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.