I read several of Banks’ Culture novels earlier in the decade, but I hadn’t read Consider Phlebas, which was the first of them published. We read it for our book discussion group this month, rectifying that oversight.
Consider Phlebas is a grand space opera which introduces us to the universe of the Culture, itself a sweeping civilization maintained by ultraintelligent computers (Minds) which live in harmony with the humanoids and humanoid-level robots (drones) which make up most of the Culture’s trillions of citizens. But we’re introduced to the Culture through the eyes of one of its enemies, Bora Horza Gobuchul. Horza is a Changer, a humanoid who can shift shapes (given time) to imitate other humanoids. He’s also an agent for the Idirans, an alien race of religious fanatics who are at war with the Culture. Horza opposes the Culture because of their reliance on – and perhaps in his eyes servitude to – machines.
Horza is extracted from his current mission at the start of the novel (where he’d been bested by a Culture agent, Perosteck Balveda) and charged with going to Schar’s World to retrieve a Mind which has been marooned there following combat with the Idirans. Unfortunately, Schar’s World is a dead world which has been closed by an even more powerful race, the Dra’Azon, whom the Culture and Idirans are both wary of. The Idirans sent a force there to retrieve the Mind, but it was apparently shot down. Horza had once served there in a neutral base his race maintains, so perhaps the Dra’Azon will let him in.
Even worse for our hero, the Idiran ship where Horza is briefed is attacked before he can set out, and he ends up being marooned and then rescued by the Clear Air Turbulence, with a crew of freebooters led by Captain Kraiklyn, a leader who proves both poorly informed and incompetent. Horza wins his way onto the crew (through combat), and gets involved with a shipmate, Yalson. Kraiklyn’s crew embark on several adventures – with a mounting body count – including an extended stay on Vavach Orbital, a larger-than-Earth-diameter ring which the Culture plans to destroy before the Idirans can take it over. Horza ends up on both the giving and the receiving end of many atrocious acts, but remains fixed on his goal of getting to Schar’s World, where the last third of the book takes place.
The element that all the reviews of Consider Phlebas mention is that it introduces the Culture through the eyes of one of its adversaries. Horza has thrown in his lot with the Idirans because he sees them as being “on the side of life”, whereas he detests the Culture’s melding of man and machine into a larger gestalt, one he perceives as dominated by the machines to the detriment of the humanoids. I wish the book had explored this notion further, since it’s probably the most interesting idea in the novel. But Horza isn’t a very philosophical man, and on this subject he perhaps is motivated not to be, since if the Idirans are the best that “the side of life” can put up against the Culture, one is forced to wonder if Horza isn’t just deluding himself: The Idirans are warlike, dogmatic, and obsessive in their drive to absorb other races into their empire. Horza is getting tired of the war altogether, but one wonders if he hasn’t realized that he’s not on the right side but just can’t admit that to himself.
Unfortunately the book mostly doesn’t concern itself with interesting questions like that either, being mostly a space-operatic show of wonder as Horza takes his tour through what is effectively the leading front of the war: The enormity of Vavach Orbital and what exists inside it, the brutality of the game of Damage that he witnesses while there, the various wonders and dangers that exist on worlds in the vicinity, and the nitty-gritty of the soldiers, including Balveda’s resourcefulness and the brutal single-mindedness (one might say blooddy-mindedness) of the Idirans sent to recover the Mind. Many of these are interesting ideas, but none of them are enough to hang a book on. Indeed, the book feels like it went instantly obsolete in the “sense of wonder” region when Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep came out, and like it’s at best a great-great-grandparent of Alastair Reynolds‘ works. That’s not a good thing for a book barely 20 years old.
But the book doesn’t have a lot going for it besides appeals to the sense of wonder. Horza is an unlikeable protagonist, one who does horrible things and suffers some horrible experiences, and for what? The book’s conclusion is unsatisfactory, with little but misery and death having been inflicted on the characters, and no reward for that suffering. Horza doesn’t even come across as a tragic figure, nor does he really learn anything or impart much of a legacy. It appears this was intentional, as Banks said in an interview (quoted in the Wikipedia article) that it’s very difficult for an individual to change the course of civilizations. That’s all well and good (and even so, this story was terrible at making that point), but an individual can certainly have a profound impact on a smaller scale, especially a few other individuals, but other than bringing death to them (death which it seems likely would have come anyway), Horza doesn’t even do that much.
Banks’ writing is decent enough, although it often feels mechanical, mainly intended to move the characters from one place to another through plot devices (and in a galaxy where everyone’s got high-tech implants of one sort or another, there are always plenty of plot devices to go around). Some of the scenes are fine (such as Horza piloting the CAT out of a Culture GSV), while others are inventive in their way (the colony of cannibals living on an island on the orbital) but I thought they added nothing to the story. It could have been a shorter novel without losing anything.
Consider Phlebas is full of ideas, but the writing, characters, and especially the plotting just aren’t very rewarding. Although the Culture is interesting as a post-singularity civilization, with the unusual twist (which always seems reasonable one to me) of humans and AIs living together, this novel is a poor representative of the premise, because ultimately there just isn’t enough story to make it an enjoyable read.