Month: December 2018

2018: ABA Publishes Hot Tuition Garbage Instead of Usable Numbers [UPDATED]

It’s been two weeks since the ABA released its 509 information reports and accompanying spreadsheets. Lazy as I am I didn’t get to the tuition figures until last night, when to my astonishment I found that the tuition data were an excrementitious string of Arabic numerals. Seriously, the ABA has been doing this for five years, and while one or two law schools always fail to report their costs (because it’s, so, so hard to do the same thing once a year) I’ve never seen it publish numbers that were so clearly wrong.

I count seventeen law schools without any tuition numbers. I can understand why Valparaiso and Arizona Summit wouldn’t bother supplying them, but the rest is inexcusable. Even Stanford is on the list of shame.

The next seven reported bizarre three-digit numbers. A year of law school costs $35 at Washburn in Kansans. I have no idea where that came from, but a few public schools (Indiana-Indianapolis, Missouri-Columbia) look like they supplied their costs per credit hour rather than their annual charges.

Then I count 128 (!!) law schools that appeared to supply either semester or trimester tuition costs. There all off by 40-67 percent, clustering at 50 percent.

So more than half of the ABA law schools either supplied bad numbers to the ABA, which didn’t QC any of them, or the ABA messed up. Wow. RIP data transparency.

[Update: Per a reader comment, it appears in the 509 information reports themselves, the ABA now tracks tuition by semester, which will necessitate annualizing the numbers manually. Yes, I’d looked at these but didn’t see that change. However, instead of 128 law schools incorrectly sending semester numbers, that leaves 51 that misreported annual tuition instead of semester tuition. So while 128 law schools appeared to have reported correct numbers, 73 (less Arizona Summit and Valparaiso) did not. The ABA should still do a better job of QCing the data and ensuring law schools are completing forms correctly. I’ll try to come up with a new post that fixes all this.]

Here’s my table of proof:

