The Culture Reread

The Culture Reread: Irregular Apocalypse (Consider Phelbas, Part 4)

Welcome back to the Culture reread! Apologies for having missed last week; it turns out that traveling and reread posting are not necessarily fully compatible. But we’re back on track now, approximately halfway through Consider Phlebas. This week, we finally learn exactly what Damage is. Horza catches up with Kraiklyn and rejoins the crew of the Clear Air Turbulence, and an acquaintance reappears.

Chapter 7: A Game of Damage

As Horza arrives at Evanauth—he’s heard that the Olmedreca was found abandoned, suggesting to him that at least some of the CAT’s crew must also have escaped—a journalist called Sarble the Eye helpfully provides us with an information dump about the game of Damage. It’s “an ordinary card game with a few embellishments to make it attractive to the mentally disturbed”. The first is that each player has an array of Lives: actual, literal human lives, people who will die when their player loses a hand. A player loses the game when they run out of Lives. Each Life is ostensibly a volunteer, though of course there are rumors… The second is that the game takes the concept of the poker bluff one better, in that the cards enable players to project emotional states on one another, up to and including the urge to commit suicide. There is a poisoned needle at each player’s seat, just in case the play is made and someone can’t resist. The gamblers on hand for this particular round are known as “the Players of the Eve of Destruction … the most select group of rich psychopaths in the human galaxy”, who have a penchant for playing Damage in places that are about to be destroyed—be it through comet strikes, asteroids, or human-made actions. The destruction of Vavatch, clearly, was going to be catnip for these people.

Horza finds that Yalson was correct: Kraiklyn is indeed here for the game, although with a paltry three Lives, he will have to be extremely careful and lucky to win. Horza, whose change into a Kraiklyn double is now all but complete, watches from the audience. He has to stay constantly on the move: one moment blending in with the “moties”, the junkies addicted to the backwash from the emotional fields hitting the different players, another trying to hide near another Damage player’s concubines while trying not to get overwhelmed by the effects of their enhanced pheromones. Overhead, a pair of animals engage in a bloodsport that goes all but unnoticed by the spectators below.

One might reasonably ask what the Culture’s stance on all this is; even though Vavatch is technically neutral territory, they have taken it upon themselves to evacuate the Orbital before destroying it, and presumably they have some level of interest in the affairs going on there. But it seems they’ve chosen not to interfere with the unsettlingly casual depravity of the game and its milieu—and indeed, Sarble points out that the game is taking place with the approval of “the authorities”, which perhaps includes not just whatever administration remains on Vavatch, but the Culture as well. The Culture, it seems, will pick and choose the battles they consider worth fighting. In the shadow of potential Idiran religious hegemony, even an extremely unsavory pastime like Damage may be small beer indeed to them. This also connects to a larger question of “who and what is the Culture?”, which will be visited later.

Horza happens to be plugged into Kraiklyn’s thoughts right when he’s hit with a “Pit of Self-Doubt”, and the fallout sends him into a temporary existential fugue. As he’s pulling himself back together, Kraiklyn loses the game. As the crowds make their way out of Evanauth and off the Orbital, Horza follows him. He catches a ride with a woman he’s been observing throughout the Damage game, realizing as she does so that she’s Sarble—or maybe part of a collective acting under that name. Finally he catches up with Kraiklyn, and after a desperate pursuit that culminates in a knock-down, drag-out brawl under the skirts of an evacuation hovercraft, Horza snaps Kraiklyn’s neck, steals his fingerprints, and runs.

The Clear Air Turbulence is undergoing repairs aboard The Ends of Invention, an ex-Culture GSV, a space vehicle so immense that a Megaship can be brought aboard for posterity’s sake, no problem. He bluffs his way down to the bay where the vessel is housed and is greeted by the CAT’s remaining crew—which includes Yalson, who is deeply concerned about Horza’s whereabouts—as if he were Kraiklyn himself. He swaggers and blusters his way through the role only to be met with an unpleasant shock. There’s a new crewmember aboard the CAT, brought on by the original Kraiklyn—and to Horza’s horror, that crewmember turns out to be Perosteck Balveda, the Culture agent last seen as a prisoner on board The Hand of God 137.

Chapter 8: The Ends of Invention

Generally when I talk about why I like Iain M. Banks, I start in on his ideas, his humor and inventiveness, and usually a few funny remarks about the Ship names. Somehow I don’t always remember his talent for rendering intensely cinematic action into prose; in the last chapter, he showed it off in Horza’s pursuit of Kraiklyn, and in this chapter, he does it again.

Horza tries to get Balveda off the ship by firing her from the crew, and also tries to trick his way off The Ends of Invention by claiming that their nuclear fusion generators are breaking down and that they need to get out immediately. But before they can go anywhere—or get rid of Balveda—they’re locked into the bay instead, along with a rather stroppy drone that has the misfortune to be stuck on board when Horza tries his ruse. So Horza proceeds, over the course of an extended action scene that would do Spielberg proud, to blast his way out of the inside of the GSV. It’s a literally explosive, vivid ride that seems to go on forever, from smallbay to main bay and finally out of the side of the ship itself. They do massive damage on the way out, and are almost caught by Evanauth’s port police, but at the last moment, a bomb in Balveda’s luggage goes off—and helpfully, it’s just been dumped from the CAT’s vactubes right into the path of the police ships.

