The Culture and the Idirans have been at war for years. Billions have died and worlds have been destroyed. The Culture, a post-scarcity society of machines, humans and other races, is intrinsically opposed to warfare but has found itself with no choice but to engage. The Idirans on the other hand, are a race of huge three-legged warriors, who fight, colonise and enslave for religious reasons.
In the midst of the war, a Culture Mind – an incredibly intelligent and complex AI – escapes destruction and hides on Schar’s World, a Planet of the Dead. The Idirans – technologically inferior – want to claim the technology for themselves. The Culture wants to save the Mind and keep it out of Idiran hands. No one is allowed entry to a Planet of the Dead, but Bora Horza Gorbuchal, a Changer, used to live there with four other Changers who worked as stewards on the planet. Now, Horza is an Idiran agent, so they task him with going to Schar’s World and retrieving the Mind.
But it’s not that simple. Horza is left drifting in space following at attack on an Idiran ship, and is picked up by a band of mercenaries whose leader is searching for treasure. He needs to find a way to take over the ship and get to Schar’s World, but until then he has to stick with the mercs through their violent and dangerous campaigns. At the same time, two women from the Culture – a Special Circumstances agent and a brilliant problem-solver whose mind matches those of the machines – are trying to reclaim the Mind too.
Although I’ve loved Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels ever since I read The Player of Games in third year, it’s taken me a long time to read Consider Phlebas. I’ve had a copy on my shelf for years, but I could never never finish it. I tried 4 or 5 times, and never made it more than halfway before I lost interest or got tired. Only now, thanks to the stamina I developed from reading difficult review books, was I able to finish it. It was Banks’s first sci fi novel, and his second published novel after The Wasp Factory, and I think his relative inexperience shows. Consider Phlebas is more dense and less elegant than the other books in the series. It suffers from very lengthy, often clunky infodumping, and neglects some of its best characters.
However, it does have a ton of dire action, violence, epic explosions, and more cool ideas than you can count. The plot is packed, and only about a third of it involves searching the Command Tunnels of Schar’s World for the Mind. The lecturer who introduced me to Banks said he had these really awesome ideas that most authors would write a whole book out of, but he’d just use them for a chapter or two and then move on. That seems especially true of Consider Phlebas. For example, I could imagine a novel based on the card game Damage, which is sort of like poker except that players can chemically alter the emotions of their opponents, and losing a hand means literally losing a life – one of two sacrificial volunteers or your own. Damage is ideally played in a location that’s about to be destroyed (which means staying in the game can be life-threatening as well) and the audience can also tap into the emotions of the players (and there are junkies addicted to this).
You could also write a novel based on Changers like Horza. They can’t transform instantly, but spend some time preparing the likeness of the person they want to imitate, including body language and voice. Changing back takes about a week too. They have incredible control over their own bodies (like the ability to cut off pain in an arm) as well as poisons under their nails and teeth for defensive purposes. Their ability to change brings up all sorts of identity issues that the novel mentions but doesn’t explore. Mind you, there’s so much going on I don’t think I could handle another major theme. Horza’s issues with the Culture already dominate the novel.
It’s unique in the series in that, not only does the protagonist come from outside the Culture, he hates it and fights against it. This means that the reader gets a very critical perspective of the Culture, although I’ve come across some of it in the other novels. The morality of Special Circumstances, for example, is an issue that’s come up often. Some of Horza’s other criticisms make sense, but most of them are deeply flawed simply because they come from deep-seated prejudice.
This makes him a mostly unlikeable but very interesting character. Horza doesn’t fight for the Idirans because he agrees with them, but because he hates the Culture. He actually recognises the barbarity of the Idirans. They’re a race of violent religious fanatics who go around the galaxy colonising other races or wiping them out.Horza himself doesn’t buy into this kind of religious belief or agree with the Idiran’s voracious colonisation, but he believes that they will eventually slow down and settle down, even if that only happens in hundreds or thousands of years (pity about the body count). He imagines that the Culture, on the other hand will just never stop expanding.
Which is a fair point. The Idirans would naturally be hated by the people they kill and colonise, but the Culture is just so nice. They could keep expanding partly because lots of races would want to join them, and they are so very hospitable. Extremely liberal, casually hedonistic, technologically advanced, with infinite resources. They don’t have money or a government because they don’t need either. Everyone is well-nourished and extensively educated. They make their own stunningly beautiful worlds for people to live on. No one needs to work because the machines take care of everything, so the inhabitants are “free to take care of the things that really mattered in life, such as sport, games, romance, studying dead languages, barbarian societies and impossible problems”. Honestly, if a drone appeared right now and offered me an immediate one-way ticket to the Culture, I would say yes. I want it like I wanted to walk through the back of my cupboard and go to Narnia.
Horza would scoff at this. He hates how impressed some people are by the Culture, but not only because he thinks it’ll eventually take over the universe. The other major reason he dislikes the Culture is their machines. The ships and habitats are run by unfathomably intelligent and powerful Minds, and intelligent drones also form a major part of the society. In the Culture, the AIs are considered people. Destroying one is considered murder. And they do have emotions and personalities. One of my favourite passages in the book describes a drone’s feelings about a woman it works with:
Jase, which deep down was a hopeless romantic, thought her laughter sounded like the tinkling of mountain streams, and always recorded her laughs for itself, even when they were snorts or guffaws, even when she was being rude and it was a dirty laugh. Jase knew a machine, even a sentient one, could not die of shame, but it also knew that it would do just that if Fal ever guessed any of this.
Horza, however, believes that the machines will eventually consider the humans in the Culture to be “wasteful and inefficient”. He is suspicious of their plans (which no one could fathom because they’re so intelligent). He does not consider machines to be people no matter how intelligent they are, believing they “ought to stay in their place”. `That quote really highlights Horza’s problem. He’s the kind of bigot who thinks society will crumble because slavery’s been abolished or women have been given the right to vote. And, as with any bigot, the faults in his reasoning are easy to see.
Throughout the novel, Horza encounters things that expose the absurdity of his beliefs about the Culture or his support of the Idirans. He meets religious fanatics who range from simply annoying to extremely cruel and dangerous. He meets an Idiran who loathes him along with all other humans and doesn’t buy the idea that he’s an Idiran ally. In the meantime, Horza has a relationship with a woman named Yalson, who looks human but has a light covering of fur over her dark skin. An interspecies relationship like this would be easily accepted in the Culture, but no doubt considered disgusting by the Idirans. He is often saved or assisted by Culture technology. He cannot help but admire the beauty, power and efficiency of things made by Culture. The entire plot is based on the Idirans’ attempt to retrieve a Culture Mind, the kind of technology they are nowhere near creating. Things get particularly interesting when Horza has both a Culture agent and an Idiran officer as his prisoners. Admittedly, Banks was being a bit heavy-handed here, but that’s in comparison to his later works. It’s still more sophisticated that other action-heavy novels.
So, overall, I liked Consider Phlebas for its amazing ideas and the fantastic characters that I know I can always find in a Banks novel. That said, it’s the only Culture novel that I’m not interested in re-reading. The worldbuilding information can be picked up from the other novels or you can go and read the many articles written about it. All the action didn’t make up for the fact that it’s overly long and dense. But I’m glad I finally read it.