CONSIDER PHLEBAS discussion (The Culture group read)

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CONSIDER PHLEBAS discussion (The Culture group read)

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Redigerat: jan 21, 2014, 11:30am


The war raged across the galaxy. Billions had died, billions more were doomed. Moons, planets, the very stars themselves, faced destruction, cold-blooded, brutal, and worse, random. The Idirans fought for their Faith; the Culture for its moral right to exist. Principles were at stake. There could be no surrender.

This thread is for the discussion of Consider Phlebas, the first book set in the Culture universe.

Posts with spoilers should be marked SPOILERS at the beginning, and the spoilers should be placed within <spoiler>spoilers here</spoiler> tags like this – spoilers here. Both are necessary because the spoiler tag feature is new and doesn't work for everyone yet.

The Culture group read: Wiki page | Organisational thread

dec 30, 2013, 7:18pm

I'm starting with this one, and most likely soon.

dec 30, 2013, 7:20pm

My copy was delivered by UPS about ten minutes ago! Yay!

dec 31, 2013, 8:57am

I will be starting with this one as well, maybe in the next 2-3 days.

Redigerat: dec 31, 2013, 9:26am

I'm currently mired in Utna awaiting the arrival of the Crimson Guard. Will be a while before I can pick up Consider Phlebas

Redigerat: jan 1, 2014, 7:15pm

I just got to Chapter 7 – A Game of Damage. I don't have any observations yet, except that I had a really difficult time reading Chapter 6 (The Eaters); way too visceral. Otherwise, I'm enjoying it very much.

jan 2, 2014, 2:23am

I read for much too long and ended up finishing Consider Phlebas. :)

My initial thoughts are below. I know people are still reading/haven't started reading yet, so I'll try and keep it spoiler-free.
- The book was much more action-oriented than I thought it would be – I expected a slow burning idea-driven book, but it was pretty much non-stop adventure.
- I really enjoyed the book, but I don't think I'm going to pick up the next one for at least a couple of weeks; it was a fairly intense read.
- I wish there was more about the Minds; I found that aspect of the Culture fascinating.
- Actually, I found a lot of aspects of the Culture fascinating, I'm so glad there are nine more books!

I'll probably have more things to say once my thoughts percolate a bit more.

jan 2, 2014, 7:32am

The Minds play a pretty central role in many of the coming books, fear not!
It's been a while since I read this, but as I recall, that's one of the things that the Idirans hate about the Culture, that as they see it, human intelligences have turned over control to sentient machines, something they could never countenance. And indeed it is hard to imagine humanity as we currently know it feeling secure enough to do that. Just look at all the SF stories where machines run amuck, try to take over the world. etc. I guess that's why Bank's vision is so refreshing. He's suggesting that if these machines are so vastly superior, they wouldn't do anything as distasteful as starting a war, or trying to rule the whole galaxy etc. (Well, they do kind of want to rule the whole galaxy, but in, y'know, a nice way)

jan 3, 2014, 1:29am

#7 That was fast! It will take another 15 days for me to finish Consider Phlebas I think, it is slotted as the 3rd or 4th book for me this month, after Divergent and Shards of Honour.

jan 3, 2014, 1:11pm

Very fast! I'd better get reading...

jan 6, 2014, 11:59am

Picked it up then got sidetracked by the excerpt of Ancillary Justice I obtained at the same time, should be back to it soon.

jan 6, 2014, 1:45pm

#9/10: I was much too excited by the prospect of hosting my first group read – please don't feel pressured by my pace! :)

#11: Ancillary Justice was a pretty amazing book; I can't argue with being sidetracked by it.

jan 8, 2014, 2:01am

Right! I am in my way across the galaxy with Horza.

Reading early Culture novels is like a night out with an old friend. I particularly enjoyed the craft of the opening chapter this time - introducing us without explanation to a future time, place and war, and dismantling it as quickly as it was introduced. 'Got that guys? Good, I'm blowing it up.' In retrospect, this sets expectations well for the rest of the book ;)

jan 10, 2014, 4:20am

...and I had entirely forgotten the unpleasant interlude on the island on Vavatch.

jan 10, 2014, 5:07am

#14: yeah, that was incredibly off-putting; I confess to skimming some of the gorier parts. I commented on it in post #6.

jan 10, 2014, 6:42am

#15 so you did - I must learn to pay more attention to chapter titles when I'm reading :) Especially for group reads!

jan 10, 2014, 11:12am

I'm about half-way through the book, and even though I last read it about 8 years ago, much of it has remained in my mind. I remembered the nasty island incident (although not the specifics) and the game of Damage, which is the point at which I put the book down last night. It is certainly a good read, watching Horza fall from disaster into disaster.

jan 10, 2014, 11:44am

Haven't read it yet, but I'm curious what anyone / everyone makes of the Eliot's "The Wasteland" reference used for the title. Banks used another excerpt for Look to Windward, which I have read but (a) don't recall enough of it to puzzle out the reference, and (b) didn't know of the reference at the time.

I'm looking forward to the Culture discussions, whether or not I get to read the specific title!

Redigerat: jan 10, 2014, 12:35pm

>18 elenchus: John Black asked Banks about "The Wasteland" references in an interview, written an article on the subject, and posted it to a blog (*many* spoilers):

(edited for emphasizing SPOILERS)

jan 10, 2014, 12:42pm

A brilliant reference, thanks for that. Liked it as much for its musings on Eliot as on Banks!

jan 10, 2014, 1:53pm

#17: Yeah, I had really hard time putting the book down, Horza's misfortunes are strangely compelling. I'm still not sure how much I actually rooted for him to succeed, but every mishap made me sad.