Arizona Arizona Summit Private $45,284 $0 -100.0%
Arkansas University of Arkansas Public Res. $16,117 $0 -100.0%
Arkansas University of Arkansas (Little Rock) Public Res. $15,732 $0 -100.0%
California Santa Clara University Private $48,916 $0 -100.0%
California Stanford Private $60,270 $0 -100.0%
California Whittier Law School Private $44,370 $0 -100.0%
Florida Florida International University Public Res. $21,806 $0 -100.0%
Idaho Concordia University School of Law Private $30,343 $0 -100.0%
Indiana Valparaiso University Private $41,522 $0 -100.0%
Kansas University of Kansas Public Res. $21,996 $0 -100.0%
Michigan Cooley Private $51,370 $0 -100.0%
Missouri University of Missouri (Kansas City) Public Res. $19,040 $0 -100.0%
Nebraska University of Nebraska Public Res. $15,645 $0 -100.0%
New York Brooklyn Private $50,706 $0 -100.0%
Oklahoma University of Oklahoma Public Res. $20,903 $0 -100.0%
Pennsylvania Drexel University Private $44,340 $0 -100.0%
Texas University of Houston Public Res. $31,021 $0 -100.0%
Delaware Widener University (Delaware) Private $48,920 $60 -99.9%
Pennsylvania Widener University (Commonwealth) Private $44,548 $60 -99.9%
Kansas Washburn University Public Res. $21,588 $35 -99.8%
Illinois John Marshall (Chicago) Private $48,600 $275 -99.4%
Ohio University of Dayton Private $33,739 $209 -99.4%
Indiana Indiana Unversity (Indianapolis) Public Res. $28,631 $547 -98.1%
Missouri University of Missouri (Columbia) Public Res. $21,407 $894 -95.8%
Illinois University of Chicago Private $62,865 $21,766 -65.4%
Texas Baylor University Private $60,050 $20,807 -65.4%
Ohio University of Akron Public Res. $24,214 $11,323 -53.2%
Puerto Rico Pontifical Catholic University of PR Private $16,418 $7,869 -52.1%
Hawaii University of Hawaii Public Res. $23,142 $11,196 -51.6%
Florida Florida A&M University Public Res. $14,132 $6,838 -51.6%
Minnesota University of Minnesota Public Res. $44,066 $21,420 -51.4%
Kentucky University of Louisville Public Res. $21,392 $10,598 -50.5%
Ohio Cleveland State University Public Res. $27,360 $13,605 -50.3%
California UC Los Angeles Public Res. $45,657 $22,800 -50.1%
California UC Davis Public Res. $47,763 $23,861 -50.0%
California Western State College Private $43,350 $21,675 -50.0%
Georgia Georgia State University Public Res. $17,050 $8,525 -50.0%
Maine University of Maine Public Res. $23,640 $11,820 -50.0%
Ohio University of Cincinnati Public Res. $24,010 $12,005 -50.0%
Oklahoma University of Tulsa Private $25,254 $12,627 -50.0%
Texas Texas Southern University Public Res. $20,418 $10,209 -50.0%
Tennessee University of Memphis Public Res. $19,197 $9,599 -50.0%
Illinois Northern Illinois University Public Res. $22,178 $11,090 -50.0%
Virginia George Mason University Public Res. $25,351 $12,677 -50.0%
New Hampshire University of New Hampshire Public Res. $37,401 $18,703 -50.0%
Illinois University of Illinois Public Res. $38,098 $19,059 -50.0%
Florida Florida State University Public Res. $20,683 $10,347 -50.0%
Georgia University of Georgia Public Res. $19,696 $9,854 -50.0%
Nevada University of Nevada Public Res. $26,973 $13,511 -49.9%
Tennessee University of Tennessee Public Res. $19,638 $9,837 -49.9%
Vermont Vermont Law School Private $47,998 $24,127 -49.7%
North Carolina Wake Forest University Private $45,110 $22,680 -49.7%
Louisiana Loyola University New Orleans Private $44,330 $22,290 -49.7%
Oklahoma Oklahoma City University Private $35,340 $17,815 -49.6%
Alabama Univeristy of Alabama Public Res. $23,720 $11,960 -49.6%
Kentucky University of Kentucky Public Res. $23,783 $12,023 -49.4%
North Carolina North Carolina Central University Public Res. $18,533 $9,369 -49.4%
Illinois Loyola University Chicago Private $48,406 $24,481 -49.4%
North Carolina University of North Carolina Public Res. $23,889 $12,086 -49.4%
Florida Ave Maria Private $41,706 $21,103 -49.4%
Virginia Regent University Private $36,140 $18,310 -49.3%
California University of San Francisco Private $49,130 $24,910 -49.3%
South Carolina Charleston Law School Private $41,548 $21,067 -49.3%
New Mexico University of New Mexico Public Res. $17,147 $8,699 -49.3%
Minnesota Mitchell|Hamline Private $42,816 $21,730 -49.2%
District of Columbia Howard University Private $33,630 $17,097 -49.2%
Illinois Illinois Institute of Technology Private $46,822 $23,822 -49.1%
