Gareth L Pow­ell re­calls our first close en­counter with the Cul­ture

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents -

Gareth L Pow­ell on Con­sider Ph­le­bas by Iain M Banks.

The Cul­ture is a galaxy­wide, utopian metacivil­i­sa­tion. Be­tween 1987 and 2012, it formed the back­drop for nine ex­tra­or­di­nary nov­els, one des­per­ately poignant novella, and a brace of short sto­ries. Of these, Con­sider Ph­le­bas was the first novel to be pub­lished.

The book is set against a war be­tween the Cul­ture and an alien race known as the Idi­rans. But rather than fo­cus on the peo­ple and ma­chines fight­ing the war, the novel in­stead fol­lows the for­tunes of Bora Horza Gobuchul, a hu­manoid work­ing for the Idi­rans, as he makes his way across the gal­axy in an ef­fort to re­cover a Mind (one of the sen­tient, hy­per-in­tel­li­gent ma­chines that con­trol the Cul­ture’s war­ships) from Schar’s World – a planet set aside as a mon­u­ment to an ex­tinct civil­i­sa­tion.

Along the way, Horza falls in with a group of mer­ce­nar­ies ek­ing an ex­is­tence on the edge of the wider con­flict, and their cat­a­stroph­i­cally botched mis­sions pro­vide the episodic struc­ture of much of the novel.

For me, though, the heart of the novel is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Horza and his re­luc­tant would-be neme­sis, the Cul­ture agent Perostek Balveda. Al­though on dif­fer­ent sides in the war, the two have a tremen­dous re­spect for each other, to the point where nei­ther can quite bring them­selves to kill the other, and Balveda es­sen­tially comes to act as Horza’s con­science.

The war dom­i­nates the story. It ex­ists in the nar­ra­tive rather like a dis­tant thun­der­storm. You can feel the vi­o­lence of it in the air, even if the char­ac­ters never be­come fully em­broiled in the fu­ri­ous ex­changes that are hap­pen­ing, mostly un­seen, amid the stars.

We are shown glimpses of dif­fer­ent races and worlds, and hints of a much larger can­vas. This might have been the first Cul­ture novel pub­lished, but it feels as if it takes place in an al­ready-es­tab­lished uni­verse – pos­si­bly due to the fact Banks had ap­par­ently al­ready penned drafts of three other nov­els be­fore achiev­ing pub­li­ca­tion with Con­sider Ph­le­bas.

The other great strength is Banks’s abil­ity to make us sym­pa­thise with deeply flawed char­ac­ters, how­ever mis­guided or im­moral they might be. Even the fa­nat­i­cal Idi­ran war­riors are pre­sented sym­pa­thet­i­cally, when we start to see events through the eyes of one of their num­ber.

Con­sider Ph­le­bas may not be as cel­e­brated as its fol­low-ups, The Player Of Games (1988) and Use Of Weapons (1990), but it still stands head and shoul­ders above most of the other space opera of the time, and, as it con­tains the first ap­pear­ance of the Cul­ture, it oc­cu­pies an im­por­tant po­si­tion in the sub­genre’s his­tory.

All the fa­mil­iar Cul­ture ingredients are al­ready in place: the whim­si­cal ship names; the gi­gan­tic space habi­tats; the moral grey areas that ex­ist when a utopian civil­i­sa­tion im­poses its will on the gal­axy in the name of the greater good. There are also haunt­ingly-re­alised set­pieces, from the de­struc­tion of a mas­sive or­bital ring by an­ti­mat­ter bom­bard­ment and the crash of a kilo­me­tres-long cruise ship into a tab­u­lar ice­berg, to a one-on-one fight be­neath the skirts of a building-sized hov­er­craft.

I don’t want to give any spoil­ers, but by the end of the book it be­comes ap­par­ent that this isn’t a book about war, but about the cost of war, and the un­in­tended cru­el­ties it jus­ti­fies.

Thank­fully, it is also a first-rate ad­ven­ture, with all the ac­tion and spec­ta­cle you could wish for.

Gareth L Pow­ell is the au­thor of the BSFA Award-win­ning Ack-Ack Ma­caque. He has a new tril­ogy due from Ti­tan Books in 2017. Find him on Twit­ter: @garethlpow­ell.

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