#19: Thanks for the link to the article, psybre. It was a fascinating read, although I'm not sure I agree with all of Black's parallels.

jan 10, 2014, 2:22pm

That's fascinating - although I have to think that there's so much to interpret in the Waste Land that if Banks says it didn't (consciously) influence him and he picked the title because he liked it, I believe him - I think you could probably have a go at finding analogues/interpretations in all sorts of books just because there's so much to pick and choose from in the poem... Brilliant article though, thank you!

jan 11, 2014, 9:09am

I've now read through A Game of Damage ( and the next chapter and am mid flight through The End of Invention), and something is bothering me that maybe you guys can help me put to rest: was Vavatch a Culture Orbital or just in a Culture volume? (Ie non-Idiran space?)

Sarble the Eye's intro to Damage seemed very judgmental (which could be a Culture POV - they do look down on the less enlightened), and it didn't seem like a game the Culture would tolerate (because of the Lives). Sarble makes the point it used to be banned by enlightened planets, but was gaining a more mainstream position - but the bloodsport aerobatics and the gambling of the Lives doesn't fit with the Culture for me, who always struck me as 'do as you will an it harm none but yourself'. I can see they'd love the game without the Lives, which frankly seem a barbaric non- necessity anyway.

So if Vavatch was Culture - even if they're pulling out and destroying it - it seems odd that the game was officially sanctioned rather than just taking advantage of the chaos of evacuation to happen behind officialdom's back.

The End of Invention was similarly confusing me - the reference to it being ex-Culture seemed to be equated to it being demilitarised - but given the Culture isn't just its military, the two are technically different.

So just having a minor moment of trying to figure what's Culture, ex-Culture and never actually Culture in the first place through this section ;) it's not a biggy, and doesn't get in the way of the story at all - just a curious side point!

Redigerat: jan 11, 2014, 3:18pm

>23 imyril: I'm not there yet, but might this be similar instances of what one sees in, say, Matter ?

That book mostly takes place in a kingdom (well, two neighboring kingdoms happily butchering each other) within the Morthanveld polity (the Morthanveld being a race more or less on par with the Culture re. spacefaring and ethical advancement), but where (as elsewhere when confronted with other differently advanced cultures) they've taken pains to try and limit direct intervention and exposure, most of the guidance supposedly happening over the long haul through several layers of decreasingly sophisticated "mentor" cultures, rather than barging in to tell "primitive" governments what they can and cannot do.
The only reason the Culture and Morthanveld intervene there isn't because War Is Bad, Don't Do It, but because, hmm, spoilers I guess.
If I remember right that same book has a short side-trip to a whole planet that's used as some huge wargame (with real people dying), again without the Optimae/Involved groups directly putting their foot in.

I don't think the Culture operates through as many layers of obfuscation but they probably try to be as covert in their own way, trying to promote accelerated natural growth rather than sticking their foot in the door and saying "Nope, not up to our ethical standards, no can do.", so some corners of what is technically the Culture's sphere of influence might be less than utopian.

jan 11, 2014, 3:26pm

#23: That's an interesting question. I think I remember reading something about the Culture pulling out of Vavatch and transferring full control to the Orbital management (i.e. basically making it an independent state until its destruction) but I can't find the paragraph.

Re: Damage, perhaps the Culture would rather legalise and regulate it, especially because of the Lives involved. If it was illegal, it would happen anyway, and the Culture would have no oversight. But maybe it was legal because the Culture wasn't officially in charge anymore.

#24: That makes sense too – the Culture seems incredibly subtle.

jan 12, 2014, 4:45am

#25 that makes sense to me. I've now read the chapter in which Unaha-Closp introduces himself as affiliated to the Heterocracy of Vavatch, which sounds either ex-Culture or non-Culture (but affiliated) and The Ends of Invention ex-Culture and given to Vavatch (once the Minds jumped off) for the evacuation.

Actually, there's a sub-thought in that: is it possible for something to be Culture without a Mind in some way attached to it? I'm not sure it is (less legally, more philosophically - it's one of the great defining features; otherwise you're just another evolved broad-minded galactic civilization).

jan 12, 2014, 11:41am

>26 imyril: A Culture habitat will have (a) Mind(s) overseeing its creation and later day-to-day maintenance, and other AIs as residents or visitors. Comes with the territory.

It's a huge part of the Culture lifestyle that they accept the existence of artificial intelligences possibly more advanced in their own ways than flesh-and-blood ones, foster the creation of more of them with no trace of a "Rise of the robots" scare, welcome them as citizens in their midst, happily delegate to them many tasks whose scope, tedium, needed speed of reaction or other traits make them better undertaken by them or non-sentient technology under their control.

jan 12, 2014, 2:09pm

#26/27: That's an interesting point to discuss – what's the most basic definition of a planet/society that is part of the Culture, and what makes it distinct from a planet/society that isn't? I don't feel qualified to speculate until I read a few more books, though.

jan 12, 2014, 3:09pm

27> yes, that's pretty much my thought too - which is what got me wondering if I could remember any examples of a Culture location that didn't have a Mind associated with it (although it might have drones visiting or in residence).

28> I'm going to keep this in mind as I reread this time because I'm curious now :) Ultimately, there's AI everywhere at some level - but there's a huge gap between a knife missile, a drone and a fully-fledged Mind (and even between different levels of Minds if I recall some of the intellectual snobbery in Excession correctly!)

Redigerat: jan 12, 2014, 7:23pm

>28 kgodey: By the time covered in the books the Culture doesn't do planets, they're almost entirely based off spaceships and space habitats. I'm also fairly sure that while they may maneuver to nudge other societies in their sphere of influence toward behaviors and worldviews they consider positive, they don't usually "integrate" them as such.

