Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
– T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, IV.
Banks’ superlative Culture novels are galaxy-spanning space operas. Consider Phlebas (1987) is the first of his published Culture stories and is a world building extravaganza. I feel it’s Banks’ most traditional tale of the lot, simulating the structure of the fantasy quest, where each stage of the quest is a set piece, scenes within larger acts with their own miniature challenges that must be overcome.
Horza is a Changer who can genetically alter himself to mimic other humanoids of various types. He is in the employ of the Idirans, an imposing, theocratically militant species who are at war with the Culture, a pan-human, post-scarcity civilization. In this ideological war, Horza aligns himself with the Idirans, not because he condones their beliefs, but because he is convinced that the Culture is imbued with an anti-life ethos through its willing incorporation of machine intelligences on a mass scale, as well as its conscious remaking of itself. He sees the society as morally decadent, without the animus that makes life flourish, and he would see the Culture, which he likens to a “cancer with no ‘off’ switch,” stopped. The Idirans, instead, represent to him the evolutionary moral high ground as it were.
A Mind, one of those erstwhile super machine intelligences that the Culture holds so sacrosanct, escapes during an engagement into a ‘neutral territory’ of sorts, a Planet of the Dead. There, a member of an ancient species acts as custodian to the memory of a past, internecine war and whom neither the Idirans nor the Culture wish to antagonise for fear of reprisals. Horza, having served on a caretaker outpost on said planet, is dispatched by the Idirans with the remit to gain access to this location by virtue of his previous association and to retrieve the Mind, thereby affording the Idirans what they perceive as a potential intelligence coup.
From the outset, Horza is caught up in attempting to deal with, as best as he can, the whirlwind set of events that sends him on a meandering course to an eventual explosive conclusion. Despite all his tribulations, the tenacity with which he pursues his goal seems to count for little against the backdrop of the vast, cosmic conflict taking place.
Consider Phlebas can require some patience through the world-building and descriptions of the various set pieces. These are lush, can move at a leisurely pace (constant action notwithstanding) and could present a struggle for some readers who might not gel with the somewhat uneven pacing and scattered plot of the first half. However, these descriptions do leave cinematic impressions. Some of Banks’ best imagery is an island scene, which on my second read of the novel I thought somewhat superfluous and indulgent, but on my third re-acquaintance I now find perversely essential. Another such truly excellent example of imagery (amongst many) is the description leading up to and including the Damage game, a decadent and surreal play where participants utilise emotions as weapons to tangible effect, and where losing a hand is tantamount to losing the life of a member of your ‘voluntary’ retinue.
Whilst such meanderings don’t immediately force the central plot forwards, they nonetheless flesh out the setting, as well Horza’s state of mind and mental fortitude. Despite his depiction as a mote being carried hither-thither by uncontrollable winds, from one disaster to another, Horza’s sheer determination and strength of will to complete his brief and tackle each unpredictable challenge as it comes marks him a character to be reckoned with.
Banks specialises in the moral ambiguity of his characters, and Horza particularly showcases amoral qualities without being unnecessarily cruel or vicious. He is even presented rather sympathetically, even though his ability to divorce himself from moral qualms in pursuit of his goal shines through. The slippery nature of identity is another leitmotif that Banks is able to subtly weave in through Horza’s inheritance as a Changer, and this lies at the heart of the animosity that saturates his persona.
We are also introduced to the Culture, the main focus of most of Banks’ science fiction novels, and his first presentation of the Culture is in hostile terms. While the majority of the novel focuses on Horza’s quest, there are brief interludes which do present a Culture perspective. The main purpose of these being the attempt to refute, to some extent, the unremittingly antagonistic perception set forth by the protagonist which, whilst containing merit, is never quite wholly convincing in the first place.
