The galaxy is at war. Horza, a shape-changing spy captured during an attempted infiltration, is rescued by his Idiran masters for a mission only he can complete: to return to a Planet of the Dead where he once served as a steward and retrieve a downed enemy AI. Now he just needs to find a ship, cross a war zone, and convinced the godlike alien who guards Schar’s World that it’s happy he’s back…
In spite of being the first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas is set outside Culture space and focused on a man who has been raised in enemy space and is bitterly (if not entirely rationally) opposed to everything they stand for. An outsider view is always a great way to build a world (or a galaxy), but with the exception of Inversions it makes this the least Culture novel of the lot. It’s also a Marmite read: I loved its dark cynicism from first reading, but many people bounce off it hard, finding it frustrating and bleak. It is – but it’s also clever, opinionated and full of heart-stopping action set pieces.
Banks is showing off from the very start: I love the craft of the opening chapter, introducing us without explanation or apology to a future time, place and war – and immediately dismantling it (‘Got that guys? Good, I’m blowing it up.’) This captures the rest of the book in a microcosm: our protagonist travels through a spectacular parade of worlds, gets plunged into a bad situation and then has to extract himself as things rapidly get out of control (and frequently blown up. BOOM). As the action takes its toll, Horza slowly unravels, the calm, collected agent provocateur becoming a desperate man on a mission that grows ever more personal. I find his journey compelling, but those expecting a story of a hedonistic post-scarcity society ruled by benevolent AI can be forgiven for wondering what the hell is going on.
Horza fights his way onto a mercenary ship and is constrained by the arrogance and paranoia of its captain to accompany them on a series of flawed missions. The contrast between Horza and his crucial mission and Kraiklyn with his poorly-executed piracy (although his crew’s poor decision making isn’t entirely his fault) and his determination to take part in the demented, barbaric game of Damage couldn’t be sharper: one is calm, capable, and driven by a higher purpose (worth noting that this doesn’t make him remotely likeable; although I think this is true of most Culture novels – Banks wasn’t big on sympathetic protagonists). The other is a self-absorbed sexist nutter.
On the other hand, the nutter’s bad leadership is the excuse for jaw-dropping world-building and a series of action sequences that are both thrilling and horrifying. The assault on the Temple of Light and the attempt to salvage the Mega-Ship on Vavatch Orbital seems designed to establish relationships and illustrate that most of our crew aren’t as competent as they think they are; but they’re also an excuse for big, bold, bloody carnage. And then you meet the Eaters.
I had managed to wipe that unpleasant interlude from my mind completely, and actually found it difficult to read. It made no sense to me – a primitive tribe living on an artificial ringworld simply doesn’t follow – until I realised that they were a newly-emerged cult. I’ll be honest though – it still doesn’t really work for me (quite apart from being unpleasant and squicky). My suspension of disbelief breaks down at the point where I consider abandoning a comfortable future to follow a cannibal prophet and eat waste.
Even taking Consider Phlebas alone (it’s a theme that recurs in later Culture novels in particular), it’s clear Banks had strong views on religion. While Horza may hate the Culture, it’s pretty obvious that the liberal atheists are meant to be the reasonable actors in the war rather than the Idirans (who conquer and destroy in service to their religion) . The Eaters are another perspective on – or satirical swipe at – religion and the damn strange choices people make in the name of faith. It’s heavy-handed, but the action soon moves past them to the amoral Game of Damage and some more really big explosions.
I’ll keep it vague – but read no further if you want to be completely ignorant of how things turn out.
Having committed murder and dragged the mercenaries to a world under interdict to further a cause they don’t support, Horza’s position feels increasingly tenuous as we enter the final act. And then our cold-hearted bastard recognises that he has something to lose after all and the wheels come off.
Passion obscures duty as his loyalties come under pressure, leading to some terrible decision-making. On the one hand, it’s ironic to see Horza brought low by a bad case of feelings. It feels like good old-fashioned Tragedy with a capital T. On the other – and perhaps this was me rereading with the benefit of foreknowledge – it felt out of character, a slightly jarring case of authorial hand. After all his outrageously competent exploits, rugged determination and cool-headed logic, Horza ties up his resources and puts his team – and his mission – at risk in service to an abstract concept he’s never previously shown lip service to (justice).
Consequently, I don’t find the ending as satisfying now as I did on first reading; but I don’t recall this striking me so hard previously. Whether I now read more closely or whether familiarity provides space for criticism is an open question (I think the answer is almost certainly ‘both’).
Nonetheless, it’s a minor gripe. I have a real soft spot for Consider Phlebas. Rereading it was like a night out with a friend I’ve not seen in years. I like the way it blends high octane set pieces with acerbic commentary on belief systems (political and religious), hypocrisy and the influence of an individual over big events. Fiction teaches us that a hero will change the course of history. The harsh truth is that the actions of a single agent (Jedi notwithstanding) are likely to vanish without a trace. So Banks doesn’t deal in big gorram heroes – when his protagonists do make a difference, it’s usually at a smaller scale, and they’re far from heroic.
I like this little thread of unapologetic realism shoe-horned into what is otherwise a festival of imagination.
Is it the perfect introduction to the Culture? Possibly not – but it allows us to sidle up to it, giving us a mere hint of what this free-form, lackadaisical society is like. Each subsequent novel goes a step further, bringing us closer to the truth and consequences of its policies and interventions, leaving us to decide whether Horza was right all along.