Welcome back to the Culture reread! This week, Horza and his crew continue their exploration of the Command System, where surprises and violence await. As we approach the conclusion of Consider Phlebas, the action ramps up, and Horza’s promises to the CAT crew that this was going to be “easy in, easy out” are increasingly shown to be lies.
Chapter 11: The Command System: Stations
Since the Damage game, in which he was thrown into a hideous spiral of self-doubt while accessing Kraiklyn’s emotional state, Horza has been plagued by nightmares where he cannot remember his name or finds his identity thrown into doubt. He wakes from another of these and, while he doesn’t spend much time in reflection as to why these nightmares disturb him so, he decides he’d rather not go back to sleep. When the rest of the company wakes, he puts on an act of hearty good cheer before they venture onward to station five. There, they find the remains of a firefight: four dead medjel, remains of a laser, and “a kind of gun on wheels,” which appears to have been crudely cobbled together by the Mind to defend itself against the incoming Idirans.
They venture onward, making idle conversation; Aviger, one of the company, gloomily asserts that neither the Culture nor the Idirans will stop fighting, and the war will continue until everything in the galaxy has been blown to pieces. Horza hushes everyone when they arrive at station six, where they find: one of the massive, three-story-tall Command System trains, the two surviving Idirans, who are trying to get the train running, and the Mind, a huge shiny ellipsoid, apparently about to be dragged out of the depths of Schar’s World. Horza ventures out to try and talk to the Idirans, but before he gets a chance, the shooting starts.
By the time it’s all over, the Free Company that was formerly Kraiklyn’s has lost two more members, with Dorolow dead outright and Neisin mortally wounded. The Mind, shot during the fight by an Idiran, is gone. One Idiran is dead, but the other, called Xoxarle, is injured and alive. Horza confronts Xoxarle, demanding to know why they murdered the Changers at the base. The Idiran dismisses them as an mere obstacle in the way of needed supplies; Horza, furious, declares that he’s taking Xoxarle prisoner, to be delivered alongside Balveda to the Idiran Fleet Inquisitor for exceeding his orders. For an Idiran, capture is worse than death, and Xoxarle tries repeatedly to goad Horza into killing him, but Horza refuses to oblige.
Then Yalson and Horza make an interesting discovery. Inspecting the spot where the Mind was sitting, they find a bit of broken machinery: a remote drone, projecting an illusory image and perhaps even a weak force field—a decoy. So their quarry remains somewhere deeper in the Command System; their task isn’t over yet.
The remaining company pauses a moment to take stock. Balveda and the drone Unaha-Closp quietly commiserate about their position, with no aces up the sleeve to get out of the mess—“no sleeves,” even, as Unaha-Closp points out. Horza and the drone continue to snipe at one another, and then Yalson pulls Horza aside for a private conversation. She has startling news: she’s pregnant. Which should not have been biologically possible between two different species of human—but Yalson, it turns out, had a Culture mother. Yalson herself left the Culture “as soon as I was old enough to hold a gun properly,” but the Culture genetic tweaking that allows trans-species reproduction was part of her biology. She’s telling Horza because he’s told her before about having no family to carry on his name or legacy, and she cares for him enough that she’s willing to bear the child or terminate the pregnancy according to his wishes. Horza is overwhelmed, flattered, and grateful, and he tells her, “It’s a good idea; like you would say: what the hell?” And as they have their conversation, Neisin quietly dies from his wounds.
The reveal of Yalson’s pregnancy changes the stakes dramatically for Horza, and for the casual-yet-not relationship that’s grown between them over the course of the novel, but he’s afraid to let it mean too much to him at this point: “whatever continuity of name or clan the woman was offering him, he could not yet build his hopes upon it; the glimmer of that potential succession seemed too weak, and somehow also too temptingly defenseless, to face the continuous frozen midnight of the tunnels.” I haven’t really spent much time on Horza’s…“identity crisis” is perhaps too strong a term; simply, the issues he has around who and what he is, but it’s a theme that has been gaining momentum as the story progresses, with the Damage game being a key event. Horza is reflective—he thinks a lot about the Culture and why he hates them, about the people he encounters on his journey and the things that happen—but not exactly introspective, which makes him strangely elusive as a protagonist while also suggesting that he shies away at something in his own nature. That something, as Fal N’Geestra seems to recognize, is the fear that as a Changer, there’s no there there, so to speak—no true Horza, merely a creature as artificial and engineered as a drone…or as a human of the Culture. That he is the thing he despises. The possibility of a child with Yalson is something he wants, and is afraid of wanting. It would fix his identity to a solid point, but he can’t let himself think about it, not yet. He needs to get the job done first.
Soon it’s time to move on. Xoxarle has been bound and hobbled so that he can follow the company on foot, but not escape. Aviger pauses long enough to shoot the second Idiran in the head as a final angry gesture, and they all set off toward the next station, where something is setting off the mass sensor that they are using to look for the Mind.
Chapter 23: The Command System: Engines
As they continue through the tunnels, Xoxarle regales Horza with an orotund, epic retelling of how the Idirans came to Schar’s World; how their group of over 40 died one by one as they made their way across the planet’s icy surface until they came to the Changer base. Horza, clearly weary, lets him talk, only interrupting to clarify that one of the dead Changers was a woman. (The Idirans are a species of “dual hermaphrodites,” and either can’t or don’t bother distinguishing human genders from one another; “he” is perhaps not the right pronoun, but it’s the one Banks uses, so I’m sticking to it.) It’s like listening to some kind of space Spartan, and yet also weirdly beautiful; if there’s anything to be gleaned from it, it’s that the Idirans have channeled all their poetic energies into the glorification of their collective warrior spirit.
When the company stops for a break, Xoxarle then pulls a classic trick: collapsing, pretending to be dying from his injuries perhaps, and then striking out at his captors as soon as their guard is down. He destroys the mass sensor, but further damage and injury are averted by Unaha-Closp knocking Xoxarle unconscious—which surprises Horza somewhat, since he has assumed all along that the drone would just as soon let everyone go hang. As soon as the Idiran wakes up, Horza orders him tied up again. Idiran humor, it turns out, is dad-joke level; Xoxarle cracks himself up saying of the mass sensor, “I think it sensed my mass! I think it sensed my fist! Ha!”
At Station Seven, another Command System train awaits, but there’s no Mind to be seen. And unfortunately the party’s second mass sensor, in Horza’s space suit, no longer works—though in true Kraiklyn fashion, he doesn’t tell everyone this.
At this point, a few things begin happening in parallel.
Horza’s crew banters and bickers, exploring station seven and the train parked there. Xoxarle persuades his captors to loosen his bonds just a little, which gives him enough slack to start to free himself, bit by incremental bit. And back at station six, it turns out that the other Idiran, Quayanorl, is not actually dead. Head shots don’t work on Idirans like they do on humans. Also, the Idirans were a lot closer to getting the train there running than Horza gave them credit for. This sequence goes on for what is honestly an agonizingly long time: while Horza’s team continues their search, Banks ratchets up the tension a little more every time he switches back to Quayanorl and his desperate, pain-wracked slog through the station six train to its controls. By the end of the chapter, he has managed to start the train, sending millions of tons of metal down the tunnel toward station seven at gradually increasing speed.
You know the saying about the light at the end of the tunnel being that of an oncoming train? Rarely in literature has this been so literally expressed. Horza and company are oblivious to the oncoming doom, thanks in part to a security camera at station six being inoperable. Events are hurtling to a conclusion, and it’s going to be messy.
Next time: What happens to the train, to the Free Company, to the Mind, and to Horza.