The Culture Reread

The Culture Reread: Profit Margin: Consider Phlebas, Part 5

Welcome back to the Culture Reread! This week, Horza and company arrive at Schar’s World, where of course nothing is going to go as hoped, and they descend into the tunnels below the surface in search of the Mind. We also return to Fal N’Geestra, who has gone up a mountain in search of enlightenment.

Chapter 9: Schar’s World

Near Schar’s World, a pair of Culture Rapid Offensive Units (Trade Surplus and Revisionist by name) dump a payload of warheads and other clouds of debris before racing off again. “They had been asked to risk their lives on some damn-fool panic mission which seemed designed to convince nobody in particular that there had been a space battle in the middle of nowhere when there hadn’t. And they had done it!”

Meanwhile, the Clear Air Turbulence takes twenty-one days to get to Schar’s World themselves, during which time Horza allows his appearance to change back to something like his original self. He talks to the crew about his mission and why the Changers support the Idirans. He keeps Balveda alive, not least because he knows that killing her would cost him Yalson’s goodwill. And he and Yalson fall back into bed with one another again, even as he anxiously considers his return to Kierachell, his lover from Schar’s World.

Somewhat to his surprise, no one on the CAT seems particularly aggrieved at Horza for eliminating Kraiklyn. “He was a manager,” Yalson explains. “How many of them are liked by their staff? This is a business, Horza, and not even a successful one. Kraiklyn managed to get most of us retired prematurely.” And you have to admit, she has a point.

As they close in on the planet, they encounter the space debris left behind by the Culture ROUs, which includes a message ostensibly from the Idirans asking for a rendezvous—followed by two more contradicting the first, which just makes Horza mad. It’s almost as if the Culture put in all that effort just to troll him.

Finally, they reach the Quiet Barrier of Schar’s World, where they are greeted by messages from the Dra’Azon (an event which sends one of the more religiously-minded crew members almost into a faint). The communications are taciturn, blunt, and unnervingly perceptive, noting that Horza’s crew isn’t exactly there because they want to be (“THEY ARE HERE AGAINST THEIR WILL”) and that they are here for the “REFUGEE MACHINE”, as it calls the Mind. Most disturbingly, it informs them that “THERE IS DEATH HERE.” The entity permits them to land, but does not elaborate further.

Horza is not reassured when transmissions to the Changer base go unanswered. When the CAT lands on Schar’s World (a frozen planet that’s been in an ice age for some seven thousand years), he goes into the base alone. Inside, his worst fears are realized: all the Changers are dead—murdered—including Kierachell. Inside the base are signs of a bad fight—as well as clear indicators of Idiran occupation, including the corpse of a medjel, an Idiran combat animal specifically bred to be infantry. Apparently one of the Idiran forces that initially tried to pursue the Culture Mind down to the planet made it through the Quiet Barrier after all. Distraught, Horza returns to the CAT.

That Horza’s return to Schar’s World should come to this isn’t quite a surprise, and Banks even gives him and Kierachell what you might call the “death edit” on a TV show, including a flashback to Horza remembering a walk he took with Kierachell on the planet’s frozen surface, when she suggested he might leave someday, and he denied it. They caught sight of a tiny insect in the snow; Horza was unable to resist picking it up, but the warmth of his hand was too much for it, and it died as he held it. A feeling of looming doom is gathering around Horza, despite his protestations to the crew of the CAT that everything is going to be just fine; the discovery of the dead Changers seems to be the moment at which the momentum of the whole story takes a hard turn to the bleak. On a second or third pass through Consider Phlebas, the book from this point forward starts to become a little exhausting from the sheer certainty that nothing is going to end well for anyone here. Perhaps if you haven’t read any Banks before, you might hold out hope for some of these people. If you have, well—you probably know better.

Chapter 10: The Command System: Batholith

Back to business: Horza and company must now enter the “Command System,” a military base created by the long-extinct natives of Schar’s World, comprising a series of stations, trains, and tunnels under a vast dome of granite. The Mind is somewhere in there, as well as the Idirans. The Changer base is above station four, and Horza’s party need to get from there to one of the stations with a train parked at it, which will allow them to explore the kilometers-long tunnels in pursuit of the Mind. And Horza wants everyone to go with him, including Balveda—to keep eyes on her, he says—and the irritable drone Unaha-Closp, who will transport their gear. No one likes this plan very much, and a lengthy debate ensues, of which Horza’s side is peppered with lies and half-truths.

But he doesn’t think he has a choice. “He had to convince them. He had to have them on his side. There was no other way he could carry out his mission, and he had come too far, done too much, killed too many people, sunk too much of his own purpose and determination into the task, to back out now. He had to track the Mind down, he had to go down into the Command System, Idirans or no Idirans, and he had to have the rest of what had been Kraiklyn’s Free Company with him.”

And so he does exactly what Kraiklyn himself would have done: omits facts, lies, assures them that everything will be just fine, that he’ll be able to convince the Idirans he’s on their side, and it will be, as Yalson wryly interjects, “Easy in, easy out … What the fuck; it’s something to do, isn’t it?”

