I first heard heard about Iain Bank’s Consider Phlebas back in 2005, when it showed up on somebody’s list of important science fiction novels. In working my way through important science fiction works this year, I decided it was finally time to give the novel a try, even though it’s by no means a fixture in the genre: in fact, Banks is far better known in Europe than he is here, where we apparently give preference to Michael Crichton and Dan Brown. The title is a line from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: “O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.” I won’t delve into the particulars of the connections there, but there’s an excellent article to be read elsewhere.
One could attribute the staying power of Consider Phlebas, in part, to its moral ambiguity. Though the nominal protagonist is a shape-shifting humanoid alien named Bora Horza Gobuchul, the story is by and large an ensemble piece in every way that matters, and Horza (as he is generally called) is neither likable, nor particular virtuous, nor—I don’t think—particularly talented. Horza is what you might call a mercenary1, who, in media res, is saved from literally drowning in excrement by his current employers—a large, tripodal, and martial race know as the Idirans.
Consider Phlebas is the first of a series of novels dealing with The Culture, a transhuman, post-scarcity collective2 which relies heavily upon computers and Artificial Intelligence. They are the embodiment of a liberal futurist ideology: an egalitarian, socialist paradise wherein labor is undertaken by machines, technology has obliterated economies of scarcity, religious belief has ceded to pragmatism. Though not a war-seeking people, their AIs, known as Minds, are so intelligent, and their technology so incredible, that they are necessarily deadly in warcraft3.
For reasons never fully made clear, and which we may assume is mere hawkishness, the traditional and religious Idirans despise the Culture and have declared war on It, engaging in a costly and tremendously deadly galactic conflict. Horza sides with the Idirans, for reasons having to do not least with his thin sort of religiosity. Though he does not subscribe to the Idiran’s god—in fact, his own specific religious affiliations are never given—he has what we early 21st-century scholars call “belief in belief”, the idea that even a vague Something is better than Nothing. The setup, then, is positively 2010. The Idirans are modern hawkish conservatives: they have a long and proud history, are fervently religious, and quick to martial aggression. The Culture is a motley crew of far-left ideologues, believing in nothing, accomplishing very little by themselves, and willing to give up just about anything in favor of the Next Best Thing. In the middle lay a various swath of independents; Horza, despite his cynicism, can relate to the Idiran’s reverential nature. Others may lean leftward but aren’t willing to flit off to an AI-run socialist paradise.
By dint of a pitched space battle, Horza finds himself on the ship of the mercenary captain Kraiklyn, where he becomes a member of its pirate crew, forms relationships—for better or worse—with his shipmates, and ends up dashing across the galaxy in search of plunder. Along the way, he experiences what we would now consider standard science fiction tropes: he visits a ringworld straight out of a Larry Niven novel4; he visits an eccentric card game tourney; he participates in a laser battle; he pilots a ship in an escape sequence. Of a less common nature are his being stranded on an island with a cannibal cult (one of the more disturbing a grisly scenes of the book) and visiting a “Planet of the Dead”, essentially a planet cordoned off by an awesomely-powerful sublimated alien intelligence, on which hides the rogue Culture Mind Horza is tasked to retrieve.
By and large, the story fulfills its parent genres: it is a space opera through and through, with all the swashbuckling action and large-scale conflict that implies. Is there any reason, then, to think Consider Phlebas anything special? I think it fair to count the book apart from the common rabble; not insignificantly, Banks has a flair for prose that isn’t seen in a lot of science fiction, where writing style is often subverted in favor of the more mechanistic aspects of the plot. Second, the sense of moral ambivalence that Banks cultures5 is genuinely interesting, even if it also cultures an emotional detachment from the characters. Though left-wing science fiction writers are more commonplace today, Banks unabashed leftist stance also makes for interesting reading. Most of my favorite science fiction is written by unapologetic conservatives6, and it’s refreshing to read things from a different ideological bent sometimes.
Banks’ carefully-crafted sense of detachment from the characters doesn’t always work to his benefit: the book’s ending, especially, is frustrating to readers because it largely makes irrelevant the entire story that preceded it. The epilogue which follows, explaining the origins of the Culture-Idiran war and its future, neatly wraps up all the loose ends, but with the brutality of a surgeon lopping off gangrenous digits: whether main characters like Horza, or peripheral characters whose purpose was never explained, the book dispatches them with an existential insouciance. Every event which you suspected might come to pass eventually does, obliterating the mystery and tension, albeit late. This, if anything, is my problem with Consider Phlebas: we don’t come to care about anything in it, and that’s a rather major flaw for a serious space opera.
- In the manner of his race. Despite being a largely mercenary people, the Changers are considered a “mature” galactic civilization, with all that implies.[↩]
- There’s a lot to say about The Culture that wouldn’t be appropriate for a mere book review. Wikipedia, as usual, has a pretty good writeup which covers not just the information from Consider Phlebas, but from its sequels, as well.[↩]
- It seems clear to me now that fellow Scottish writer Charlie Stross’ Singularity Sky was heavily influenced by this.[↩]
- Some have criticized this borrowing, but I’m hold the common opinion that Niven’s construction is simply a part of sci-fi canon now, like lasers or warp engines.[↩]
- No pun intended.[↩]
- Dafydd ab Hugh, the author of the Doom novels, maintains an embarrassingly right-wing blog called Big Lizards; Leo Frankowski, of The Cross-Time Engineer [in]famy, was also pretty far to the right. Heinlein was a rather odd conglomeration of ideas, but I think it’s safe to call him extensively libertarian. Oddly enough, the socialist/anarchist creations of Banks or Stross aren’t radically different from Heinlein’s libertarian/anarchist ideas. But that’s another piece entirely.[↩]