Belonging to the Culture is an individual choice to join it or remain in it, and presumably adhere to its way of life and form of government. There are also splinter groups who still claim themselves as belonging to the Culture (and aren't denied the right to do so) despite different views on some subjects, such as the Peace Faction that will arise in protest to the choice of engaging in war with the Idirans.

jan 12, 2014, 4:10pm

Still waiting for the library to deliver the book to my branch library...

jan 13, 2014, 8:34pm

Got my copy in the mail today and read the Prologue. It makes you have a lot of sympathy for that Mind ...

jan 14, 2014, 2:34pm

#32: Yeah, the prologue draws you right in!

Redigerat: jan 18, 2014, 6:57pm

I have finally gotten around to reviewing Consider Phlebas on my blog – here's the link. I usually do longer reviews but I'm trying to catch up with all the books I've read recently.

jan 20, 2014, 3:50am

I started re-reading Consider Phlebas yesterday and it has grabbed me just as much this time as it did when I first read it about 25 years ago. At that time I felt it was a great yarn, just fantastic story telling. This time I am more alert to Iain's commentary on world affairs and how society does dreadful things but shields its conscience by hiding all the bad stuff in the secret organisations it creates to "protect" the state. Iain gives a very good analysis of the internal conflicts within an open, compassionate society at war.

Thinking back to the first time I read the book one of my strongest memories is of the first chapter in which Horza is imprisoned in the sewercell. I thought that was so evocative I found myself holding my breath and trying to raise my head as high as I could.

jan 20, 2014, 8:50am

Nicely evocative description, pgmcc. I find your general description of Phlebas stands in well for the Culture books generally, at least those I've read of them. A good plot, fun storytelling especially with the space opera setting and those AI, and Iain's commentary. Not exactly subtle, but again not on-your-sleeve such that it hijacks the book.

Redigerat: jan 21, 2014, 11:29am

#35: pgmcc, yeah, I didn't expect such good storytelling, I was expecting a lot of commentary. I'm not sure why.

I also felt very claustrophobic while reading the opening scenes with Horza. I was almost gagging imagining the smell.


I've noticed that no one has discussed any spoilers yet – if you do, please mark the top of your post with SPOILERS and place any spoilers within <spoiler>spoilers here</spoiler> tags like this – spoilers here. I will put this in the first post too.

jan 22, 2014, 4:18am

#37 kgodey. I also felt very claustrophobic while reading the opening scenes with Horza. I was almost gagging imagining the smell.

I would attribute that to the power of Banks' description.


I read your review of Consider Phlebas and I noticed your comments about the chapter about the Eaters. I discussed this chapter with Iain when I met him and his first wife in 1992. His wife brought the topic up as she had typed the book from Iain's handwritten manuscript and she took the professional typist approach of typing the letters without absorbing the meaning of the words. She said it was the only way she could get through it.

In terms of Iain's motivation in adding this episode and making it so graphic, I would have two hypotheses. Firstly, he could have inserted it simply to shock the reader. Alternatively I could see it in the context of Iain's views on religion. He detested organised religion and I see the Idirian empire representing a large organised religion. The Eaters would represent the freaky extreme end of cult religions. I never discussed this aspect of the chapter with Iain but I would suggest the latter hypothesis is more likely the driving force behind the inclusion of the scene and the former is the approach he took to apply hyperbole to his argument. On the other hand he could have been just trying to freak people out. :-) (To be honest, the internal discussion Horza has concerning the difference between Idirans and the Culture leads me to think Iain was really presenting the Eaters as a fundamentalist cult to draw the reader's attention to how irrational and extreme some groups can be.)

jan 22, 2014, 9:05am

The thing I found interesting about the Eaters was that they were clearly defined as both a recent phenomenon and that they came from a 'normal' background on the Orbital. They'd chosen to abandon their lives (and hope) in order to follow this bonkers cannibal prophet and eat waste. This rings true to your point on extremist cults - I initially took them to be a random primitive tribe (and was fascinated that this could exist on an Orbital!) and then realised I had it all backwards. Whether Mr Banks was illustrating aspects of religion, or making a point that even in his starry future people still make some damn strange choices in the name of faith, I couldn't second guess

jan 22, 2014, 9:51am

Interesting discussion. I'd add at this point that a background question that's always humming in the background for me, in terms of the Culture, is the moral implications of how to engage with these situations once they arise. I like that Banks tends to raise the question, and sometimes the Culture's approach seems an admirable one, and sometimes not. (Special Circumstances being almost always a high-profile example of this dilemma.)

Banks doesn't lose sight of the dilemmas inherent in democratic and peaceful social organisations. As much as the Culture seems to embody a good deal of his preferences, it's not a superficial utopia, and things get messy just as in life in our Intra-Property Culture!

jan 22, 2014, 4:13pm

#40 elenchus

Iain was strongly anti-organised religion.

SPOILER RE: The Crow Road

The main character in The Crow Road starts out as a believing Christian. His father, who is fond of a wee bevy (a few drinks), is an vociferous atheist. I complimented Iain on using an evangelical atheist as a twist in this book. A key element of the book is the son's conversion to atheism.

I think Iain's feelings on this subject underlie much of his writings.

jan 22, 2014, 4:38pm

I'm not sure which turn of phrase I enjoy more: wee bevy or evangelical atheist.

jan 22, 2014, 4:52pm

I wrote a letter to Iain after reading The Crow Road in which I used the term evangelical atheist. He never mentioned the term to me again, but when I saw his last television interview he described himself as an evangelical atheist. I like to think I gave him that term. (There is nothing like self-delusion to make one happy.)

jan 22, 2014, 10:22pm

It's a great story and I think I'd let myself be persuaded, were I to find myself in a similar position.

