Welcome back to the Culture reread! Today in chapters 5 and 6 of Consider Phlebas, Kraiklyn continues to prove himself an absolutely terrible captain, another heist goes dreadfully wrong, and Horza is captured by a cult. This entire sequence is one of the most revolting things I’ve read in almost any book anywhere. Don’t read this section while you’re eating, and don’t count on having an appetite for a while after.
Chapter 5: Megaship
As the Clear Air Turbulence makes its way to Vavatch, Yalson offers her theory of why they’re headed that way to Horza: there’s going to be a game of Damage played there. To the reader at this point, the nature of this game is obscure, though both Horza and Yalson seem concerned. It seems that games are rare and played for very high stakes (supposedly Kraiklyn won the CAT in a Damage game), and Kraiklyn being deliberately omissive about it annoys Yalson—among other things, it suggests that he’s determined not to share any spoils of the game with the crew. If anything, this confirms Horza’s general antipathy toward Kraiklyn, and he continues to develop his plans to replace the captain of the ship. Though Horza, it should be noted, is keeping more secrets of his own. Part of the object of his Schar’s World mission—which of course he hasn’t disclosed to anyone—is the person he wants to have join him on his ticket out of the war after the mission is over—a Changer named Kierachell, a woman he liked, maybe loved, before leaving the base to join the Idirans in their war against the Culture. Which complicates his liaison with Yalson, just a bit. Not that he mentions it to her.
One of the chief features of Vavatch is its Megaships, enormous, city-sized vessels that continually traverse the Orbital’s seas. Almost all have now been stripped of their valuables, but the job was left unfinished on one ship, the Olmedreca, after some of the salvaging crews got into a dispute and, according to Kraiklyn, “some careless person let off a little nuke”. (More casual mega-destruction.) This has set the Olmedreca adrift at an angle off its usual course, and at any moment it’s likely to crash into the “Edgewall” that contains the Orbital’s seas. Kraiklyn claims it’s got some bow lasers that they can lift to replace the CAT’s weaponry. After the Temple of Light fiasco, the ship’s crew is increasingly distrustful of Kraiklyn’s favorite phrase, “easy in, easy out”, but as far as they can tell, he seems to be right about it this time. They’ll grab the lasers and then head to the Orbital’s port city of Evanauth, to use the local facilities to install them on the CAT. And, Yalson is pretty sure, there’s where the Damage game is happening.
Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the scale that Banks is operating on here. We’ve all seen ring-shaped space vessels and stations in films, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Elysium, but one of those space stations would be a spot inside an Orbital like Vavatch. For a Megaship (which allegedly takes several years to get up to full speed), imagine Manhattan unmoored and set to sail forever, powered by unthinkably massive engines. And yet this vastness, this entire world is, in the scheme of the Culture-Idiran war, essentially a piece of collateral damage.
The Olmedreca raid gets off to a poor start. One of the crew, having missed the part of the briefing about anti-gravity gear not working on an Orbital, takes an overexcited flying leap off a high spot and promptly falls to his instant death. Sobered by this, the crew sets off to explore the ship.
And then everything goes to hell, and Banks hits his intensely cinematic stride.
The reason a Megaship has laser weaponry on it is that there are massive icebergs—bigger than the ships—in the Orbital’s waters, and the lasers were needed to blast such obstacles away. While Kraiklyn was sneeringly confident that they would be able to see the Edgewall looming and evacuate, what he hadn’t planned on was a “cloud bank” ahead of the Olmedreca that turns out to be an iceberg. As they attempt to flee the Megaship in a panic, Horza looks back to see “the Megaship was throwing itself to its destruction in a froth of debris and ice. It was like the biggest wave in the universe, rendered in scrap metal, sculpted in grinding junk, and beyond and about it, over and through, cascades of flashing, glittering ice and snow swept down in great slow veils from the cliff of frozen water beyond.”
Horza just barely manages to escape on a shuttle flown by the CAT’s pilot Mipp. Clinging by his fingertips, he nearly falls as the shuttle pulls away, but is thrown back into it by the shockwave of a nuclear device detonated as his crewmate Lamm is crushed to death in the wreckage of the ship.
Horza and Mipp limp away in the shuttle, but there’s no way the damaged vessel can make it to Kraiklyn’s suggested rendezvous point in Evanauth. They fly past an island, but an increasingly unhinged Mipp ignores Horza’s entreaties to land after the island’s inhabitants take a few potshots at the passing shuttle. Unable to keep flying, Mipp ditches into the ocean.
Chapter 6: The Eaters
My friend Susan refers to this part of the book as “the island of the barf people and that dude with the teeth.” It’s the part that both of us instantly thought of as being nearly unfilmable for sheer grotesquerie of content when we heard about the Consider Phlebas TV adaptation. You stand warned.
Mipp dies in the crash, but Horza manages to extricate himself from the wrecked shuttle. His only choice for survival is the island they passed earlier—he had spotted a shuttle of some kind there, and if he can get to it, he reckons that he can at least try and get to Evanauth, if not off the Orbital altogether.