Michigan Michigan State University Private $43,400 $22,100 -49.1%
Ohio Ohio State Universtity Public Res. $30,264 $15,424 -49.0%
Illinois DePaul University Private $47,230 $24,083 -49.0%
New York Touro College Private $48,830 $24,900 -49.0%
Texas University of Texas Public Res. $35,015 $17,857 -49.0%
New York Cardozo Private $58,764 $29,970 -49.0%
Virginia Washington and Lee University Private $48,375 $24,678 -49.0%
Tennessee Belmont University Private $43,480 $22,235 -48.9%
Massachusetts Suffolk University Private $46,932 $24,045 -48.8%
South Carolina University of South Carolina Public Res. $28,858 $14,804 -48.7%
Missouri Saint Louis University Private $41,025 $21,077 -48.6%
Ohio Case Western Reserve University Private $50,666 $26,035 -48.6%
Maryland University of Baltimore Public Res. $31,084 $15,977 -48.6%
Texas South Texas-Houston Private $31,500 $16,200 -48.6%
Texas Southern Methodist University Private $52,586 $27,047 -48.6%
California Pepperdine University Private $54,260 $27,915 -48.6%
Michigan Wayne State University Public Res. $31,956 $16,441 -48.6%
New York Syracuse University Private $49,966 $25,711 -48.5%
New York Hofstra University Private $57,510 $29,607 -48.5%
Pennsylvania Villanova University Private $45,195 $23,268 -48.5%
Minnesota University of St. Thomas Private $40,247 $20,721 -48.5%
New York City University of New York Public Res. $15,113 $7,782 -48.5%
Wisconsin Marquette University Private $44,830 $23,085 -48.5%
New York Albany Law School Private $46,072 $23,725 -48.5%
Utah Brigham Young University Private $25,360 $18,506 -48.5%
Massachusetts Northeastern University Private $49,224 $25,350 -48.5%
Oregon Lewis & Clark College Private $45,020 $23,185 -48.5%
Texas St. Mary’s University Private $36,310 $18,705 -48.5%
North Carolina Campbell University Private $39,900 $20,565 -48.5%
California Golden Gate University Private $48,500 $25,000 -48.5%
Alabama Faulkner University Private $38,000 $19,592 -48.4%
Massachusetts New England Law | Boston Private $47,992 $24,744 -48.4%
Virginia College of William & Mary Public Res. $32,964 $17,000 -48.4%
New Jersey Rutgers University Public Res. $27,492 $14,179 -48.4%
Connecticut University of Connecticut Public Res. $29,410 $15,169 -48.4%
Georgia John Marshall (Atlanta) Private $42,628 $21,993 -48.4%
California University of the Pacific Private $49,720 $25,656 -48.4%
Iowa University of Iowa Public Res. $26,456 $13,671 -48.3%
Washington Seattle University Private $45,054 $23,293 -48.3%
District of Columbia American University Private $54,832 $28,362 -48.3%
Massachusetts Boston University Private $53,236 $27,538 -48.3%
New York St. John’s University Private $57,480 $29,740 -48.3%
Massachusetts Harvard Private $62,792 $32,489 -48.3%
Nebraska Creighton University Private $38,744 $20,048 -48.3%
District of Columbia Catholic University of America Private $49,800 $25,780 -48.2%
Florida University of Miami Private $50,578 $26,195 -48.2%
Massachusetts Boston College Private $52,850 $27,375 -48.2%
Georgia Emory University Private $55,336 $28,674 -48.2%
Louisiana Tulane University Private $54,568 $28,286 -48.2%
Illinois Southern Illinois University Public Res. $21,754 $11,282 -48.1%
Illinois Northwestern University Private $62,084 $32,201 -48.1%
New York Fordham University Private $58,196 $30,203 -48.1%
California Loyola Law School Private $55,110 $28,615 -48.1%
Pennsylvania University of Pennsylvania Private $63,364 $32,902 -48.1%
District of Columbia George Washington University Private $58,520 $30,395 -48.1%
Pennsylvania Penn State University (Dickinson) Public Res. $48,686 $25,291 -48.1%
Pennsylvania Penn State University (Penn State Law) Public Res. $49,070 $25,492 -48.0%
Colorado University of Denver Private $49,022 $25,471 -48.0%
California University of La Verne Private $30,024 $15,604 -48.0%
North Carolina Duke University Private $62,247 $32,361 -48.0%
Oregon Willamette University Private $42,680 $22,190 -48.0%
Ohio Ohio Northern University Private $28,010 $14,580 -47.9%
Mississippi University of Mississippi Public Res. $15,882 $8,275 -47.9%
Tennessee Lincoln Memorial University Private $35,340 $18,420 -47.9%
Michigan University of Michigan Public Res. $57,262 $29,881 -47.8%
Oregon University of Oregon Public Res. $33,922 $17,709 -47.8%
Florida Barry University Private $35,845 $18,715 -47.8%