Did you have more than one opportunity to discuss his work with him? I often suspect I'd not rise to the occasion, facing an opportunity to chat with one of my idols. It's reassuring to hear of instances to the contrary!

jan 23, 2014, 3:10am

I met Iain about half-a-dozen times. The first occasion was at a convention in Dublin 1992 and we corresponded after that.

He was a very pleasant and humorous person, and was quite self deprecating. He was also extremely intelligent, as one can tell from his writing, but he never came across as arrogant or superior.

Did you have more than one opportunity to discuss his work with him?
When his books came out and I read them I would write a review and send it to him. On the occasions we met we did not talk about the books but discussed things like food and views on religion.

Redigerat: jan 23, 2014, 9:26am

Can readily imagine the conversations enriched your understanding of what he'd written, and helped avoid the conversation-killing slip into fanboy geekery. Not to mention just being a pleasant interaction.

It's pretty clear Banks had a wide-ranging interest in the world, and not all of it leaks into his Culture books. From the couple non-SF titles of his that I've read, what immediately comes to mind is his interest in music. Though perhaps The Hydrogen Sonata more directly brings that side of his appreciation.

Yesterday I found on my stoop both Matter and Surface Detail, so I plan to read those for the group read. It's great to get some interesting background on both the series and Banks himself, in these threads.

jan 23, 2014, 10:39am

I enjoyed Matter and Surface Detail. Others appear to have been disappointed in them but I found them to good foray into Banks' universe.

jan 23, 2014, 4:32pm

I'm curious to reread Matter. I absolutely hated it on release (although I enjoyed Surface Detail), but I can't really recall what was going on for me at the time - and as I reread Excession a couple of years ago and -finally- understood why all my friends raved about it (again, I hated it on first reading years and years ago) - I wonder whether I might find something new now.

jan 23, 2014, 7:19pm

#48 I am seeing a lot more in Consider Phlebas that I missed first time round. I expect to find a lot more in the other Culture, and non-culture, books if I get round to re-reading them.

Redigerat: jan 23, 2014, 11:00pm

I've read just Excession and Look to Windward from the Culture, I think, and adored both of them on first reading. I'll be curious to see whether my responses to Matter and Surface Detail track with those, or if I am disappointed. I suspect I'll not be disappointed, but don't want to artificially inflate my expectations.

Thus far my "disappointment" (too strong a term, but it makes the point) is with Banks' literary fiction, so-called. I've read Wasp Factory and Complicity, and while neither were a waste of time, compared to the Culture books, I just don't have the same motivation to seek his non-SF until I've exhausted his speculative fiction.

I'm curious about others: a sharp divide in appreciation for Banks as genre author versus "literary fiction"? I think pgmcc likes both, but unsure if others here have a strong opinion.

jan 23, 2014, 11:00pm

Still waiting for the library to get my copy to me...

jan 24, 2014, 3:41am

pgmcc – Peter, that's so cool that you got to meet/correspond with Iain Banks multiple times.


I'm not sure who said this earlier, but the Eaters chapter is much more understandable when put in context of finding an organised religion that acts as a counterpoint to the Idirans. Maybe it was important for Horza to see how extreme religion could be (even in places influenced by the Culture) to influence his slowly building lack of confidence in his mission..


#48: imyril, I feel that way about the genre of "hard SF" in general – I hated it a few years ago (too densely packed with ideas, made me think too much), but now I can't imagine how I could've ever felt that way.

#50: elenchus, I haven't read any of Banks' other work, but I'm curious to see how it compares. Speculative fiction is my first love though, and I still have nine more Culture books and a couple of non-Culture SF to get through first.

#51: ronincats – Roni, perhaps you should put in a request for The Player of Games now, just in case.

Redigerat: jan 24, 2014, 6:54am

#50 elenchus I just don't have the same motivation to seek his non-SF

I enjoyed all Iain's SF novels, but some I felt were more enjoyable than others. My favourite was Look to Windward with The Player of Games a close second. (The former is better read if one already knows a bit about the Cultures.)

In terms of the non-SF, Banks' literary works were of a more varied quality. The best in my opinion are The Bridge, The Wasp Factory, Espedair Street, Walking on Glass, Whit, Complicity, The Crow Road and The Quarry. Some people are put off by the directness of some of scenes in these books but they work for me. Many do not see The Wasp Factory as the black comedy it was meant to be.

jan 24, 2014, 5:02am

I finished rereading Consider Phlebas last night and I'm thoroughly happy with having joined this reading group. Consider Phlebas is probably the one Culture-novel I would have been most unlikely to reread, because the only thing I really remembered from my first read was The Eaters and that was not a memory I wanted to have...

This time around I found Consider Phlebas a really good read and though the chapter on The Eaters was quite graphic and very offputting it won't be dominating my memory of the book in the future. If anything I actually found it less offputting than I remembered it. Seeing that many of the previous comments are about that particular chapter, I can't help wondering if Banks dropped the ball slightly on this. There's definitely a chock effect but perhaps too much. This was not the first Culture novel I read but if it had been I might not have read the rest.

As a start to the Culture-series I found Consider Phlebas very, very clever. Banks manages to introduce us to most of the framework of the series in just one book. Minds, ships, drones, Special Circumstances (SC). The ability (and that it's generally accepted) to gender-change and the extremely long lifspan of Culture-citizens. We get a crash-course on the The Culture and on the many different planets/societies that exist outside of The Culture. We're tought (the hard way) always to expect the unexpected and that if we get attached to one of the characters it's at our own risk. Banks doesn't mind killing a few (or many) characters along the way. Oh, and: if there's some kind of priest or prophet involved the society in question is probably evil.

