Welcome to the Culture Reread! Today is the first proper post of the series, and we’re off with the prologue and chapters 1 and 2 of Consider Phlebas.
Consider Phlebas, the first Culture novel that Banks completed and published, appeared in 1987. It takes place against the background of a long and destructive war between the Culture and the Idirans. The Culture, of course, is more or less human as we know it, post-scarcity, essentially socialist, and, until the war, largely thought of as a bunch of hedonistic pacifists; the Idirans are three-meter-tall tripedal beings bent on a war of religious conquest. At the time of Consider Phlebas, the war has been going on for four years, with enormous casualties on either side and no sign of surrender either way. One might expect this novel to be the story of some key conflict in the course of that war, something history-changing—whether that’s the case, well, we shall see.
(A note on the post titles: they are drawn from the names of Culture ships that appear in those novels. Hopefully this is a joke that will not wear thin before the series is out.)
We begin with a literal bang. A newly manufactured, still unnamed Mind—a Culture artificial intelligence, embodied in a fantastically dense ovoid and contained in a hastily jury-rigged ship—is jettisoned by its factory ship shortly before that ship’s utter destruction. Name your favorite story of a desperate parent making one last bid for their child’s safety—notwithstanding that these are artificial intelligences, that’s what’s going on here. It’s almost for naught, as the Mind’s ship is cornered by a hostile fleet, but it escapes through a complicated bit of four-dimensional jiggery-pokery, to take refuge on a planet called Schar’s World, “near the region of barren space between two galactic strands called the Sullen Gulf … one of the forbidden Planets of the Dead”. We don’t know yet what this means, precisely, but it’s not hard to guess: both the Culture and the Idirans will be interested in getting hold of this Mind, and it will not be easy.
Chapter 1: Sorpen
Now we meet our protagonist, Bora Horza Gobuchul. He is a spy, from a species known as Changers—humans who are able to alter their appearance to impersonate nearly anyone they like, which obviously makes them extremely valuable spies. They have other interesting characteristics as well: venomous teeth and nails, for instance.
None of that is doing Horza any good, when we meet him. He’s being subjected to a spectacularly gross form of execution: shackled to a wall in a watertight cell that is slowly filling up with effluent—refuse from the kitchen, and raw sewage from the toilets above. Banks spares little detail in his descriptions of the warm, foul liquid slowly making its way up Horza’s face and Horza’s attempts to keep his head above it—and believe it or not, this isn’t the most disgusting thing we’ll see in this book.
Horza is an Idiran spy, and his unfortunate state is a consequence of being caught impersonating a high-ranking government official—he murdered the original, which is apparently Horza’s standard operating procedure—on a Culture-allied planet called Sorpen. (Sorpen is run by a “gerontocracy”, a ruling body entirely composed of elderly men. Typical Banks: this interesting idea, which might have formed a setting for a whole other novel, is used, noted, and never dealt with again.)
He’s not the only alien agent on this planet; the Culture is represented here by Special Circumstances agent Perosteck Balveda, who, when Horza was installed in the execution cell, attempted to plead with one of the Gerontocrats for his life, even as Horza railed against her and the Culture. Her request was denied; Horza, in a moment of bitter dark humor, asked her to at least “promise me that you’ll eat and drink very little tonight, Balveda. I’d like to think there was one person up there on my side, and it might as well be my worst enemy.”
It’s looking very bad for Horza indeed, when quite suddenly the wall of his cell is blasted away. His employers, the Idirans, have come to his rescue.
Chapter 2: The Hand of God 137
Safe aboard the Idirian ship The Hand of God 137 (the 137th ship to bear that name, Idiran ship-naming conventions being in strong contrast to the Culture’s predilection for jokes and irony), Horza gets cleaned up and learns his mission. Before he went to work for the Idirans, he was a caretaker on Schar’s World, and as such, he may be able to go there and retrieve the Culture Mind hiding there. Not anyone can just pop in on this planet; it’s surrounded by a “Dra’Azon Quiet Barrier” (precisely what this means is not revealed at this point), which will damage or destroy anything else that tries to land there. Horza agrees, and in classic One Last Job fashion, his condition is that once it’s done, he—and an old friend who, to the best of his knowledge, still lives on Schar’s World—will be given the resources to escape the war altogether.