Alabama Samford University Private $38,448 $20,075 -47.8%
Indiana Indiana University (Bloomington) Public Res. $34,073 $17,794 -47.8%
Massachusetts Massachusetts-Dartmouth Public Res. $27,291 $14,263 -47.7%
Wisconsin University of Wisconsin Public Res. $22,496 $11,759 -47.7%
Florida St. Thomas University Private $40,282 $21,095 -47.6%
Pennsylvania Duquesne University Private $42,844 $22,472 -47.5%
Michigan University of Detroit Private $42,140 $22,110 -47.5%
Kentucky Northern Kentucky University Public Res. $19,370 $10,166 -47.5%
West Virginia West Virginia University Public Res. $22,878 $12,042 -47.4%
Ohio Capital University Private $36,112 $19,145 -47.0%
Idaho University of Idaho Public Res. $19,748 $10,493 -46.9%
Utah University of Utah Public Res. $26,641 $14,177 -46.8%
South Dakota University of South Dakota Public Res. $15,668 $8,472 -45.9%
Texas Texas A&M University Public Res. $28,504 $15,500 -45.6%
Ohio University of Toledo Public Res. $20,004 $10,948 -45.3%
Virginia Appalachian Private $31,700 $17,750 -44.0%
Texas Texas Tech University Public Res. $22,996 $13,420 -41.6%
North Carolina Elon University Private $36,667 $22,275 -39.3%
Florida University of Florida Public Res. $22,299 $21,803 -2.2%
Colorado University of Colorado Public Res. $31,989 $31,898 -0.3%
Florida Florida Coastal Private $46,171 $46,068 -0.2%
California UC Irvine Public Res. $45,155 $45,099 -0.1%
California UC Berkeley Public Res. $49,364 $49,325 -0.1%
Arizona Univeristy of Arizona Public Res. $25,826 $25,826 0.0%
California UC Hastings Public Res. $44,326 $44,326 0.0%
California Thomas Jefferson Private $49,500 $49,500 0.0%
Wyoming University of Wyoming Public Res. $16,350 $16,350 0.0%
Mississippi Mississippi College Private $35,500 $35,510 0.0%
New York SUNY Buffalo Public Res. $28,016 $28,075 0.2%
Puerto Rico Interamerican University of PR Private $16,603 $16,645 0.3%
Arizona Arizona State University Public Res. $27,388 $27,584 0.7%
Connecticut Quinnipiac University Private $48,805 $49,540 1.5%
New Jersey Seton Hall University Private $53,046 $54,090 2.0%
Georgia Mercer University Private $37,962 $38,716 2.0%
California Chapman University Private $52,086 $53,124 2.0%
New York New York Law School Private $50,718 $51,732 2.0%
Iowa Drake University Private $40,612 $41,512 2.2%
Pennsylvania University of Pittsburgh Public Res. $34,008 $34,834 2.4%
Louisiana Louisiana State University Public Res. $23,083 $23,660 2.5%
District of Columbia University of D.C. Public Res. $12,516 $12,838 2.6%
Florida Stetson University Private $42,646 $43,880 2.9%
New York Pace University Private $47,210 $48,614 3.0%
Virginia Liberty University Private $35,782 $36,862 3.0%
Massachusetts Western New England University Private $40,954 $42,218 3.1%
California University of San Diego Private $52,571 $54,280 3.3%
Connecticut Yale Private $62,170 $64,267 3.4%
Florida Nova Southeastern University Private $39,830 $41,200 3.4%
New York Columbia University Private $67,564 $69,916 3.5%
New York Cornell Private $63,327 $65,541 3.5%
California University of Southern California Private $62,711 $64,908 3.5%
California California Western Private $50,670 $52,470 3.6%
Maryland University of Maryland Public Res. $32,492 $33,651 3.6%
Missouri Washington University Private $55,423 $57,445 3.6%
Indiana Notre Dame Private $56,292 $58,358 3.7%
New York New York University Private $63,986 $66,422 3.8%
Pennsylvania Temple University Public Res. $26,103 $27,103 3.8%
Virginia University of Richmond Private $43,000 $44,700 4.0%
District of Columbia Georgetown Private $59,850 $62,244 4.0%
Texas North Texas-Dallas Public Res. $8,748 $9,107 4.1%
Virginia University of Virginia Public Res. $58,300 $60,700 4.1%
Louisiana Southern University Law Center Public Res. $15,802 $16,490 4.4%
California Southwestern University Private $51,890 $54,166 4.4%
Tennessee Vanderbilt University Private $55,083 $57,558 4.5%
Washington University of Washington Public Res. $34,311 $35,988 4.9%
Montana University of Montana Public Res. $12,562 $13,177 4.9%
Washington Gonzaga University Private $38,715 $40,665 5.0%
Rhode Island Roger Williams University Private $34,833 $36,815 5.7%
Puerto Rico University of Puerto Rico Public Res. $7,383 $7,852 6.4%
North Dakota University of North Dakota Public Res. $12,232 $13,023 6.5%