I've not read any of the articles or interviews with Banks yet (I'd like to reread all the books first and form my own impressions before I have them explained to me) but am I wrong in thinking that Banks with The Culture has tried to find an answer to one of the problems that we, as a world, has been facing these past years?
My thinking is this (I've simplified it a lot to avoid a wall of text):
Governments and secret services will argue that the war on terror can not possibly be won if there is freedom of information. We need covert ops and sometimes dirty tricks and it's best that the population doesn't know the details (and sometimes not even the big picture).
Wikileaks and activists for free information will argue that things need to be out in the open to avoid abuse. Also that if we sink to using the same methods as the terrorists we will never really win.

The Culture has solved this problem by using AIs and SC. The vast majority of the citizens in The Culture lives in ignorant bliss knowing that SC absolves them from doing the dirty work themselves and that the use of AIs guarantees that decisions are made objectively and that there will be no abuse of information.

The question of course then remains: do we trust the AIs?

jan 24, 2014, 5:20am

#23 Imyril "was Vavatch a Culture Orbital or just in a Culture volume?"
In the chapter Temple of Light Yalson describes Vavatch as neutral territory. The Idirans aren't interested in taking it over because they have a religious fondness for planets and they're quite happy to leave it neutral as long as The Culture doesn't try to se it as a base. Then the Idirans change their mind and decide to take over Vavatch anyway and to avoid that The Culture decides to blow it up.

#50 elenchus "I just don't have the same motivation to seek his non-SF"
I'm with you on that. I've only read Dead Air (and Raw Spirits, but that's a different story as it's non-fiction) and I didn't enjoy it. I've read the blurbs and leafed through most of the others but they don't really appeal to me.

Redigerat: jan 24, 2014, 6:56am

#55 Annalietta: I've only read Dead Air

Not one of his best. He did have a slump which probably started after Whit. In my opinion he never reached the same standard as his earlier non-fiction novels. The Steep Approach to Garbadale, Stonemouth and The Quarry were indications that his form in the non-SF was recovering.

Redigerat: jan 24, 2014, 9:21am

#55 am I wrong in thinking that Banks with The Culture has tried to find an answer to one of the problems that we, as a world, has been facing these past years? ... which is to say, the question of resisting / opposing violence and totalitarianism without succumbing to either.

That's definitely a subtheme to my reading of the few Banks novels I've read thus far. My tentative interpretation is that Banks uses this to explore the dilemmas, and while I think he finds the Culture to do it much better than state democracies such as the UK or the US, I don't get the sense he's evangelizing the Culture as the best solution. It's what I like about his approach: rather than put up a utopian ideal, subject to the inevitable critique, he puts up an alternative which is arguably better in many ways, but remains a thought experiment.

About the time I first read Banks, I also read a couple of Ken MacLeod's SF novels. They are different but have very much the same appeal for the above reason, though MacLeod comes across perhaps more strenuously in support of his fictional alternative. I need to read a few more of his titles, as well, now that I think of it.

jan 24, 2014, 1:00pm

#55 elenchus "which is to say, the question of resisting / opposing violence and totalitarianism without succumbing to either"

Yes, that's exactly what I was trying to say :-)

McLeod has been stewing on my TBR-list for a looooong time. This might be the time to do something about it.

Redigerat: jan 24, 2014, 1:53pm

Finally beginning my re-read of Consider Phlebas today. Looking forward to it greatly.

jan 25, 2014, 11:10am

#57: I got a review copy of The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod from Pyr this week, so I'm glad to hear that he explores similar themes as Banks.

I don't have anything new to add to the discussion right now, but I wanted to say that I'm enjoying it greatly.

Redigerat: jan 25, 2014, 12:42pm

#60 kgodey The Night Sessions is great.

Ken and Iain were very good friends. You can find a piece he wrote about Iain here.

jan 26, 2014, 5:36pm

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Culture Series is a Science Fiction series written by Iain M. Banks, famed author of The Wasp Factory, which he wrote under the name Iain Banks (less the initial of his middle name "M", which he adopts only while writing Science Fiction). Consider Phlebas, the first book of the Culture Series, however became my unlikely first encounter with Banks, now that I am reading it for the year long Culture read. Among other things peculiar about this book, to which I shall return shortly, I would never have guessed, even after reading the book, the significance of the seeming random title of the book, until I actually googled for it!

In a typical first book of a 10 book series, one would expect a lot of world building, introduction to few of the key characters, and a few skirmishes. Not so in Consider Phlebas. This one is being like thrown into the deep end of a pool to figure out All of the Above, while gasping for breath. There is a protagonist, Horza, a changer, a humanoid species, about which not much is known, other than bits and pieces here and there over the course of the book. Then there are the two warring factions about whose idealogical differences we are equally clueless about, other than some vague philosophising by the protagonist when he tries to explain why he chose one side over the other. I, for one, randomly chose the side of the protagonist for most part of the book and kind of switched sides near the end. It is only while reading the epilogue that things become somewhat more clear.

Surprisingly, for a book concerned with a super-war between two super-species, we meet not more than 3 characters each from each of those two factions, the rest of the cast being or should have been miscellaneous characters. Then there is a whole lot of action, not all pleasant, not all palatable. There are also passages where the book becomes an absolute drag, readers would be able to identify "the eaters" being one such passage. Also, there is a whole lot of idiocy and stupidity among characters, (mostly on "the planet") which can sometimes be very grating on the nerves.

For all that (and not all the characteristics in the above paragraphs are negatives, they are mostly peculiar), the book is very fast paced, reads like a standalone book, and I am not sure if this book will have any connection to the rest of the series, time will tell. I will continue with the series.