Swimming to the island exhausts him, but he makes it…and it’s not long before this proves to be a mixed blessing. The islanders are, to a person, underfed and unwell-looking, with the exception being their leader: a horrifyingly obese human whose “head sat on its layers of neck, shoulder, and chest fat like a great golden bell on top of a many-decked temple”—Horza, seeing him from high in the air earlier, had mistaken him for a giant pyramid of golden sand. This is Fwi-Song, sometime freak-show inhabitant, former “palace pet for some alien satrap” on a Megaship, and now a self-proclaimed prophet who has somehow persuaded a group of followers to join him on this island to await “the End Of All Things,” i.e. the destruction of Vavatch. Fwi-Song’s followers, the Eaters, subsist on fish entrails and other horrifying leavings, and Fwi-Song himself, well…
He’s a cannibal, and he feasts on the flesh of those—like Horza—who wash up on the island’s shores, as well as that of any of his followers who step out of line. Horza is given a teaser of the fate that awaits him when the unfortunate disciple known as Twenty-Seventh is brought before the prophet for the crime of attempting to escape the island by way of the shuttle that Horza had spotted—or, in Fwi-Song’s words, “the seven-times-cursed vehicle of the Vacuum.” Fwi-Song takes out some knife-sharp steel dentures and proceeds to devour the unfortunate man, one extremity at a time, before—as best as one can tell; like Horza, one resists analyzing the revolting goings-on too closely—raping and crushing him to death.
Yeah. That’s a thing that happens.
I’ve written before of the optimism inherent in Banks’s construction of the Culture, but it’s salutary to recall that his imagination cooks up some truly hair-raising depravity from time to time. Is it gratuitous, shocking for shock’s sake? I’m disinclined to think so, though it’s certainly unsubtle, insofar as it relates to the novel’s recurring themes of what the Culture would consider the irrationality of religious faith—any religious faith. As Horza awaits his fate at the hands of the Eaters, he contemplates the Idirans’ “belief in order, place, and a kind of holy rationality.” They believe that they are agents of divine order, and therefore must impose that order throughout the galaxy, by conquest if necessary. Horza doesn’t particularly agree with those beliefs, but he doesn’t think that the Idirans pose a true long-term threat. He’s fairly certain that they will eventually rationalize themselves into a state of peace, whereas he’s convinced that the Culture, for all their apparent benignity, will continue to interfere and spread their ways throughout the galaxy like a cancer, unless they’re stopped. It’s easy enough for Horza to dismiss Fwi-Song’s derangement and tolerate Idiran fundamentalism, but he resists the Culture perspective that all religions are irrational in ways that differ only in matters of degree—that a monster who kills by torture and cannibalism according to its own ludicrous and inhumane rules is no more or less dangerous than Idiran fundamentalists attempting by force to impose their will via warfare and the occasional weapon of mass destruction. What matters to Horza is that the Culture and their machines are stopped.
But Horza’s thoughts aren’t going to add up to much if he can’t escape. He tries a pathetically transparent wheeze by telling Fwi-Song that he’ll happily deliver the Eaters from the temptation of the Culture shuttle, and is gagged for his trouble. He tries sweating acid to weaken or break the bonds tying his wrists, but gets nowhere. He has his poison teeth back and is able to secrete poison in his nails again, but he’s not sure if he’s going to have the chance to use them. That does give him the option of committing suicide, “but while there was still any chance, he could not bring himself to think of it seriously.” He allows himself a moment of contempt for the “soft, peace-pampered souls” of the Culture, who he imagines auto-euthanizing themselves at the first sign of genuine pain. (Of course, he hasn’t met Fal ’Ngeestra. It’s possible, just possible, that Horza doesn’t have the measure of the Culture that he thinks he does.)
At the last minute his luck finally turns. With his poisoned nails, he takes a swipe at Fwi-Song’s high priest Mr. First and misses. Fwi-Song proceeds to use his steel teeth to deglove one of Horza’s fingers—taking the poison with it. As Fwi-Song dies a painful death, Horza blinds Mr. First (who is then crushed by the falling body of his prophet), and in the confusion, he escapes onto the shuttle.
The shuttle is an artificial intelligence called Tsealsir, but it’s rather outmoded and slightly pathetic, “too old-fashioned and crude for the Culture,” it says, but rather pleased to have been tasked with assisting the Vavatch evacuation. Still, Culture is Culture, as far as Horza is concerned, and to get away without calling his enemies’ attention, Horza tricks it into giving away the location of its core processing “brain”—which he then blows to smithereens. With that, he takes off, leaving Fwi-Song’s remains to the tender mercies of insects.
Interlude in Darkness
Meanwhile, the Mind on Schar’s World is running on the barest minimum of functionality: “it had effectively frozen its primary memory and cognitive functions, wrapping them in fields which prevented both decay and use. It was working instead on back-up picocircuitry in real space, and using real-space light to think with (how humiliating).”
The Mind has used a drone to take the measure of Schar’s World and now sits in darkness, contemplating its situation. It’s pleased to have made its daring escape, but unsure of how it’s going to get out. Perhaps, it thinks, it should have gone down with its ship—it would have been easier—but the chance to escape had been too good and “it would have been…wasteful to throw away such a great chance even if it had been perfectly sanguine about its own survival or destruction.”
It knows that the Idirans have a former Schar’s World Changer working for them, and that this Changer could be coming for it…but maybe the Culture will get there first, it thinks. Or the Dra’Azon will help it somehow. The Mind is no less driven to survive than Horza was in the cell in Sorpen or amongst the Eaters, but there is nothing for it to do but wait.
Next up: Damage, and the destruction of Vavatch.