CONSIDER PHLEBAS discussion (The Culture group read)
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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 –
The Culture group read: Wiki page | Organisational thread
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.
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)
#11: Ancillary Justice was a pretty amazing book; I can't argue with being sidetracked by it.
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 ;)
I'm looking forward to the Culture discussions, whether or not I get to read the specific title!
(edited for emphasizing SPOILERS)
#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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!)
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
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.
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 –
I would attribute that to the power of Banks' description.
I read your review of Consider Phlebas and I noticed your comments about
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.)
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!
Iain was strongly anti-organised religion.
SPOILER RE: The Crow Road
I think Iain's feelings on this subject underlie much of his writings.
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!
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.
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.
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.
I'm not sure who said this earlier, but
NO MORE SPOILERS
#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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
I don't have anything new to add to the discussion right now, but I wanted to say that I'm enjoying it greatly.
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.
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
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.
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.
It's just my opinion though - your mileage may vary, and that's okay :)
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.
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.
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.
69> no, I think U-C is up there for me to :)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
#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).
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.
Well, it was an early book, and Banks said he'd gone back and rewritten an older work after he finished The Wasp Factory.
I reckoned the godlike beings just couldn't be bothered with the squabbles between the lesser beings.
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 ;)
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.
I suppose I'm either too angsty or not angsty enough to want that particular payoff. The series has certainly made many a believer.