Redigerat: jan 27, 2014, 4:38am

62> The Culture books are 10 novels set in a single universe, rather than a series of 10 closely-related books. There are centuries between each novel - so while themes may recur, you can basically read each as a stand-alone novel in a familiar setting.

I wouldn't say the Eaters were a drag - difficult, rather than dull to read for me. I do agree that some of the character decisions on-planet were a bit erratic! Although even this was set up early on - the mercenary crew don't make particularly sensible decisions at the Temple of Light or on Vavatch either (the sequence on the Mega-Ship is basically a series of avoidable accidents, not all of which can be blamed on Kraiklyn). However, I think it was telling that Horza's focus and control seemed to slip once in the tunnels; I read this as a reflection of his loyalties and aspirations fluctuating, undermining his previously ruthless and unswerving actions.

jan 27, 2014, 2:07pm

#63 Agree to most of your points, but two.

1. The mercenary crew seemed to have got culled down to the more sensible members and hence the continued high level of idiocy came as a bit of a surprise, specially given that a mercenary crew, but definition need to be more street smart for its survival.
2. I am not sure if I agree to your point about Horza, I saw little evidence to support this theory.

Redigerat: jan 27, 2014, 2:32pm

#63/64: I kind of read the whole book as a downward spiraling disaster for everyone involved, which ended up being not even a footnote to a footnote in the events of the actual war. So it's not just because of people's idiocy, it was also really bad luck. War ruins lives for no purpose, etc. And I do agree with imyril's reading of the state of Horza's mind throughout the book, it was subtle but seemed very clear to me.

jan 27, 2014, 6:58pm

64> yes, that's my reading - although layered in with a view that Kraiklyn didn't recruit the best. So sure they're mercenaries, which is why they survive what they do - but they're not elite.

63> Horza reflects relatively early on that Wubslin isn't a gifted engineer. He knows enough to get by, but Kraiklyn doesn't consider him a threat. Kraiklyn doesn't appear to have hired (or at least retained) those who could have challenged him - he's too paranoid - so his team are capable, but they aren't the best. Possible exception here being the women - Kraiklyn is sexist, so he doesn't seem to have considered / worried that Yalson could be a threat.

Once Horza discovers Kierachell is dead and Yalson is pregnant, his priorities shifted to me. The Horza of the early chapters wouldn't have sought judicial vengeance - he'd have killed Xoxarle rather than endanger his mission. I read this as losing his edge. He could easily have covered the death, and he gains nothing by trooping the Idiran around - he's a dangerous liability, and he proves this when he destroys the mass sensor, but Horza clings to the idea. His judgment has gone all squiffy. Maybe this is me rereading with the benefit of foreknowledge, but it doesn't make much sense / fit. The mission is getting obscured by human emotions , which the Changer initially is quite proud of divorcing himself from.

It's just my opinion though - your mileage may vary, and that's okay :)

jan 29, 2014, 6:00pm

My more detailed views on Consider Phlebas

My edition:1988

Read 1989 Re-read 2014

This novel was my first introduction to Iain Banks when I read it in 1989. It is the book that prompted me to seek out his “mainstream” work and since then I have read everything Iain has had published. I have just finished re-reading Consider Phlebas and I still find it a great book and, equipped with the experience and knowledge of a quarter of a century, I have found so much more in this book than when I first read it.

In my initial read I was not prone to seek deeper meaning or to seeing parallels and allegories. With the history of the 90s and the 00s behind me the parallels and allegories in Consider Phlebas jump out at me. I am not saying the book if prophetic, but that Iain Banks presented a view of global geo-politics in this novel that has not changed in the intervening time. (I am a strong believer in the idea that thoughtful Science Fiction is about the present, not the future.)

First off, the Idiran/Culture war can be viewed in a couple of ways. It can be:
- Western, secularculture, with its emphasis on the rights of the individual, fighting the more fundamentally religious Eastern countries; or
- Secular philosophies against faiths of any sort; or
- About any armed conflict.


Whatever the excuse for the hostilities the main message is that death comes to everyone (That is the message T.S. Elliot gave to mariners in his work “The Wasteland”, where the title comes from.), no matter what side they fight on.

There are many more themes in Consider Phlebas and at several levels.

Horza, the main character of the book is introduced as a cold, dispassionate spy focused on his mission. He kills without a second thought, but when he discovers he is going to be a father he becomes caring and thoughtful. This transition was carried out smoothly and with reason. It goes to the extent of Horza filling with rage when his partner is killed and charging at the killer in what could have been a suicidal charge.

He also shows professional regard for his enemy counterpart, Balveda. I see this as part of Banks’ way of demonstrating how war impacts everyone in the same way no matter what side they are fighting on. He has principles and he respects Balveda’s working for the other side from a different principled position. Horza’s inclination to kill Balveda once he has captured her is prompted purely from the practicalities of the situation and his job. I could see it leading to one of those killing scenes in which the killer tells the prospective victim, “This is nothing personal. It is just business.” (I know, what is more personal than killing someone… and do not be telling me closing down Meg Ryan’s bookshop in “You’ve Got Mail” is more personal.)

Impact of war on individuals
The Dramatis Personae section at the back of the book gives the details of what happens several of the main individuals after the events in the book and after the war. The main message is that their lives have been changed for ever and that they are never the same.

Meaninglessness and magnitude of war
The reasons behind the war are presented from both the Culture and the Idiran points of view. When one reads these in the context of the extract on the history of the war and the scale of the losses one is left with the question of was it worth it, the strong implication being, there is always a better way.

