In my introductory essay on Iain Banks and the Culture, Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity, I mention that he approached fiction with a certain kind of duality, representing and considering ideologies and viewpoints antagonistic with one another. In Consider Phlebas, his first published novel in the series, he takes this to an extreme, showing us the Culture almost entirely from an antagonistic point of view before giving readers a glimpse of the positives. It went way over my head the first time I read it. I think I didn’t know how to read it exactly, or even what it was. Only after moving on to The Player of Games and finishing it, did Consider Phlebas start to take form and make a measure of sense to me. It’s not without its problems, but what it does well, it does very well and I have to commend it. Iain Banks is an incredibly nuanced, subtle writer, and he accomplished something unique with Consider Phlebas.
The narrative begins with a short prologue detailing the birth, escape, and subsequent pursuit of a Culture Mind in a rare time of war, followed by a particularly grim introduction to our protagonist, Bora Horza Gobuchul, in which he is slowly drowning in a prison cell via sewage and waste created as a result of a banquet held in his “honor”. It’s a startling introduction, and when I think back on the series as a whole, one of its most striking moments.
After that introduction the story appears to be a fairly standard space opera, populated with the familiar tropes of the genre: a cast of bizarre aliens, strange locales, and a lone protagonist with an overly simplistic moral code fighting for their life through a series of perilous adventures. However, when Banks is involved, things are never that simple, especially with regards to genre tropes. Under this familiar surface, Consider Phlebas is a much more nuanced story. The narrative is structured somewhat like a sixteenth century Spanish picaresque novel, a form of episodic storytelling in which a “picaroon” (rogue or untrustworthy anti-hero) rambles from place to place, stumbling into situations that are ultimately used to satirize the society in which he lives. By combining the form of picaresque with the notoriously conservative, highly American genre of space opera, Banks carved out a niche to comment on space opera and politics. When it was published in 1987, Consider Phlebas is arguably the spark that initiated the New Space Opera fire, effectively reinventing a long stagnant genre and taking it in a more literary minded, left leaning, progressive direction. Writers like Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, and Peter F. Hamilton continued the change forward from there. There have been several others over the years, but most recently progressive American writers like John Scalzi, James S.A. Corey, and Becky Chambers have helped keep New Space Opera going well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, alongside the British writers that continue in that tradition.
Historically, space opera has been a simplistic genre. In fact, before being adopted by publishers and fans, the term “space opera” was used pejoratively to describe the simplicity of the drama. Think: soap opera. Space opera protagonists usually travel around correcting wrongs and promoting an idealized version of American morality, while their views and opinions were confirmed for the reader. In Consider Phlebas, Banks contrasts this by having Horza fight alongside the objectively-in-the-wrong Idirans, as they wage a crusade-esqe holy war against the Culture, a post-scarcity, multi species, utopian society run by artificially intelligent machines known as Minds. The Culture are arguable the “good guys”. For the most part the Culture keeps to themselves and does whatever they want, but Contact division, and within it “Special Circumstances” goes around interfering with other societies, nudging them here and there in an effort to slowly bring them alongside the Culture’s way of thinking. Idirans win arguments by killing and conquering the opposition, the Culture wins them by showing its opposition why its views are correct so effectively, they can’t help but adopt them as their own. Horza despises the Culture, and everything they stand for. He comes from a species that is mostly extinct, possibly as a result of interference in its past. He doesn’t believe artificial intelligence is life, sees the Culture as hedonistic gluttons who take no active role in their existence, sees the Idirans as the lesser of two evils, and decides to fight on “the side of life”. The enemy of his enemy is his friend.
“Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you (319-321).”
– T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
I think Consider Phlebas operates surprising well as meta commentary on belief, hubris, and the politics of genre. There is a lot to be discovered between the lines in this book. The title itself is quoted from a line of the T.S. Elliot poem The Waste Land, which serves as a warning against hubris and a call for historical contemplation. The preceding line in the poem is also sourced for another Culture novel title, Look to Windward, which deals heavily with the far reaching impact of the Idiran/Culture war. I’ll be touching on the connection between these two novels when I write about Look to Windward in the coming months. They are possibly the most connected of any two in the series, but the threads are still tertiary. Excellent sources for these between-the-lines details are Simone Caroti’s “The Culture series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction” as well as Paul Kincaid’s “Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M. Banks”. These are books I’ll be recommending frequently. Both Caroti’s and Kincaid’s insights are numerous and have dramatically expanded my perspective on each of the Culture novels.
Consider Phlebas is a strange introduction to, and not necessarily an accurate representation of, the rest of the series. The main narrative, while entertaining, is a distraction of sorts from the more interesting story happening between the lines, where the book sneakily introduces the reader to the Culture by peripheral means. It handles a huge amount of world-building, and is multilayered and complex. It’s one thing on your first read, and something else entirely on subsequent visits. It isn’t the best Culture novel, and will usually show up on the lower end of most fan rankings.
Personally, I think it’s a fantastic entry once you know what it is and how to read it. It has some pacing problems in the second half, and a painfully uneventful, tension building ~80 pages near the end, but I think the lack of love it receives in contrast with the Culture novels it preceded is mostly a result of being almost universally misunderstood. I find that a large chunk of its value lies in what it contributes to the experience of reading the rest of the series, and I think it’s a mistake to reduce or negate its contribution.
My favorite sections of the book are the short “state of play” interlude chapters, with the character Fal ‘Ngeestra, one of the handful of Culture citizens who can occasionally match the strategic intelligence of the Minds that run the Culture. Her conversations with the drone Jase give us a nice introverted, contemplative respite from the more adventurous, swashbuckling chapters of the main narrative. Fal ‘Ngeestra holds up ideas and turns them, thinking about them from all angles. She’s able to comment on the story as it’s happening, almost like the narrator in Don Quixote or other epic picaresque novels. She serves as just a step below an omniscient point of view, and our only glimpse into the proper Culture society in the book. She speculates about the other characters, revealing exposition about the Changer race, the Idirans, and the history of the Culture itself. She’s able to see the Culture from the perspective of the Idirans, and the Idirans from Borza’s perspective. She thinks the way that Banks writes, examining ideas from multiple sides, poking holes in arguments and patching them until they’re watertight.
“We are a mongrel race, our past a history of tangles, our sources obscure, our rowdy upbringing full of greedy, short-sighted empires and cruel wasteful diasporas… “
“…We are such pathetic, fleshy things, so short lived, swarming and confused. And dull, just so stupid, to an Idiran.”
The dynamic play between these different veins of Consider Phlebas truly embody Banks’ style of storytelling, and represent the antisyzygy that underlies his writing. He knows readers want the action and adventure, and he delivers in strides, but still finds a way to bury the soul of the story on the periphery of the chaos. This is how the Culture is introduced to us, hidden in the horse, wheeled through the gate because it’s large and exciting.
All that being said, Consider Phlebas is a weird way to start a series. If you’re not feeling up for a long novel that is best, and sometimes only, appreciated through a close analysis of its themes and commentary for your first glimpse of a series, The Player of Games can genuinely serve as a better entry point. Since the Culture novels are almost entirely standalone, you can cycle back to Consider Phlebas at any point after you’ve read some others without missing anything particularly crucial. However, if you’re a patient reader, and can intentionally postpone gratification a little, it’s better to start the series here, just know that the best is still to come.
Up next: The Player of Games, my personal favorite in the series, where we’ll become intimately acquainted with life in the Culture: Orbitals, Minds, Drones, Contact, Special Circumstances, etc… and of course the empire and game of Azad.
Culture Essay Index: