The Culture Reread

The Culture Reread: Prosthetic Conscience (Consider Phlebas Part 7)

Welcome back to the Culture reread! Apologies for the gap in posting; things have not quite gone according to plan, but I’m back now to finish off Consider Phlebas, with this and one more post to follow shortly. After these last posts, I’ll be taking a few weeks off to get rolling on The Player of Games.

Today, though, it’s time for the last act of Bora Horza Gobuchul and his quest for the Culture’s lost Mind. 

Chapter 13: The Command System: Terminus
Chapter 14: Consider Phlebas

While Xoxarle regales Aviger with old war stories (the Idiran idea of a good war story, apparently, involves telling about why a particular species’ religious beliefs meant that they deserved the wholesale annihilation coming to them at Idiran hands), Horza, Yalson, and Balveda continue to search Station Seven and the train parked there. Their engineer, Wubslin, is trying to start the train, and the drone Unaha-Closp is picking its way into the train’s reactor car. All the while, Quayanorl’s train is picking up speed and setting off alarms outside the range of human hearing. 

Little breezes and drafts are the first hint that anything is coming. Xoxarle guesses what’s up and manages to free himself again: having loosened his bonds, he calls Aviger over to to please scratch a spot on his head; Aviger, a sucker, complies, and Xoxarle flattens him and steals his laser rifle. 

Unaware that this is going on, Balveda watches Horza and Yalson work and bicker and reflects that she’s starting to feel like “one of the team”. She likes Yalson, and she realizes it’s become hard to think of Horza as an  enemy: “It was the Culture’s fault. It considered itself too civilized and sophisticated to hate its enemies; instead it tried to understand them and their motives, so that it could out-think them and so that, when it won, it would treat them in a way which ensured they would not become enemies again.” She wonders if she’s lost the detachment required for that kind of “mobilized compassion”, and if it’s because this particular game, from her point of view is already over—lost, even.

At the same time, Horza is thinking about how “his own obsessive drive never to make a mistake, always to think of everything, was not so unlike the fetishistic urge which he so despised in the Culture: that need to make everything fair and equal, to take the chance out of life.” If he and Balveda actually talked to one another, it might be one of those “we’re not so different, you and I” moments between antagonists—but they don’t; Banks continues his consistent pattern of avoiding reassuring clichés. 

And Horza has neglected to consider one disastrous possibility. Quayanorl’s train is bearing down on them all, “a long articulated shell in some gigantic gun; a metal scream in a vast throat” in Banks’s grandiloquent description. The air that it’s pushing down the tunnel builds into a hurricane gale, and by the time they notice it, it’s too late for Horza, Balveda, and Yalson to do anything except get the hell off the train. So they try—except that Xoxarle is waiting for them to shoot them down.

And they’re not the only ones to realize they need to get to safety—the Mind, which has been hiding in the reactor car all along, blows its way out and emerges from its hiding place. Everyone tries to run for cover—Horza, Balveda, Unaha-Closp, and the Mind all make it, but Yalson makes one last-minute misjudgment, and Xoxarle shoots her down just as Quayanorl’s train hits. It strikes going nearly 200 kilometers an hour, destroying itself and the train in front of it; poor Wubslin is crushed within, and Yalson’s corpse is swept away in the wreckage.

That thing I said about avoiding reassuring clichés? Sometimes Banks doesn’t so much avoid them as push them over on top of the reader and stomp on the bits. It was too much to hope that Yalson and her unborn child might get out of this fiasco in one piece; hope has very little place in Horza’s story, which is the systematic breakdown of his future, his past, and his present.

He emerges from the wrecked station in a fury, shooting at Xoxarle and pursuing him into the halls of the station, and as he flees, Xoxarle kills the unconscious Aviger by stepping on and crushing his skull. Balveda catches up with Unaha-Closp and the Mind, and chokes on the fumes from the wreckage; the drone takes her up to the relative safety of the station control room. That safety doesn’t last. Xoxarle appears; he smashes the drone into a control console, grabs Balveda, and runs.

Horza follows. When Xoxarle decides he’s done with Balveda, he doesn’t kill her outright; he breaks her arm and leaves her hanging from a catwalk by her good arm. Horza finds her, but instead of leaving her to fall and die, he stops in his pursuit and pulls her to safety—his last gesture of grudging respect for his enemy, the woman who has, for him, embodied the Culture.