Duplicity in war
The role of the Homomda, the superior civilization, is interesting. This grouping hedges it bets by giving moral and materiel support to the Idirans while maintaining some trading links with the Culture, and letting the Culture know that they will not enter the war directly as long as their territories are not targeted by the Culture.

The Eaters
This is quite a disgusting chapter, but it is a significant, albeit hyperbolical, awareness heightener of the whacky things some cults can get up to. There are numerous examples from across the world of cults/sects that have adopted strange and bizarre (I know. That is a tautology, but it scans beautifully.) practices, often leading to tragedy.

Internal parallels
During the game of Damage on the Orbital, Horaz is affected by the emotions of Kraiklyn to the extent that he has doubts about his identity, the sequence of thoughts strongly paralleling the thoughts of the missing Mind which is hiding on Schar World. This is reprised when Horaz is injured and being cared for by Balveda in the closing sections of the book, a period when he is close to the Mind.

We never hear the history of the Mind, but we are told that its memories have been hidden and that it had a significant past.

Also, why did the Mind pick the name, Bora Horza Gobuchul when it was not aware of this name throughout the story? Does this indicate that Horza did not die after all, but made the ultimate change of leaping into the Mind? Will we ever know?

Horza’s speciesism towards the drone Unaha-Closp is obviously Iain’s way of showing the existence of prejudice and Unaha’s thoughts and reactions to that prejudice are an attempt to reflect the effects of prejudice on the victims.

The growing disillusionment of Avigar was presented well in my opinion. He started out as a fairly balanced older member of the team, but as more of his colleagues, and ultimately his girlfriend, die on what he must see as Horza’s mission, he becomes more despondent, and I am not surprised at his more than lack-lustre performance as the plot develops.

When I first read this book I was on holiday and looking for a good read. I picked up this book and flew through it enjoying the action and the chase. At the time I knew nothing of Iain Banks, with or without his M. With an older head on my shoulders, and having a knowledge of Iain Banks’ views on politics and religion, as well has having more experience of the world, I have detected much more on my re-read than I ever became aware of during my first encounter with Consider Phlebas.

I am sure there are other things in the book that I either forget at the moment or that I did not pick up, but you can see from the above paragraphs I saw a lot in this book. The experience of the re-read may lead me to re-read most of the other IMB Science Fiction books. I am particularly interested in revisiting Excession and Inversions as my memory of them is very hazy. Use of Weapons is another book I wish to revisit as there are obviously things in it that I missed all those years ago.

jan 29, 2014, 6:06pm

#66 imyril he gains nothing by trooping the Idiran around

What Horza believes is that he will hurt the Idiran more by subjecting him to the shame of being tried by his own people than he would be killing him and thereby awarding the Idiran a noble death without any shame. That worked for me.

jan 29, 2014, 7:18pm

I've got another 100 pages to go but I've got to say Unaha-Closp is the best character in the book. Yes, I'm weird.

jan 30, 2014, 2:34am

68> my comment wasn't (meant to ;) reflect his stated intention/motivation as my opinion on it.

For me, this key decision helps illustrate the flip from cold, hard, motivated-by-the-job assassin to passionate, motivated-by-the-personal man. Vengeance is allowed to get in the way of the job; it ties up resources and puts the team under threat. It was much more extreme than other aspects of Horza's softening, hence my comment on not getting it (even as progression); it's a necessary tragic ingredient, so feels forced to me - a step too far if you will. I found Horza's unwillingness to kill Balveda and the second Idiran's unwillingness to die much less problematic (although problematic is really too strong a word - it didn't get in the way of the story for me, and I enjoyed Xoxarle's stories to Aviger. I just mentally tagged it as the author's hand rather than what felt to me like a natural progression)

69> no, I think U-C is up there for me to :)

jan 30, 2014, 4:22am

#70 imyril I see your point. As you say, once Horaz has made the decision on how to avenge the death of the other Changers he is blinded to the obstacles and risks to the mission presented by Xoxarle's continued presence. As I think you are implying, another leader working at full power would have reassessed his decision and disposed of the captive. Certainly the disposal of Xoxarle would not have caused the same revulsion as the killing of Balveda. Aviger would have taken great delight in killing the Idiran although his performance to date in this regard did not indicate that he was adept at such a task.

I interpreted Horza's unwillingness to kill Balveda once he cauther her on the CAT simply as a ploy not to repel the rest of the crew. I think he felt in the circumstances he should kill her for operational reasons, but that the presence of others was the issue.

I had no issue with the second Idiran's unwillingness to die. I thouhgt it was consistent with the nature of his warrior race in that he would keep going while there was a chance of striking a blow at the enemy and increasing the nobility of his death. I found this consistent with Xoxarle's wish to be killed as it would have given him the better ending from an honour viewpoint.

#69 majkia The book has warriors who slaughter millions, spies who will ruthlessly kill someone if it progresses their mission, people willing to gamble other people's lives on a game of chance, mercenaries, cannibalistic cult leaders, and pleasure seeking citizens. Whom can you not love? ;)

Unaha-Closp was the most "straightforward/normal" character with a touch of indignation that caused some interesting exchanges with Horaz. It was probably the only character that did not have some form of lurid or violent past.

jan 30, 2014, 6:08am

imyril and pgmcc: Interesting discussion; you both make very good points. I was mentally yelling at Horza in that section of the book SPOILER "Just kill him! Keeping your enemy alive ALWAYS ends badly!2 but as you say, his reasons for not doing so are logical and make sense, even if they are not wise.

pgmcc, I'm glad you posted your excellent summation of the book here as well as in your reading journal! It is a great addition to the discussion.

jan 30, 2014, 8:38am

#72 Claire, given your comments under the "spoiler" banner I hope I never cross you. Never let me become an enemy of yours, please.

jan 30, 2014, 11:14am

Sorry to be an early dropout, but I got to the middle of the attack on the Temple of Light and decided to give up on it.

