Friday 21 August 2015

Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks

Surface Detail, Banks's penultimate Culture novel, was reviewed here only a few weeks ago, so when the Classic SF discussion group chose for a monthly read the very first one, Consider Phlebas, published in 1987, I thought it would be good to refresh my memory of this work. I say "refresh my memory" because I was certain that I had read this book, but on reading it again after a gap of over 25 years I found that nothing in it sparked any recollections whatsoever, so perhaps I hadn't.

The story is set during the Idiran-Culture War, a far-future galactic conflict which lasted for almost half a century. As summarised in one of several brief appendices (usefully including the perspective of both sides in the war), this was an existential conflict between two opposed sets of principles: the cultural unanimity and religious certainty of the Idirans, who were engaged in a relentless and limitless programme of conflict and expansion, and the relaxed and tolerant Culture, concerned to bring the benefits of civilisation to as much of the galaxy as possible. Some readers might note certain parallels with present-day attitudes in different parts of this world. As the Idirans were on a permanent war footing, the conflict had first gone their way, but the technologically more advanced and less tradition-bound Culture gradually got itself organised and began to fight back.

Despite the grand scope of the war, Consider Phlebas is not about vast space fleets engaged in system-wide battles. The focus is on the small scale, and particularly on a few individuals and their relationships – a microcosm of the greater conflict. The chief representative of the humanoid Culture is Special Circumstances Agent Perosteck Balveda, an appealing young woman as well as a capable operator. The main Indiran characters – massive tripedal beings who are formidable in battle – are Xoralundra, a naval captain, and Xoxarle, a warrior. In between the warring sides come some neutral freelancers, piratical humanoids who try to profit from the war; in particular Kraiklyn, the captain of the Clear Air Turbulence and his crew, most importantly Yalson, a young woman. However, the principal character, through whose eyes we see most of the action, is Bora Horza Gobuchul – a Changer, a rare type of humanoid able to gradually change their appearance to match anyone else. The Changers' home is in Idiran space and Horza supports their cause against the Culture, which he despises.

So given that the Culture represents a marvellous future, the kind which most westerners would gladly grab with both hands and every other part of their anatomy if offered it, it is strange that the principal character in the book is on the "wrong" side. Despite this, we gradually develop some sympathy with Horza as he struggles to survive and carry out the Indirans' commands.

One significant difference from the later books is that we hear virtually nothing from the Minds; the great AIs who run the Culture and mainly inhabit their giant spacecraft. They exist – in fact the main plot driver and the climax of the story is the race to find and secure a lost Mind on a hostile planet – but they don't contribute much. We are not entirely bereft of AIs, though, as one of the main characters and the source of most of the humour is Unaha-Closp, a small robot.

If you like happily-ever-after endings then don't read this book – or any of Banks's other novels, come to that. One of the appendices describes what happened next to the survivors, in a rather poignant finale.

Consider Phlebas received rave reviews, and it is easy to see why. It isn't quite as polished and well-constructed as Banks's late novels; for example, there are occasional scenes – such as a lengthy and decidedly gruesome one set on an island on an Orbital which is about to be destroyed – which add little or nothing to the plot and just seem to be slotted in to fill up the space. However, this is still a good introduction to the Culture stories, one of the finest collections of novels in modern science fiction.

N.B I am taking a break next week, so my next blog post will be in September.


Fred said...


I just finished _Consider Phlebas_, a first time for me. I think I've read something else by Banks, but that was decades ago and perhaps only hypnosis could retrieve it. I agree with your evaluation and will go on to read the second in the series. I gather it isn't that important to read them in publication order but it does give structure to my otherwise chaotic life.

The island scene seemed irrelevant as it seemed to have little if any connection to the main plot anyway.

And I didn't realize that the Minds had any part to play except in this case to provide the quest's holy grail.

Anthony G Williams said...

I agree that the reading order doesn't matter much as the novels are linked only by their common background in the Culture.

In the later books the Minds (and their avatars) are frequently the most interesting characters in the story!

dlw said...

I had read the novel some years ago. I remembered some of the background, but virtually nothing about the story. Reading it again a few months ago, almost nothing seemed familiar. The storyline isn't particularly memorable, I guess.

"Player of Games" was the best of the Culture books, but even it didn't really have enough story to fill out a volume of such size.

The Culture bothers me in a lot of ways. Mainly, it's all dependent on and run by vastly powerful AIs who don't seem to have any actual need to interact with the lesser meat-based intelligences who make up most of the population. It's like Federation++; "we got rid of money, and we got rid of government too!" How that happened and what keeps it going were always far more interesting to be than the actual stories.

Anthony G Williams said...

Fair point. Forecasts that increasing automation of industry and services would free people from the need to work, and result in everyone getting whatever they wanted, started emerging decades ago and have featured in SF before Banks (although he has possibly taken the concept furthest). I find it difficult to get my head around how that would work in practice, though. And of course, whether such advanced AIs would have any interest in taking care of humans is also hotly debated. I suppose they might see us as amusing pets who are to be indulged in most things.