Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks: Peripheral Storytelling and the Politics of Genre

Consider PhlebasIn 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.

Iain BanksHistorically, 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.

The Player of GamesAll 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:

Iain Banks’ Culture series: Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity

Consider Phlebas: Peripheral Storytelling and the Politics of Genre

Iain M. Banks’ Culture Series: Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity

The Player of GamesI often find it difficult to pick favorites, but when it comes to novelists it’s easy: Iain Banks, hands down, is my favorite. It’s hard to overstate the impact his writing has had on me, the Culture novels in particular. Reading The Player of Games rewired the way I think about class and economics. Use of Weapons forced me to confront difficult philosophical and ethical questions, both highly personal and utilitarian in scope. Its story also destroyed me emotionally for weeks, more on that to come. Inversions made me reconsider what sort of intervention policies might be most functional. Look to Windward intimately addressed mental health, PTSD, and the far reaching impact of warfare on the personal and cultural psyche of humanity.

Iain BanksThe Culture series, published from 1987 to 2012, comprises nine standalone science fiction novels, one novella, and two short stories set in a shared universe. It is often described as utopian fiction, but I find it not so easily reducible to just that. The majority of the stories take place on the periphery of The Culture’s post-scarcity, godlike AI run utopia, not in the Culture proper. But even inside that flawed paradise, things are often a little more complicated than they seem. I don’t mean that this is one of those utopias which is (dun dun duuun!) secretly a dystopia or anything narratively cliche like that. The society of the Culture is a true utopia, but the narratives in Culture novels usually deal with questions of meaning within conceptual utopia. What do you need when you lack for nothing? How do you construct purpose and value when your society is generally materialist?

“The only desire the Culture could not satisfy from within itself was one common to both the descendants of its original human stock and the machines they had (at however great a remove) brought into being: the urge not to feel useless.”

– Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas

Every Culture novel is brimming with these philosophical, ethical, moral, and existential ideas while somehow also being entertaining, heartbreaking, darkly humorous, disturbing and exquisitely written. His writing is like a virus that gets in your brain and codes for self-reproduction. It’s not too often that a fun science fiction romp might also literally change the way you think. I just cannot recommend these books enough.

Use of WeaponsI’ve written a handful of Culture reviews in the past, but I’ve been longing to reread the novels and properly write up my thoughts. Last February when Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon Studios was adapting the Culture novels for television, I thought, what the hell, it’s been a few years since I’ve read them, this is a great time to dig back in. So here I am, on the fifth anniversary of his passing, going round once more.

Over the next few (or several, or dozen, or who knows how many) months I’ll be publishing thoughts and ramblings on Iain Banks, the Culture novels and their related works. I tend to take a mostly spoiler-free approach when writing about fiction, opting instead to focus more on theme, style, prose, narrative structure, and characterization while keeping recaps to a minimum. There is no shortage of excellent recap and synopsis writing available elsewhere, but I’m much more interested in introducing these books to readers in a way that doesn’t ruin the potential enjoyment of discovery. That being said, in order to discuss certain aspects of Culture novels, I may have to bend my usual rules slightly, but I promise I’ll do everything I can to keep spoilers to a minimum and mark them where applicable.

So, let’s begin with Banks himself:


Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity

Banks was a highly prolific writer, publishing a total of thirty books over twenty-nine years. He considered himself a science fiction writer, but his creative output was wide, covering also the spectrum of mainstream literary fiction, memoir/travelogue, and a posthumous collection of poetry — his own bundled together with those of his lifelong friend and fellow Scottish science fiction writer Ken MacLeod. As a fierce, outspoken leftist, socialist, and atheist with a quick sardonic wit, Banks was often in the news regarding UK and world politics, particularly regarding Britain’s participation in the West’s post 9/11 involvement in Iraq.

The Wasp FactoryIn his home country of Scotland and the rest of the UK he may be best known for his highly polarizing 1984 debut, The Wasp Factory. A book which famously printed alternating positive and negative blurbs from various publications on its dust jacket and subsequent paperback editions. A brilliant piece of marketing if you ask me. Or possibly it’s his 1992 novel The Crow Road that he’s best known for. It’s an enrapturing and mysterious portrait of a large intertwined familial Scottish community that began with the unforgettable first line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.