There are some excellent elements to the novel: descriptive prose, some grimly humorous scenes, the complexity of the universe presented and, especially, some of the ideas prevalent in a wonderfully non Earth-centric, galactic milieu. These include everything from gigantic ships able to cavort through the photospheres of suns, hyper-intelligences of staggering complexity and capability, superstructures that are technological edifices, and biologicals with degrees of control over their bodily processes we would deem fantastic. The description of a Mind’s memory capacity and make-up alone inspires the same kind of wonder that Borges managed with his Babylonian library.
However, when looked at in the context of Banks’ other works, it falls a little short and the pitfalls of a début (as an ‘M’ work in the speculative arena) become more conspicuous, which is that Banks struggles with form. The novel sprawls unnecessarily in parts. Of course, this sprawling takes the form of some excellent vignettes that are fabulous to behold and offer a wide range of elements. Horza’s conscription to a company of ‘space pirates’ is a violent delight, yet without exaggeration. There is an encounter with an insane, religious cult that would be the highlight of the most grotesque horror story. And the final rush to escape the destruction of a space orbital is worthy of a special effects scene from Star Wars.
These meanderings are double edged. The descriptions obviously showcase Banks’ imaginative verve and, more importantly, they are conducive to the ongoing debate concerning the Culture. Through all these adventures, we’re presented with the outside, general perception of the Culture and how it contrasts with Horza’s own. This complicates arguments between both sides by introducing a host of grey hues. In fact, the very lack of Culture presence in the vicissitudes of the plot contrives to take us on a tour of their society by presenting impressions from a rotating cast of characters and contrasting it with Culture mores. All very commendable and, taken individually, these diversions are excellent. Yet, they can feel disjointed when considered within the overarching plot, as if there’s a lack of direction despite continuous forward momentum within each set piece.
Perhaps the problem is that Banks is much too ambitious with this first published Culture novel. He tries to pack in numerous facets of an extremely detailed setting and of a highly complex society. Whilst the information presented is fascinating and immersive, it does chip away at the pace by extending certain scenes beyond their narrative utility, most noticeably towards the final stages of the novel. It is also unfortunate that Horza’s main antagonist is not treated with more depth to serve as an even better counterpoint.
But what really hones the narrative is a deep sense of pathos permeating the work, a quality appositely elicited by the title taken from Eliot’s verse. The central point is shown to be the tragic futility of individual actions to affect the larger outcome in any significant measure. It’s a far cry from the farmboy-to-saviour trope. Consider Phlebas is actually a more elegant and subversive take on this theme than the majority of works within the fantasy genre. The tense, violent conclusion of the novel whose final plot device is a metaphor for the entire narrative exemplifies this. The coda further reinforces this point. The short appendices detailing the war are very nearly as good as the novel proper and highlight not only the inconsequential nature of Horza’s quest, but also the moral ambiguity of the whole war.
Despite some of the weaknesses of the narrative in terms of cohesion, it is a strong science fiction début that sets the stage for all future Culture stories. This novel introduces arguably one of the most ambitious creations in science fiction – the society of the Culture – even if this society is mostly referred to here and never takes centre stage. This introduction is especially unique as the Culture’s mores are anathema to the protagonist. The Culture is a gestalt, much more than the collection of its descriptions and features indicate.
Whilst Banks’ writing here is most certainly strong (some of it evocative and even inspired), it lacks much of the manifest razor sharpness and brilliant bursts of cynical and playful humour that are core features of some of his later works. Still, Banks’ burgeoning flourish with the pen does indicate the level to which his Culture novels would quickly rise. Even if his first published genre work has a ‘freshman’ feel to it, I believe it was still beyond the calibre of most other, similar examples at the time. Whilst not necessarily a light read tone-wise, it is an intelligent and well written adventure, compelling even, and introduces a plethora of ideas that are refined in subsequent works. Consider Phlebas is ultimately a flawed gem, one that deserves to be read and where repeated scrutiny finds those very flaws much attenuated.
© 2015 Nirvan Jain
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.