A while back, I decided I was going to write about the Iain M. Banks sci-fi-novels (mainly as a respite from having to read and write about J. G. Ballard novels, but I only got as fas as writing about the excellent “Against A Dark Barkground” and re-reading the first of the Culture novels “Consider Phlebas”. WARNING: Some plot spoilers follow (but not too many).
I’m not sure why it has taken almost two years to write about this novel. Perhaps it is because I couldn’t find myself a proper explanation for the title. The following is my own theory, feel free to add your own in the comments. The book takes its name from the epigraph, an extract from T.S. Elliot’s “The Waste Land” (which is also on my “to read” list):
Gentile or Jew. O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
The best explanation I can come up with is the fact that the main character, Horza, is a being that can gradually take the form of other people. He’s a member of a nearly extinct and persecuted race. The analogues of Gentiles and Jews here are the Idirans and the Culture. The Culture are a kind of superhumanity – all wisecracking and cool, masters of technology (or mastered by it - but that’s for the discussion of a later novel in the series) and taking about existence in a fortune cookie way. They aren’t actually humans but they are described with human physiology as a baseline. The Culture feature in most of the Iain M. Banks novels and they are well loved by readers for a reason, he even shoehorns a reason why they aren’t involved in “Against A Dark Background”.
Meanwhile, the Idirans are massive jerks. Literally massive and figuratively jerks, they are three metres tall, have three legs and are exceptionally belligerent. “Consider Phlebas” takes place with a one-sided war happening between the Idirans and the Culture - well technologically one-sided that is. There is a suspicion that the war is one-sided in another way too, that the Culture are somehow are above fighting and are simply enduring ‘gigadeaths’ until the Idirans exhaust themselves. As soon as the Culture builds war ships, the war is pretty much over and the Idiran Empire is annihilated. The war itself is in the background for much of the novel with a potted history given in an appendix at the end.
The plot of “Consider Phlebas” is a picaresque centred on Horza – an episodic shamble across the galaxy in search of a Mind (An artificial intelligence designed for the first of the warships mentioned above.) that has been lost on a ‘world of the dead’ called Schar’s World. Schar’s World is a world belonging to a civilisation that wiped itself out with nuclear weapons. Essentially a monument to the folly of war, it is monitored by a race of beings that will not allow the Culture access and so Horza, who in a former life was a member of an ill-fated expedition to Schar’s World, is approached by the Culture to retrieve the mind. Of course, the Idirans want to recover it too.
I had to look up the formal definition of picaresque for this post in order to confirm my intuition that “Consider Phlebas” could be considered as one. A picaresque is a form of novel that emerged in Spain in the 16th century and became incredibly popular throughout the rest of Western Europe in the centuries that followed (can you tell I’ve cribbed all that from wikipedia?!). Such novels feature a shambling rogue who shambles through a number of disconnected adventures without much personal development. There is usually a strong satirical element involved, as there is here.
I shall not deprive you of the pleasures of enjoying Horza’s adventures as he inexorably meets his destiny on Schaar’s World, that would involve far too many juicy spoilers. They are by turns comic, thrilling and horrific. I remember reading the novel on my holidays after my GCSEs in 1996, sitting in the sunshine agog at these adventures in outer space. Half a lifetime later, it lost a little of its sparkle but it’s still a ripsnorter of story.
And what of satire? Well all the novels that feature the Culture are in essence a meditation on either whether it should exist or on what means and methods are necessary for it to maintain said existence. Usually both. Written long before the so-called “war on terror” it nevertheless manages to satirise it excellently, though perhaps the focus at the time was reds and blues. I like this, I think that good science fiction should say something about the world we live in, so that our escapism might also teach us something about what we are escaping from.
I will leave it there for now as I am already touching on themes that will emerge and recur in any discussion of the next two books: “The Player Of Games” and the incomparably chilling “Use Of Weapons” (and the others too). It might be a while before I have time to write about them, so I will take the opportunity to heartily endorse both of them now (and of course “Consider Phlebas” too…)