Yalson has also caught on to the things Horza never told her about Kierachell. She is understanding about it—arguably, what else could she be, with the Changer woman dead—but the degree to which she continues to seem largely unbothered by, or at least resilient to Horza’s frequent opacity seems a bit much. (The general peripherality of the female characters in Consider Phlebas is, to be honest, one of the things that makes it one of the author’s less interesting works for me. Banks’s later novels have some enjoyable women, but they’re not his strong suit here.)

And so the party descends into the Command System. Though he’s told Yalson that he’s more interested in the Mind than in revenge for his kind, he’s ready to kill the Idiran landing party if they happen to meet up. He may be on the overall Idiran side, but he suspects the ones here of being fanatics; a more moderate one wouldn’t have murdered the Changers due to the sheer inefficiency of the act, if nothing else. The first firefight comes quickly when a medjel takes a shot at them. Horza manages to knock it down an elevator shaft—one that, he casually notes, is about ten kilometers deep. Which is some kind of major nightmare fuel. Balveda, who has been a pretty cool customer for the most part, is sufficiently horrified that when the party has to go down another elevator shaft to get to another level, she tells Horza (who is carrying her, since she doesn’t have an antigravity harness of her own) that if he has to drop her, she wants him to kill her instead of letting her fall that terrifying distance.

Inside the station, they find clear signs of Idiran presence, including blown power from the Idirans having gotten the power-up sequence wrong. Which means that they’ll need to continue, trainless, to the next station. Horza frets, working out different variations of plans in his head, all of which have flaws and only end up getting him frustrated: “Horza shook his head. This whole thing was too complicated. The Command System, with its tunnels and caverns, its levels and shafts, its sidings and loops and cross-overs and points, seemed like some infernal closed-circuit flow chart for his thoughts.” Excess complexity, things going in circles, big problems with no simple answers—it is, one might suggest, a recurring theme here.

State of play: three

We rejoin Fal’Ngeestra on top of a mountain, her first proper climb since the injury that had sidelined her when we first met her. She’s gone up there to meditate on the Horza problem, where—with the help of the substances secreted by her Culture-standard drug glands—she can analyze the matter once again. It is, for her, a frustrating exercise that she has performed before, but for us the readers, it’s our first glimpse into how her Mind-like mind free-associates and constructs its arguments—and conveniently, it ensures that a multitude of Consider Phlebas’s themes are articulated for those in the cheap seats, as it were.

It’s also a pretty good example of Banks in a more sustained poetic mode, which is why I’ve quoted extensively from it in the following paragraphs. He does seem to be trying a little too hard here to ensure that the Culture has some cards in its favor to counter the anti-Culture bias of our main protagonist, but at least he does it with some very elegant writing.

Fal reflects on the monolithic, orderly, ancient society of the Idirans, and how they had turned into a militant species convinced of their own genetic perfection, and how that contrasts with the Culture: “some fiendish amalgam of everything the Idirans have ever found repugnant. We are a mongrel race, our past a history of tangles, our sources obscure, our rowdy upbringing full of greedy, shortsighted empires and cruel, wasteful diasporas […] We are self-altering, we meddle with the code of life itself, re-spelling the Word which is the Way, the incantation of being. […] And worst still, worst of all, not just producing, but embracing and giving ourselves over totally to the ultimate anathema: the Minds, the sentient machines; the very image and essence of life itself, desecrated. Idolatry incarnate. No wonder they despise us.”

Who, then, is the Culture? What are they? She senses her own smallness against the scale of the mountain:

We are ice and snow, we are that trapped state.

We are water falling, itinerant and vague, ever seeking the lowest level, trying to collect and connect.

We are vapor, raised against our own devices, made nebulous, blown on whatever wind arises. To start again, glacial or not.

And concludes: but what is life for, if not to make the most of it? “Everything about us, everything around us, everything we know and can know of is composed ultimately of patterns of nothing; that’s the bottom line, the final truth. So where we find we have any control over those patterns, why not make the most elegant ones, the most enjoyable and good ones, in our own terms?” And what are the Changers themselves but the result of some long-ago “careful thought and genetic tinkering and military planning and deliberate design… and war”?

Changer change yourself…but you cannot, you will not. All you can do is try not to think about it. And yet the knowledge is there, the information implanted, somewhere deep inside. You could—you should—live easy with it, all the same, but I don’t think you do….

And I’m sorry for you, because I think I know now who you really hate.

Fal comes out of her trance, disappointed. She hasn’t come to any new conclusions, only the ones she already knew: “A certain self-disgust at being human, an understanding of the Idirans’ proud disdain for her kind, a reaffirmation that at least one thing was its own meaning, and a probably wrong, probably oversympathetic glimpse into the character of a man she had never met and would never meet, who was separated from her by most of a galaxy and all of a morality.” It’s all she has to bring back with her, coming down from the mountain.

Next: the descent into the Command System continues. With bonus Idirans.

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


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