In the not-too-distant future
The 22nd century
(LA LA LA)
The Culture made first contact
Now we live in post scarcity
(LA LA LA)
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.)
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.
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.
I’ve read about half of Banks’ Culture novels at this point. I would’ve told you to start with his second, Player of Games. It’s about 30K words shorter, it’s a better intro to Cultural values, and it’s got a much stronger plot. Your readers may also enjoy the more recent Neptune’s Brood, by Charles Stross. Shortlisted for the Hugo in 2014, it’s a space adventure involving interstellar banking within a relativistic framework. Naturally there are space pirates.
I agree with you on the strengths & weaknesses of Phlebas. It’s episodic for the first two thirds, but those set-pieces are more fun than either Horza’s arc or the action-packed climax. That finale is also a set-piece but it’s just not as good as, say, the noirish murder by the space docks, or the opening bit, a parody of space adventure that presents our secret agent as a heroic rogue. His arc, whose execution is the novel’s biggest flaw, is to realize he’s fighting for the wrong side. The reader’s arc, also unclear, is to realize that Horza is a dubious antihero at best, a turncoat by his very nature.
(In 1987 the reader would’ve traced another arc. You’ll recall the Cold War vogue for communist dystopias run by dispassionate computers. So the first readers of Phlebas would’ve made a false assumption. They’re fooled by the Culture’s identity, as they were by Horza’s intro as a roguish space agent. The readers would’ve shared Horza’s dawning awareness that the Culture are the good guys in this space opera.)
In some ways the entire novel feels like a prologue to the appendix, the book’s real matter. The context that appendix provides, and your reading of the novel’s themes, together make Phlebas a takedown of conventional space opera. If Banks’ ironic & mordant view of war seems characteristically English, that may be the deep effects of WW1 on the British character.
Personally I’m a sucker for exposition disguised as reference material & other diagetic formats (e.g. excerpts from Encyclopedia Galactica). Your comparison to Dune is also apt; you’ll enjoy this piece, which Banks posted on an art.recs group in ’94:
Its style reminds me of Hitchhiker’s Guide, which suggests how influential Adams was on Banks & other British space operateurs. The absurdity of the novel’s action, in the sense of its pointlessness in the grander scope, is also very Douglas Adams. But Banks counters that absurdity at last when the rescued Mind names itself for Horza.
Thanks for posting, Aaron Grunfeld. I’m not familiar with the “Cold War vogue for communist dystopias run by dispassionate computers,” which would’ve enhanced my understanding of Phlebas. I guess as a reader, I wasn’t fooled by the Culture’s identity as it was essentially spoiled to me by time, and, as I said, I skipped ahead to the appendices figuring that they’d be a lot like Dune‘s. Also, the “state of play” interludes that take place on the Culture’s side rather than the Idirans’ made it clear to me that the Culture is “what the book was about.”
Interestingly, Charles Stross’ The Family Trade (first in the Merchant Princes series) was my runner-up vacation book. I’m aware Paul Krugman adores that series. However, some folks posting on the library’s Web site said that there were some clear plot holes in that, so I went with Phlebas instead.
I look forward to reading that Banks link when I get the time.
I also would have suggested starting with “The Player of Games,” although I did read “Consider Phlebas” first. I haven’t managed to make it through any other of the Culture novels.
Another post-scarcity space opera series is Peter F. Hamilton’s “Commonwealth” series, which starts with “Pandora’s Star,” and has six additional books (one direct sequel, and then a trilogy, and then another pair). It also deals with the societal impact of technological immortality with implanted digital devices that store memories and consciousness and allow “re-lifing” when a person suffers body-loss. (It’s more or less identical to the cortical stacks featured in Richard K. Morgan’s “Altered Carbon” works.)
Thanks for the recommendations, Tung Yin.