Still pretending to be Kraiklyn (and ensuring that Balveda is kept quiet by repeated shots with a stun gun, delivered by Yalson), Horza informs the CAT’s crew that their next stop is to Schar’s World, and that he—Kraiklyn, supposedly—has gotten a commission from the Idirans to do exactly what Horza’s job is. The crew is doubtful, but willing to go along with another “easy in, easy out”, and then the discussion is interrupted by the destruction of Vavatch.

A Culture GSV, appropriately named the Eschatologist, uses “gridfire”—energy from the fabric of the universe itself—to carefully and neatly slice the Orbital into pieces. Into halves, then square-shaped segments, then those segments into smaller segments, leaving “a swollen and spiraled disc of flashing, glittering splinters, expanding very slowly against the distant stars like a ring of bright dust. The glinting, sparkling center made it look like some huge, lidless and unblinking eye.” Horza reflects that the spectacle of the destruction is limited for the human eye; something that could appreciate the entire range of the electromagnetic spectrum—for instance, a Culture Mind—would see a great deal more. “A spectacle for the machines, thought Horza; that was all it was. A sideshow for the damn machines.”

The crew’s absorption in that sideshow gives Balveda a chance to finally regain consciousness without another jab from Yalson’s stun gun—and she instantly blows Horza’s identity. She also reveals that they’ve known who he was since he set foot on The Ends of Invention; something he took for a tiny insect that landed on his hand was in fact a Culture microdrone. She was supposed to do anything she could to stop Horza, but he caught on to her before she could act.

The resulting conversation is, to say the least, awkward.

The CAT’s crew, at least, doesn’t seem particularly inclined to avenge their former captain, but they are certainly taken aback, Yalson in particular, who informs Horza that it’s a lot less pleasant to see him again than she’d expected. Balveda has every reason to believe that Horza will kill her now, but he’s reluctant to—in part for the impression it would make on the crew, and in part for what he decides is “sentiment”, a kind of grudging respect for his opponent. After giving instructions to have her thoroughly searched, he sits alone, contemplating the destruction of Vavatch, and what it says about the Culture. “This was what the Culture offered, this was its signal, its advertisement, its legacy: chaos from order, destruction from construction, death from life.” Their arrogance, he reflects, will be their undoing.

State of play: two

Meanwhile, far away, at least one Culture citizen isn’t really feeling particularly arrogant at all. Fal N’geestra, holidaying on a yacht in balmy climes, is getting her ear bent by a callow young man sulking over the rejection of his application to Contact. She listens distractedly while her drone friend Jase gently schools him; her mind is preoccupied by the matter of Bora Horza Gobuchul. Based on available data, she had deduced that Horza was most likely to have been picked up by the Clear Air Turbulence—and she’d suggested Balveda for the mission to deal with him; despite the risks, she was the only qualified Special Circumstances agent in the area. Being correct about Horza has only made her depressed, particularly in light of the strong likelihood that she’s sent Balveda to her doom.

She’s shaken out of her reverie by a question from the boy: who’s going to win the war? The Culture, she asserts; the boy disagrees, taking a line that Horza might actually agree with—that the Culture aren’t “natural fighters” like the Idirans, that they’re soft and hedonistic, a claim he backs by pointing to a couple who appear to be having sex in the shallows of the bay not far away. Fal all but rolls her eyes and argues that “This is just us now. We haven’t evolved … we’ve changed a lot, changed ourselves a lot, but we haven’t evolved at all since we were running around killing ourselves. I mean each other.” The Culture, she contends, does have some catching up to do with regard to the waging of war on the Idiran level, but they will.

The boy sticks to his argument: “I think we’ll pull out of the war and let the Idirans get on with their expansion—or whatever you want to call it. The war’s been sort of exciting, and it’s made a change, but it’s been nearly four years now and…” He waved one hand again. “…we haven’t even won anything much yet.” He laughed. “All we do is keep running away!” Fal, frustrated and upset, walks away from the debate. Alone, she remembers a tiny natural wonder she saw on a mountain hike: a delicate bit of froth floating in a stream that had collected into a circle and frozen, in a shape like a tiny spiral galaxy. “The galaxy image had occurred to her then, and she thought at the time about the similarity of the forces which shaped both the little and the vast. She had thought, And which is really the most important? But then felt embarrassed to have thought such a thing. Every now and again, though, she went back to that thought, and knew that each was exactly as important as the other. Then later she would go back to her second thoughts on the matter and feel embarrassed again.”

Questions of scale and magnitude, of small events in the shadows of larger ones, of macro- and micro-history—this is what Banks returns to repeatedly throughout Consider Phlebas. He’s far from subtle about it, and arguably he doesn’t get any more subtle in the treatment of themes in his later novels—he just handles exposition more gracefully and with less overt didacticism. Having started with later Banks and then reading Consider Phlebas has largely meant that I’ve gone on for a while dismissing it as a lesser work in comparison to others. Now that I’m halfway through this reread, I find that I appreciate it much more on its own merits as a highly kinetic heist/adventure. Sure, it’s got its rough edges—but it’s definitely better than I remember it being.

Next: Horza finally returns to Schar’s world. And there is death here.

Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX. She can be found elsewhere online at hangingfire.net, on Tumblr, and on Twitter.

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