I like to try things outside my comfort zone (travel memoirs, intense poetry, children's books for work ...) every now and then, but reading this has felt like a chore most of the time.

To show you where my mind is, the description of the vines and moss the mercenaries passed through as they approached the Temple was my favorite part.

jan 30, 2014, 12:49pm

I finished this a bit ago. It certainly brought up (and the discussion has) a lot of mixed emotions for me. I spent 20 years in the US Air Force, most of it working with fighter pilots. The warrior culture at it's best. Needless to say, given that comment, all 20 years I was seen as an outside, a rogue and a troublemaker. I retired at 20 years, as soon as I could. Even though my particular career field was computers, not directly combat related, even so I did some vile things and watched lies and damn lies used to further the drumbeats for war and conflict.

Sorry if that offends anyone. Just my personal thoughts regarding my career, and still at odds with all my retiree friends and even my spouse.

I found the depiction of the Idirans and Horza, and yes Belveda quite realistic throughout the book.

jan 30, 2014, 1:46pm

#74: I'm sorry that Consider Phlebas didn't work out for you, Margaret. Horza is not the most likable protagonist, and the compounding disasters aren't exactly pleasant to read.

#75: Jean, I'm sorry that you had to deal with what seems like an academic discussion to most of us in real life. I don't think your opinion is offensive to any of us, and I would love to hear more about how it influenced your reading of the book (if you want to share).

jan 30, 2014, 4:31pm

#75 majkia, you have shown great resolve and fortitude with you stance as expressed through your post. It is not easy to openly discuss a point of view that is at odds with the people you come into contact with. You have my admiration.

I read a non-fiction book last year called Wilful Blindness. It looked at how dreadful things can be allowed to happen and explained them through the workings of the brain and how it influences our actions and interactions. It dealt with various issues such as the fall of Enron, the paedophilia scandal in the Irish Catholic Church, the catastrophic explosion of an oil refinery in Texas, etc... You might find that book interesting. It also provides a scientific explanation of how love is blind. :-)

I found the depiction of the Idirans and Horza, and yes Belveda quite realistic throughout the book.
I know that Iain Banks would be very pleased to hear this comment, as would any author whose work was praised in this way.

jan 30, 2014, 4:39pm

#74 Megi53 I wouldn't be too hard on myself if I were you. Iain Banks' work is not for everyone. He used some shock tactics in many of his books and that is not everyone's cup of tea. He was never one for pulling punches.

feb 2, 2014, 4:08pm

I am still slowly working through the book and not reading spoilers. Honestly, this is a surprise to me because the series has such amazing legs and I'm not in the know enough to understand why.

Soldiering on....

apr 14, 2014, 7:45pm

I was going to start with use of Weapons, but I see most everyone is reading these in order. I'll start Consider Phlebas tonight then. I've read it before but it's been a gazillion years.

apr 15, 2014, 5:17pm

I finally figured out why I didn't enjoy this book. The godlike beings seemed like a cheat, since they didn't do a damn thing to stop this stupid war, the epilogue told me that the entire damned book changed NOTHING, and I was annoyed as all get-out at the convenience/coincidence of Horza's Changerness.

Well, it was an early book, and Banks said he'd gone back and rewritten an older work after he finished The Wasp Factory.

apr 15, 2014, 6:45pm

>81 richardderus: I have read 4 of the series so far, and Consider Phlebas remains my least favourite, so probably you will have better luck with the rest of the series as well.

apr 18, 2014, 6:25am

>81 richardderus: Apoint you raise as a reason you didn't enjoy the book, i.e. nothing changed, is what I interpreted as one of the main points of the book, i.e. that wars often do not change things. I am struck with the similarities between the start of WWI and the current unrest in Eastern Europe. Almost 100 years after the start of WWI we still have rumblings of unrest and potential for conflict.

I reckoned the godlike beings just couldn't be bothered with the squabbles between the lesser beings.

apr 18, 2014, 6:50am

>83 pgmcc: Agreed on both points for my part, but then I was intrigued by what I perceived as a thread in the first three Culture novels of whether one person can ever make a difference, and at what scale - Horza is operating at a personal level within a galactic conflict, and the point for me here was that this pretty much always vanishes without a trace. Banks doesn't deal in big gorram heroes. When his protagonists do start making a difference, it's at a smaller scale and they're far from heroic.

We come to see in later Culture novels that there are many godlike beings out there (not just the Dra'azon), and the consensus seems to be that they simply don't meddle because they've moved past all this corporeal nonsense. The Dra'Azon are unusual in their hobby of preserving planets as perfect examples of messing themselves up, but I guess when you're that far beyond the rest of us you can be as eccentric in your hobbies as you like ;)

apr 18, 2014, 1:18pm

>84 imyril: I guess when you're that far beyond the rest of us you can be as eccentric in your hobbies as you like ;)

I agree on all points, even the ; in the ;-)


In terms of big messages I know that Iain wanted to write books with political messages but always felt he fell short of this goal. I always felt he managed to slip in a few political messages in each of his books, but he never over did it. I think he was always comparing his work with that of his friend Ken MacLeod and Ken's work is much more overtly political. Iain's political messages were more drive-by political points.

apr 18, 2014, 2:13pm

Okay, if his point was to write a book in which the futility of one person's life efforts is the message, then he succeeded. If I want to read that book, I'll read Beckett, however.

I suppose I'm either too angsty or not angsty enough to want that particular payoff. The series has certainly made many a believer.