He takes off again and catches up with Xoxarle, and is only just saved from being shot by the reappearance of Unaha-Closp, who whacks into Xoxarle’s head and knocks him down, breaking his laser rifle. But Xoxarle’s still not done; he smashes Horza in the head with his fist, then grabs the injured Unaha-Closp and strikes him again. Before he can deliver the coup de grace, Balveda appears with a surprise weapon in hand: “a gun of lines, thin wires, hardly solid at all”. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s enough to blow Xoxarle into pieces. The gun is a memoryform, a Culture gadget that Horza warned his crew to look out for back when he made her his prisoner in Chapter 8. (“They might look like a badge, or a medallion…or anything else. But do a certain something to them … and they become a communicator, a gun or a bomb.” Balveda’s was a tooth, held in reserve until circumstances had finally gone beyond dire.) 

With Xoxarle messily dead, Balveda goes to the grievously wounded Horza and tries to reassure him that she’ll get him back to the ship, as the injured Unaha-Closp babbles nonsensically in the background. Suddenly, the fading Horza snaps awake with “an expression of such helpless fear and terror that Balveda felt herself shiver”. He grabs at her, and moans: “My name! … What’s my name?”

“Balveda swallowed and felt tears sting behind her eyelids. She touched one of those white, clutching hands with her own. ‘It’s Horza,’ she said gently. ‘Bora Horza Gobuchul.’”

And with one last whisper—“Ah yes…of course”—Horza sinks back into unconsciousness.

Slowly, Balveda makes her way out of the station with the Mind and the unconscious Horza in tow. She takes the direct route now, via freight capsule to the surface, and it only takes half an hour. There’s a brief, terrible moment where she thinks the security system on the Clear Air Turbulence might not accept her, that Horza’s space suit and the drone have been too damaged to be recognizable and that this is really the end for her…but the ship opens, and she brings Horza and the drone inside. Horza’s “icy stillness” frightens her, and she hurries to get a medical kit, but by the time she returns, Horza is dead.

Appendix: Dramatis personae

There’s a set of appendices that follow the end of the chapter “Consider Phlebas”, and I’ll circle back to them in my final post, since insofar as they lay out the overall philosophy of the Culture and set the scene for the future books, they deserve some more focused time. In the meantime, let’s skip ahead to the last two sections of the book.

The “Dramatis personae” section reads like that part at the end of a documentary or “inspired by true events” film, in which we learn the fates of selected characters. It isn’t exactly an uplift from Horza’s death. Balveda had herself put into long-term storage after the war, choosing that over living with the PTSD from the war and Schar’s World in particular. “She left instructions that she was only to be revived once the Culture could statistically ‘prove’ the war had been morally justified”—when it was probable that Idiran expansion would have cost more lives than the war itself. More than 400 years later, she is woken up, along with millions of other Culture citizens that left the same instructions. Whatever peace Balveda may have hoped from that answer doesn’t seem to have happened: “After a few months Balveda autoeuthanized and was buried in Juboal, her home star.”

Unaha-Closp, on the other hand, seems to have thrived—after being repaired, it joined the Culture. Fal ‘Ngeestra went on to have an exciting Culture life, going on to join Contact before dying at age 407.

The most mysterious fate is that of Schar’s World: over 40 years after Horza’s mission, a Culture GCU was allowed in, where they found the Command system “in perfect repair”: trains and stations all undamaged, not a trace of any bodies, and no sign of the Changer base either. All of that material, unbeknownst to the Culture landing party, was compressed (presumably) by the Dra’Azon into a ball of debris and buried deep in the planet’s polar ice.

(The species of Changers, we learn, was completely wiped out during the war.)

As for the Mind, it went on to serve in the war in an Ocean-class General Systems Vehicle, and afterward placed into a Range-class GSV, taking its unusual name with it. As to what that name is…

In the epilogue, we are introduced to a woman named Gimishin Foug, a several-times-great grandniece of Perosteck Balveda, as she is in the process of boarding a GSV that will be transporting her and her family to an enormous new System class GSV. She introduces herself to the ship, which informs her that its name is Bora Horza Gobuchul. The origin of its name is, the ship says, a long story, to which Foug replies, “I like long stories.”

It’s not the legacy that Horza barely allowed himself to hope for when Yalson told him she was pregnant. It’s an ironic one, given his antipathy toward the Culture and everything they stood for—or at least that he believed they stood for. There’s something touching about the Mind’s desire to memorialize him—though it can also be read as a kind of subtle victory for the Culture as well, in that his story has been assimilated in the greater history of the Culture—especially in light of the extinction of the Changers themselves. Either way, it is a poignant reminder of a war that the Culture will not allow itself to forget.

Of that war and its consequences there will be more to say in the next and final post, as I circle back around to the “historical” appendices that document the motivations of both the Culture and the Idirans, and consider how those principles should be kept in mind as we make our way through the rest of the Culture novels. And then we can draw a line under Consider Phlebas, at last.

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


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