of pure crystal. Although, from the distance [in space the crew of the CAT] were watching, the sliver of land looked like a tiny brown thread lying on the edge of a great rolled-up bolt of vivid blue, that bolt was anything up to two thousand kilometres across

At one point we board a Culture spacecraft that is kilometres deep, so big that equalising the pressure across the depth of the ship is an issue. This, really, is SF at its purest, most elemental self: the extrapolation of the wonders of science.

The other thing that struck me, in contrast, was the general impression of futility the novel cultivates. Consider Phlebas is full of inconsequential deaths. A young man dies because his crewmates forgot to tell him that his anti-gravity wouldn’t work. A high-stakes card game is played in which the lives the players lose are actual human lives, sacrificed for the sake of entertainment. Horza goes to a lot of effort to murder the CAT‘s captain, Kraiklyn, and impersonate him, only to receive the following reaction when he reveals himself to the crew:

“[Kraiklyn] was a manager; how many of them are liked by their staff?… Shit! The only person you needed to fool was the ship.”

As for the ending – that’s a veritable howling desert of futility and broken dreams. All of this is what you’d expect from the novel’s title, which is, of course, a phrase from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

Phlebas drowns. The point is that nothing lasts, that all the handsomeness in the world can’t protect you from the Reaper. And so it is in Banks’ novel.

What’s interesting, though, is how that’s foregrounded against that sense of wonder Banks instils throughout his galaxy, and against the interminable war. The universe may be wild and wide, but that, conversely, means that each individual is impossibly, infinitely small. (Banks’ “Appendix” recounts that the forty-eight year war resulted in 851 billion deaths – and then dismisses it as “a small, short war”.) There’s a sense throughout the novel of titanic forces and spaces clashing, making light of the values and self-definition of any individual caught up in that clash. Of course, that’s intensified by the fact that the war on the Culture side isn’t run by individuals but by computers.

And then, that’s interesting again when we look at the motivations Banks ascribes to the combatants. The Culture is defending its moral imperative as a society:

The Culture’s sole justification for the relatively unworried, hedonistic life its population enjoyed was its good works…not simply finding, cataloguing, investigating and analysing other, less advanced civilisations, but…actually interfering…in the historical processes of those other cultures.

This interference is done to improve the quality of life experienced by these cultures; so the Culture must fight the Idirans or lose the moral high ground, and with it, its social cohesion. On the other hand, the Idirans are intent on conquering space as a religious imperative; religious zeal drives their society. It is, then, a war of principle.

These motives for war are reductive when you look at them properly, but that’s not really the point here. The point is that both of these cultures are fighting for the right to exist. They are essentially mutually incompatible. There can be no negotiation, because the titanic forces driving the war are so much bigger than any roomful of individuals.

This reads as a kind of uneasiness about multiculturalism, to me. It’s easy, and anachronistic (Consider Phlebas was published in 1987), to read this against the backdrop of the war on terror; I think Banks is asking wider questions about how cultures with fundamentally different values can coexist.

I said above that the reductiveness of the reasons for the war isn’t important. Actually, I think it is at this point. Because in real life it’s nuance that allows for coexistence and negotiation, not broadly-painted core values. I can see what Banks is trying to do, but it doesn’t feel particularly useful.

Consider Phlebas, then, is a bit chilly for me; a bit too pessimistic about our ability to live together. But I really did love the sense-of-wonder stuff, so I’ll be trying another Culture novel, I think.

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