Scottish author Iain M. Banks has been much missed since he passed away in 2013. For science fiction readers, he made a tremendous impact with his Culture series: ten novels about a powerful, post-scarcity civilization set on a vast, interstellar scale. The first novel in the series to be published - and Banks’ first SF book - was Consider Phlebas, in April 1987.
While this sprawling space opera does introduce the Culture, it does so in an unusual way. It focuses not on the citizens of the Culture, or on its starships or institutions. Instead, the protagonist of the book is an implacable enemy of the Culture, working to secure its defeat in a galaxy-spanning war. By taking this approach, Banks worked to not only help readers view the Culture from outside, but also to subvert the established tropes of the space opera. In the process, Banks began an iconic series that occupied much of the rest of his working life; and helped to revitalise that same genre.
While few Banks fans regard Consider Phlebas to be among the best of the series, it is an exciting SF adventure and a strong start to one of the most important and revered series in the whole genre.
By the time the novel opens, two interstellar powers have been in a state of open warfare for four years. On one side, there is the Culture - a loose, anarchic affiliation of trillions of humanoid citizens mostly living on artificial structures and vast starships. Their enemies are the Idirans - an expansionist empire of tall, three-legged, hermaphroditic warriors driven by religious zeal. The conflict has caused widespread destruction and has cost many lives, with the Culture on the back foot. To the surprise of many observers, the Culture has refused to back down, despite its usual distaste for war.
The novel’s protagonist is Bora Horza Gobuchul, an elite agent of the Idirans and a member of the rare Changer species, who possess the ability to alter their appearance. Horza is philosophically opposed to the Culture because he regards their Minds - massively powerful AI constructs - as a kind of abomination. To Horza, it is wrong for a civilization to be guided by machine intelligences, however apparently benign. He sees the Culture as a smug, entitled entity whose citizens idle their lives away. To combat the Culture, he has sided with the Idiran Empire - largely on the basis that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
In the novel’s opening, Horza is about to be literally drowned in excrement after having been detected impersonating one of the leaders of the “gerontocracy” of the planet Sorpen. After a brief encounter with Perosteck Balveda, an agent of the Culture who asks the gerontocracy to spare his life, Horza is rescued by a strike force from the Idiran warship The Hand of God 137. On board, he meets his handler, the moderate Idiran officer Xoralundra, and is given a new mission. A particularly formidable Culture Mind has been detected hiding within a vast underground complex on the planet of Schar’s World. Because Horza has previous experience there, he is sent to capture it.
Inevitably, this mission proves to be a challenging one - even for an operative as resourceful and ruthless as Horza. He soon finds himself forced to become a part of a pirate crew aboard the starship Clean Air Turbulence. In this dubious company, the Idiran agent endures a gunfight with monks, witnesses a deadly card game, and has to escape a 14 million kilometre ringworld scheduled for destruction. Should he survive all of these incidents, Horza might just get a chance to hunt down the stranded Mind.
In a number of ways, Consider Phlebas fits the classic space opera mould. It has a dynamic, engaging protagonist; it has huge stakes; and the plot involves exciting gun battles, chases, and an encounter with a cannibalistic cult. In some other ways, though, the novel upends the genre’s tropes. Horza is often unlikeable, and fights on arguably the “wrong” side of the conflict. Banks also stated that one of his goals was to puncture the standard model of adventure SF, in which a “lone protagonist” saves the day or radically affects history on a grand scale. Connected with this is the novel’s notable use of irony, especially in its final third.
The novel is also strongly episodic, especially in its middle third. This is one reason why it has been suggested that Consider Phlebas would make a good TV series, because large parts of it could be neatly divided into episodes. However, it is arguably a weakness in the context of the novel. Horza’s missions with the crew of the Clean Air Turbulence are exciting, but they add little to the worldbuilding and have barely any bearing on the main plot. This is especially true of the crew’s bungled raid on a “Temple of Light”. These episodes are one reason why the book feels overlong; the climax is also quite drawn out.
Another issue with the book is that Horza dominates it so completely that other characters are left under-developed. The crew of the Clean Air Turbulence are little more than cardboard cut-outs, and it would have been interesting to see more of other characters like Xoralundra and Perosteck Balveda.
When Consider Phlebas is at its best however, it is gripping. Banks’ imagination frequently runs riot, especially in terms of settings. The orbital structure Vavatch, which is clearly inspired by Larry Niven’s novel Ringworld (1970), is a fine example. Banks does well to summon up the immense scale of the structure, and imagines vast “megaships” which endlessly travel its single, circular ocean.
One of the book’s most interesting sequences features the deadly card game Damage, which is played in Vavatch’s largest city in the final hours before its scheduled destruction by the Culture. While this demolition is intended to deny the Idiran Empire the chance to militarise the facility, it happens to provide the ideal excuse for various thrill-seekers and Damage fans to gather. Banks’ description of this crowd is a great example of his flair for odd characters, creatures, and customs in the anarchic setting he created. The novel’s opening is also immediately arresting; depicting the fugitive Mind as it makes an almost impossible escape from an Idiran ambush in deep space.
With its sometimes slack pacing and thin characters, Consider Phlebas does not always maintain the high level of its best moments, and Banks was clearly not yet at the height of his powers. The novel is packed with good ideas and tense moments, however, and effectively sets the stage for the series to come. Those who enjoyed the book on its original release did not have long to wait, as 1988 would see the release of the second Culture novel - The Player of Games.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.