Although his novels have been critically lauded worldwide, none of his mainstream literary fiction, what he referred to as his “hampstead novels”, achieved much measurable popularity in the United States. Here, he’s best known for his Culture series of science fiction novels, and even that work is relatively unknown. Something that is hopefully about to change with the upcoming Amazon Studios adaptation of Consider Phlebas.

As an American, I regret that Iain Banks wasn’t properly on my radar until he died of gallbladder cancer in 2013, just two months after announcing to the world that he was “officially very poorly”. Since stumbling upon his work I have devoured all but one of his science fiction novels (published under the quite obvious pseudonym of Iain M. Banks) and a handful of his mainstream novels (published without the M).

There is a certain thread of macabre humor and fascination with the dark corners of human nature that binds most of his work together. He also had a unique internal dialogue of opposing ideas encapsulated in his novels. While doing some research in preparation for this essay, I stumbled upon the concept of antisyzygy, and more specifically what is referred to as Caledonian antisyzygy, or in other words, the Scottish variety.

The term was first used in 1919 by George Gregory Smith, a Scottish literary critic, in his book Scottish Literature: Character and Influence. He described it as “..a reflection of the contrasts which the Scot shows at every turn, in his political and ecclesiastical history, in his polemical restlessness, in his adaptability, which is another way of saying that he has made allowance for new conditions, in his practical judgement, which is the admission that two sides of the matter have been considered.”

The Mighty ScotI found this fascinating, mainly because I have never come across a more perfect description of how Banks explores philosophies and ideas in his writing. In her book The Mighty Scot, Maureen M. Martin further elaborates: “Writings by Scots on their country’s national psyche and literature often point to what has been called a ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’ —a conflict between rational and romantic, canny and reckless, moralistic and violent, an idea of dueling polarities within one entity that finds fictional expression..” The revelation that this duality is common not only among Scottish writers, but the Scottish people in general lends credence to the idea that something about the historical, political, religious and social aspects of Scottish life creates this internalized way of dealing with conflict.

I find that Caledonian antisyzygy is deeply entwined in everything Iain Banks wrote. In all of his fiction he spends quite a lot of time chipping away at his own arguments as if they were opposing views, patching and refining them over the course of each book. He does this frequently, and most effectively in his Culture novels, and he’s very, very good at it. As a reader you find yourself unsure of your own opinions by the end of a Banks novel. Instead of an end all solution to whatever question has been posited by the story, you’re left in the wake of the dissonance created by the question itself, with a variety of possible solutions to consider. In 1990, in conversation with the British science fiction writer Michael Cobley he discussed his approach toward writing: “ fiction the trick is to give people a choice of potential answers so they can disagree with what you’re saying, or what they think you’re saying.”

Offering that option to the reader, to be free to disagree with the message, and still enjoy the book on some level, creates a well rounded experience and speaks to his mastery of the craft. It also gives each story the possibility to resonate on different levels for different readers, not to mention enabling tremendous reread value, and lending towards several different possible interpretations by the same reader when read at different points in their life.

Another aspect of his writing that’s worth noting, is just how fully he explores the societies or ideas in opposition to his main social ideals as represented by the Culture. He isn’t merely setting up straw men to be easily overcome. This approach reminds me of the Principle of Charity, which states that when in argument with an opponent, argue against the most charitable version of their view. Mainly, assume they’ve come to their argument rationally, and have valid reasons for believing as they do. Only then can you have a meaningful dialogue with someone holding an opposing view to your own.

Consider PhlebasI’ll be back in the coming weeks to discuss Consider Phlebas, his first published Culture novel, and in my opinion, one of his least understood and most divisive. If you haven’t yet read any Iain Banks, it’s a fantastic time to start. This weekend pick up a Banks novel, preferably a Culture book and spend a little time celebrating his life by getting to know one of the most unique writers of our modern time. The series of books share almost no continuity with one another, so feel free to dig in anywhere. I highly recommend The Player of Games as an easy entry point as well as one of the best in the series.

Culture Essay Index:

Iain Banks’ Culture series: Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity

Consider Phlebas: Peripheral Storytelling and the Politics of Genre

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