Meanwhile, the Idirans finish off the planet Sorpen by fusion-bombing a few of their cities, and Horza learns that Perosteck Balveda has been captured by the Idirans. He takes up the Idirans’ offer to visit her in her cell for one more confrontation, and here we learn specifically why Horza has thrown in with the Idirans—not because he cares for their religion in any way, or endorses their brutal methods: “I don’t care how self-righteous the Culture feels, or how many people the Idirans kill. They’re on the side of life—boring, old-fashioned biological life; smelly, fallible, short-sighted, God knows, but real life. You’re ruled by your machines. You’re an evolutionary dead end.”
This is how Banks chooses to introduce the Culture and its philosophies to the reader: through the eyes of someone who hates them with a passion. The prevalence of machine intelligence in the Culture is revolting to Horza; he is convinced that the Minds really run things in the Culture, manipulating the humans who “couldn’t see that one day the Minds would start thinking how wasteful and inefficient the humans in the Culture themselves were.” And he sneers at the hypocrisy that he believes is embodied in Balveda and Special Circumstances—the dirty tricks and espionage organization that the average Culture citizen thinks of as both sexily elite and distasteful. “No other part of the Culture more exactly represented what the society as a whole really stood for, or was more militant in the application of the Culture’s fundamental beliefs. Yet no other part embodied less of the society’s day-to-day character”.
Balveda weathers his verbal attacks stoically, quietly reiterating her conviction that the Culture is going to win the war, and though she doesn’t say it explicitly, she seems to suggest that Horza and the Idirans underestimate and misunderstand the Culture—its willingness to fight, its ability to learn how to win. Horza is unconvinced and leaves her in her cell, resisting the urge “to ruffle her short black hair or pinch her cheek”, knowing that it would only “aggravate the experience for somebody who was, in the end, a fair and honorable adversary.” Horza, though something of a spy-novel cipher at times, is not without compassion or tenderness, as we’ll see again later.
Moments later, the Idiran ship is attacked by a Culture ship which, Horza is shocked to learn, had been hiding nearby in the upper layers of the system’s sun—a sneaky tactic he wouldn’t have expected of them. Bundled into a space suit, he is shoved out into space to await rescue by the Idirans. Here he has time to contemplate the war between the Culture and the Idirans, in terms that are disturbingly relevant to a reader in the age of unmanned drone warfare: “He looked for the Culture ship, then told himself not to be stupid; it was probably still several trillion kilometers away. That was how divorced from human scale modern warfare had become. You could smash and destroy from unthinkable distances, obliterate planets from beyond their own system and provoke stars into novae from light-years off…and still have no good idea why you were really fighting.”
Horza himself is somewhat baffled by the war’s persistence, in fact. He finds it hard to believe that the Culture, a “communist Utopia”, would not only stir itself to fight against the Idirans in their war of religious conquest, but persist for years. “The early reverses and first few megadeaths had not, as the pundits and experts had predicted, shocked the Culture into retiring, horrified at the brutalities of war but proud to have put its collective life where usually only its collective mouth was. Instead it had just kept on retreating and retreating, preparing, gearing up and planning. Horza was convinced the Minds were behind it all.”
There’s something chilling about the casual phrase “the first few megadeaths”. That, along with the Idirans’ casual bombing of Sorpen, are details that indicate just how brutal this conflict has actually been. It’s not a war of tribes or nations—it’s a war across planets, and it seems to be notably lacking in the glamor or heroics of certain other space operas about interplanetary war that one could name.
As Horza ponders these matters, floating alone in the depths of space, his suit alerts him to an incoming vessel. Who is it? And what are they going to do with Horza—who, it should be remembered, still looks like an elderly politician with thin hair and sallow skin. We’ll find out in two weeks, in the next section of the Culture re-read.