Ugh. Disgusting. Makes me feel bad for the schools that clearly did everything right, like they’re supposed to each year. [Commented retracted for meanness. Apologies to the 128 law schools that correctly reported semester tuition, raspberries to the rest and the ABA for not ensuring consistency.]

Information on this topic from prior years:

2018: Total Applications Up, But Only for the Top Half

By October 2018, there were 37,052 enrollees at 200 ABA-accredited law schools not in Puerto Rico. This is up 1,290 (+7.9 percent) from 35,762 in October 2017. (Last year, the initial reporting had 35,381 enrollees, so there’s been significant upward revision.) This year marks the first “clean” comparison between two enrollment cycles because the ABA adopted the October-October standard last year. In 2018, one law school, Valparaiso, dropped to zero enrollees. It had 28 last year. Miraculously, Arizona Summit submitted a report. It had 65 applicants and 17 enrollees (49 last year). Thus, neither of these law schools hampered the upward trend in enrollments much.

Moving on to applications…

Predictably, with more applicants acceptance rates are lower this year. The median law school accepted just less than half of everyone who applied.

Applicants showed more interest in some law schools than others this year. The Gini coefficient for applications among all 200 of these law schools is now 0.442, which is 1.4 points higher than last year (0.427). By contrast, back in 2011 it was only 0.357. (You can read about what that means here.)

Some of this increased application inequality is even visible in my modified Lorenz curve, a measure that typically measures the cumulative distribution of a quantity in order from the recipient of the smallest amount to the largest. Usually researchers use the distribution of income among households. I’ve modified the Lorenz curve according to the U.S. News and World Report rankings for the previous year because the rankings are an independent measurement of law-school eliteness as seen by LSAT takers and applicants roughly at the time that they apply. Here is what I could cobble together going back to 2011.

Last year, I asked, “Will unheralded law schools benefit from the bump, or will our idealists apply strategically to top law schools?” The answer appears to be no followed by a yes. The U.S. News rankings can be quite volatile further down, but not so much between chunks of 50, at least for this year. It appears that the average top-50 law school received 14 percent more applications than in the 2017 October cycle. The next 50 reaped a 12.7 percent increase, but the remaining saw almost no benefit of the Trump bump on average. In short, for law schools below 100 it’s business as usual, i.e. slow.

That’s all.

Information on this topic from prior years:

Last Gen X American Book Review: Consider Phlebas

In the not-too-distant future

The 22nd century


The Culture made first contact

Now we live in post scarcity


But in the time of Kublai Kahn

A galactic war was going on

A Changer chose to fight

Alongside giant lizards and that’s not alright


Incidentally, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 theme has a very difficult meter.

Among my vices is only making time to read fiction on vacations, so on my recent holiday to New Mexico I chose to read Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas, the first part of his “Culture” series.

My motivation was a conversation I had with a reader about whether Star Trek was a post-scarcity universe, a topic I discussed here. I said that it’s interesting that the Enterprise crew never bumps into an even bigger, more advanced Federation that absorbs them, to which he laughed, “Yes, they never run into the Culture.” So, I decided to read up on it.

Naively, I figured that Banks’ first novel was the best place to start as usually the first work in a series is the best. After reading Consider Phlebas and perusing some reviews and recommendations I realize that may’ve been a mistake because the book disappointed my expectations. To quantify it, I give Phlebas two out of four stars, though I admit that I’m not very versed in science-fiction literature to confidently assert that I didn’t miss any tropes that would raise my rating. (I’ll discuss the significance of the book’s title later.) Anyway, this review will contain spoilers, though the book was published in 1987, so really, this one won’t be water-cooler discussion anytime soon. (Although, I hear rumors that it will be made into a TV series or a movie soon, whatever.)

Plot Synopsis

The Culture is at war with the religiously fanatical Idirans, a race of giant, immortal, tri-pedal lizard monsters. Phlebas‘ protagonist Bora Horza Gobuchul (Horza), is a Changer, a humanoid shapeshifter, who is spying for the Idirans. They order him to recover a Culture “Mind” (sentient supercomputer) that crashed on a planet (Schar’s World) that a Trek-like energy-being race closed to all outsiders, except fortuitously for Changers like Horza. Schar’s World is a monument to its inhabitants, who annihilated themselves in an apocalyptic nuclear and biological war thousands of years ago. The planet is mostly frozen, but one of the factions built a tunnel system to protect its senior officials ala Dr. Strangelove. Presumably this is where the Mind hid itself.

