Consider Phlebas (1987) was the first of Iain Banks’s “Culture” books, which are about a universe largely dominated by the eponymous machine-run socialist utopia. Life in the Culture is portrayed as essentially a permanent, floating grad student party in the Swiss Riviera, which must be nice but is not very interesting. As a consequence, the books are mostly set around the periphery of the Culture itself. Consider Phlebas follows this pattern while also making the case for the Culture. Below: my review essay, followed by scattered thoughts.
Consider Phlebas is a vignette from a war between the Culture and a race of religious aliens (slightly less silly than it sounds), told from the point of view of a kind of rootless romantic. Bora Horza Gobuchul has chosen to fight against the Culture because he sees it as nihilistic, having forsaken any God for its machines and seeking only to expand its tolerant hedonism. The Culture resembles very much an outside view of Western Europe, and Horza’s critique resembles the arguments of both American and Islamist discontents. The Culture’s collective decision to fight rather than contain the Idirans, and the devastating scale of its war effort, remind of the zeal of the neocons who cheered our War on Terror. (I imagine these issues would have had rather less contemporary salience in 1987, but perhaps not.)
So Consider Phlebas presents among other things a backdrop for a contest of ideas. The ideas don’t really compete directly, though. It’s hard to say whether this is a failing of the novel — the contest is a literal war, and wars are settled by force. In fact, force — violence — is the only thing that really animates in the novel; with the exception of a brief cringing portrait of a Culture citizen’s plaints about his life, all of the compelling scenes concern torture or killing. The book begins with a character chained up to be drowned in falling excrement, and goes on to feature a stranded man forced to snap a giant’s neck in single combat; a live human sacrifice who is force-fed shit and then chomped piecemeal from the toes, by the steel dentures of a morbidly obese cannibal; a poker game where, with every hand, each player antes up the life of a listless human victim; and numerous men and beasts clawed, cut, poisoned, burned and beaten to death. These scenes are frequently set off by depictions of shipwreck and privation.
This horror, one supposes, is the negative case for the Culture: the unordered universe, vibrant though it may be, is filled with cruelties and stupidities which produce unending suffering. A society that prevents this does a great good, even if its only consolations are the freedoms of peace and hedonism, which to some are lesser freedoms. A Culture character is lost mountain climbing and breaks her leg — but one senses that she was watched the whole time, and faced little real danger. (Traces here of Captain Kirk channeling George Mallory.) Still, emphatically, ennui is much preferable to having your teeth yanked out.
The other big idea, which the book telegraphs from its title but otherwise hides in the conclusion and appendices, is how insignificant and perhaps futile is every life. The narrative takes the form of a hunt for a lost Culture “Mind” (a self-contained artificially intelligent super-computer), which has some nebulous possibility of influencing the war’s outcome, but mostly this Mind is the Macguffin that justifies the novel’s peripatetic scope and primes its horrible violence. Even as people are falling right and left, we come to identify with Horza’s quest and to implicitly believe in its importance. But the end of the book suggests that this too has been a cruel joke, that the outcome of the war was determined by greater historical forces and that the sacrifices we’ve witnessed, both daring and low, ultimately mean nothing, the same as the passing of any life.
If individual struggle really is empty and meaningless, then how much stronger the case for the Culture’s way of life. If futility is all, then we should embrace an emptiness that feels good and does no harm.
Addenda, scattered thoughts (may be spoiler-y)
1. I wasn’t really crazy about this book.
It was enjoyable, and certain things about it were electrifying (see above — all that violence). But a lot of it was humdrum. Much of it was implausible or cliche. Banks makes many sci-fi stories more witty or more shocking than they usually are, but he is not (I think) one of the [great inventors of the genre.] Banks has many fans and defenders, but I remain unconvinced.
Or anyway I oscillate between being convinced and being unimpressed.
2. What if the Idirans had captured the Mind?
They hate thinking machines, after all, so presumably they could not use the knowledge it embodies / contains. Would they then have a Pandoran dilemma, whereby they could improve their chances in the war but only by giving themselves over to machines like the ones they fight and detest?
What significance the fact that the defense net of Idir is subverted and becomes a Culture Mind “in all but name”? Would this have happened anyway if the Idirans had found the Mind, taken it home, and built their own? (Will Minds inevitably be friendly / reasonable towards each other?)
3. Horza: James Bond + Christopher Hitchens?