Gareth L Powell recalls our first close encounter with the Culture
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.