I have decided it’s time for me to become more cultured…. umm, make that Cultured. In other words, I have embarked on a journey into the world of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, which I’ve been hearing good things about for a long time now. It’s a journey that is sure to continue since I liked this book quite a bit and there are something like six more, if I’m not mistaken. Consider Phlebas was the first installment in the series, published in 1987, and so I thought that might be an appropriate place to start. Actually, I’ve been told it doesn’t really matter what order they’re read in, as they’re only loosely connected; but I read the first one first because, hey, I like it that way. This is a big gripping space opera that manages to be both fun and thoughtful at the same time.
The protagonist of the story is Bora Horza Gobuchul, a Changer — a member of a shape-changing species trained in the skills of infiltration and spying. The story is set againt the background of the Idiran-Culture War, and follows Horza’s individual part in that conflict. The view we get of the Culture is filtered through Horza’s eyes, and since he’s an enemy of that society, the view is probably incomplete and somewhat biased. Horza works for the Idirans, a race of giant tripedal warriors engaged in a holy war to spread the truth of their religion. Horza sides with the Idirans against his fellow humanoids primarily because he sees the Culture’s symbiosis with its AI Minds as a perversion of nature; and while disagreeing with the Idirans’ religious motives, he sees them as being on the side of life.
On one level, the novel is unfortunately a bit too light-hearted, too adventure-driven. Horza gets himself into a series of unlikely situations that are sometimes not very realistic, and sometimes downright comical. These mostly occur while he is part of a Free Company of (take your pick) mercenaries and/or pirates and/or opportunity-seekers, led by a captain whose incompetence is almost cartoonish and frequently leads to trouble. There are some moments that are almost painful in their silliness: the reflecting laser-bolts during an ill-fated attack on a crystal temple; the landing on a sea vessel, not knowing it’s just about to strike a huge iceberg; the ignition, in a fit of rage, of a nuclear bomb that a company member just happens to carry around in his space suit; and Horza’s lucky last-minute escape from cannibals.
On another level, though, the novel is an insightful exploration of war, the reasons societies go to war, and the way individuals get caught up in the violence for their own reasons which may or may not align with those of the larger entities in conflict. Neither the Culture nor the Idirans are interested in wealth or material resources. Rather, they both fight for principles; and that, depending on your view, might be either the best or the worst reason for war. There is certainly some ambiguity in this book about the justifications for war, about who is “right” or “wrong.” This ambiguity also exists at the individual level, as both Horza and his nemesis Balveda (an agent of the Culture) have a hard time treating each other in a ruthless fashion, as true enemies, as their superiors might expect of them. They also both display a level of uncertainty about the war, about whether it’s the right thing, about whether or not it’s worth it. They both exude a sense of regret at being spent and used up in a war that ultimately may mean nothing.
Even considering the whimsical adventure scenarios, overall there was something compelling and almost irresistible about this book. The world-building was excellent, both the physical environments and the whole social and political background behind everything. The characters were vivid and complex. And there were some cool ideas throughout; as one (rather disgusting, I admit) example, I liked the concept of the sewercell, a watertight chamber in which a prisoner is executed by drowning in the bodily wastes of guests at a special execution banquet, channeled down from upper-floor restrooms. (So OK, I have a dark and twisted mind, but so does Banks, it seems.) I also liked the idea of the Planets of the Dead, which are worlds on which their inhabitants made themselves extinct, and are kept in their destroyed condition by a super-race called the Dra’Azon as grim reminders to everyone else (sort of like galactic Darwin Awards, I suppose).
Consider Phlebas could have been better, but as it stands it is still a very rewarding read, and fairly impressive as Banks’ first science fiction novel. It certainly makes me want some more Culture.