Much of the story’s bulk, 496 pages in my library’s edition, consists of Horza escaping from one set-piece deadly situation after another. Notably, he falls in with a mercenary crew, assumes the identity of its leader, Kraiklyn, after murdering him, and then pilots their ship, the Clear Air Turbulence, to Schar’s World, taking his captured Culture foil, agent Perosteck Balveda, with him. He searches for the Mind in the tunnels, but a group of his comrade Idirans, who have no reason to trust him, beats him there. After believing he’s subdued the last two of them, they run amok, killing everyone but Balveda.


Let’s start with our protagonist Horza. His motivation for opposing the Culture, even if it means allying with xenophobic lizard monsters, is at least coherent. In his eyes, the Culture ruins everyone with machine-provided goods. It’s not an obvious mistake of fact on his part (certainly given what we know he knows), so it’s hard to view him as a tragic figure.

And if we’re talking about tragic figures, then we need to discuss Horza’s arc. If there is one, it’s not executed particularly well, or if I’m being chartable it isn’t executed conventionally. The first 308 pages of Phlebas are just a yarn of Horza’s adventures, backloading the only opportunity for character development to the 188 pages that take place on Schar’s World. (Credit to Banks for making the first 308 pages feel so much more epic than the remainder, I guess.)

At best Horza’s is a negative character arc of the “fall” variety. He wrongly believes the Culture is hollow and weak. He’s given the opportunities to see the truth of its resilience, but he nevertheless blindly marches forward to his doom. I’m not persuaded but I’ll give it its best case: Upon arriving on Schar’s World, Horza learns that the Idirans who preceded him killed his fellow Changers guarding the tunnels, including one who was his lover. Rather than take this as a clue that the Idirans are ruthless murderers (to say nothing of the fact that they would’ve killed him too had he not left to join the war), and even predicting that these Idirans wouldn’t believe that he’s on their side, he continues with his mission for them, blinded by his resentment towards the Culture. Later on, he catches up with them, loses two of his crew fighting them, and nevertheless chooses not to kill the one that is his prisoner, hoping to shame it later instead.

Those really are Horza’s only chances to avoid his fall because Phlebas then turns to outrageous bad luck and idiot plotting to thwart him. It just so happens that the one mutilated, mortally wounded Idiran Horza thought was dead wasn’t. It just so happens that it was able to start a train in the tunnels to slam into the one Horza and his crew happened to be working on—and where the errant Mind hid. It just so happens that it knew where to send it. It just so happens that the one computer screen in the station that monitored the train was broken, so Horza couldn’t learn what was happening.

At the same time, Horza spares the other Idiran, who plays dead and then attacks Horza’s crew, damaging crucial equipment. He even loosens its bonds at its request, and then it manages to escape by fooling the crewmember assigned to guard it by asking him—and get this—to scratch an itch in its right eye.

Wow that’s dumb. A rational Horza, even if he valued completing the mission for the Idirans over reassessing his allegiance to them, would’ve utterly destroyed both Idirans, and he would’ve probably schemed to kill Balveda, his other prisoner, knowing she couldn’t be trusted and had an ace up her sleeve, in this case a false tooth that could transform into a laser gun. Culture technology, ftw.

Okay, this may be idiosyncratic to me, but probably nothing breaks my immersion in a story more than idiot plotting. By the time I was working through this section of the book, I was throwing my head back muttering, “Oh, come on! Really??” It probably annoyed the airplane passengers around me.

If Horza had destroyed just one of the two Idirans, he would’ve had a chance at survival, if not success.

Returning to the discussion of Horza’s as a fall arc, I just don’t think there’s enough meat in it because the Culture’s ideology isn’t portrayed as the truth and he isn’t given enough opportunities to see it. One could instead turn to the subtle thematic aspects of Phlebas as an explanation of Horza’s character, either as a Changer becoming what he changes into or a meditation on leadership. Specifically, the Clear Air Turbulence‘s captain, Kraiklyn, never makes a good decision in the narrative, promising “easy in, easy out” missions that end up fruitlessly killing crewmembers. Sometimes this isn’t wholly his fault, but you can tell his star is falling. Horza, by morphing into Kraiklyn, essentially becomes him as well, condemning all who follow him to their deaths.

Meanwhile, at the other extreme we have the Culture, which is an ungoverened, leaderless society that is essentially run by a collection of Minds that in Horza’s estimation will eventually wipe out its useless human wards. In this tale, the humans who’ve abrogated their leadership to machines come out on top of wild-west libertarians who can chart their own destinies. Again, I don’t think there’s enough here to say “leadership” is the focus of the book.

Moving on, in stories with body counts as high as Phelbas, I wonder if the author simply has it in for his characters. Even our humanoid survivor, Balveda, ends up “autoeuthanizing” in the appendices on account of her experience on Schar’s World, and when one of the Clear Air Turbulence‘s crewmembers, Horza’s new lover Yalson, tells him she’s pregnant by him, I knew that one or both of them was dead. The detail plays no role in the story (tellingly, Yalson doesn’t even make the cut for my above plot synopsis) other than to increase the tension and manipulate the reader into wanting the characters to live. (By the way, the competent, non-ideological, furry Yalson is the only character in the book I had any hopes for, not that she was better developed than anyone else.)

I do sense some authorial sarcasm at the deaths of the characters in Phlebas, or at least some of them, and that’s problematic. But the answer is no, I don’t think Banks is throughout a juvenile sadistically chuckling at all the mayhem he can cause with the written word, and while I haven’t read the title’s namesake, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, a little DuckDuckGoing tells us that in that poem Phlebas the Phoenician’s death by drowning is meant to remind us of our own mortality. This makes the book’s themes death, futility, and failure—especially on Schar’s World. Thus, I think there is a point to the violence.

Does it successfully deliver on these themes?

Yes, if you don’t mind its tasting bitter. Futility is a challenging theme to depict because it’s hard to care about characters whose actions will lead nowhere. Moreover, Phlebas‘ episodic structure until Schar’s World doesn’t create a stable set of characters to invest in. Had Banks fully developed Horza, I think he could’ve brought out these themes better. Another hurdle is the book’s length. I hold longer texts to higher scrutiny than shorter ones, and a long book about failure, death, and futility demands a lot of the reader’s energy just to say there wasn’t a point after all.

Good Bits?

Okay, I didn’t put the book down, so it can’t be that bad, but certainly by the time Horza found himself captured by a grotesque, obese, cannibal cult leader, I began wondering. But what can I say? Phlebas is a romp. It delivers Han Solo’s world with the crew from Alien. It’s entertaining, and while I’m sure the tropes of giant orbital habitats and spaceships are nothing new to science fiction, Banks serves them well. His galaxy is detailed, and he subtly takes on themes such as how sentient supercomputers would go about stochastically conducting a war, human nature in a post-scarcity society, and whether one person can make a difference in a cosmic war. Even the info dumps, though noticeable, weren’t clunky. I can’t say the book is bad if it’s still on my mind.

Again, I’m not that well read, but Phlebas‘ structure owes a debt to Dune, where the book’s narrative merely dramatizes the richer substance in its appendices. I may’ve cheated by reading them one third of the way into the narrative, but you learn that for all the destruction the Culture-Idiran war caused, it was a blip compared to the galaxy. In fact, my MST3K parody is based mostly on the appendices, not the story itself. So attention to them is warranted.

In the end, though, I gather that there are better books in Banks’ Culture series, notably Look to Windward (also based on that section of The Waste Land). I don’t know when my next vacation is, but I may double-down on the Culture series to see if I like it more.

My hope, though, is that someone comes up with Trek‘s final frontier when the Enterprise runs into not another species that challenges its values, like the Borg or the Dominion, but into something that embraces them all the more so as the Culture does.

Conclusion: Is Phlebas Fit for the Screen?

As written, decidedly not. True, the cliffhangers and eye candy can make for a good streaming series, but the characters are insufficient to create a good drama. I think audiences would be bewildered by the violence and darkness throughout Phlebas only to find that the point was that there was no point to what anyone was doing. A movie might work better, but as with Dune it’s hard to dramatize crucial material appearing in the appendices, and a lot of the story would have to be cut out. I think the same of the book itself, so that shouldn’t be too much trouble for the thoughtful screenwriter. I think the temptation (or producer interference) to tease out a happy ending would probably prove too great to overcome and would damage the story. I could see Phlebas still working if more characters survived Schar’s World, but I don’t see it helping the story if Horza’s beliefs and choices don’t matter more to the plot.