- Consider Phlebas
Consider Phlebas Author(s) Iain M. Banks Country UK Language English Series The Culture Genre(s) Science fiction novel Publisher Macmillan Publication date 1987 Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback) Pages 471 pp ISBN 0-333-44138-9 OCLC Number 15197422 Followed by The Player of Games
The novel revolves around the Idiran-Culture War, and Banks plays on that theme by presenting various microcosms of that conflict. Its protagonist Bora Horza Gobuchul is actually an enemy of the Culture.
Consider Phlebas is Banks's first published science fiction novel set in the Culture, and takes its title from a line in T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land. Look to Windward (2000), whose title comes from the previous line of the same poem, can be considered a loose follow-up.
- Plot setup
The Culture and the Idiran Empire are at war in a galaxy-spanning conflict. Horza, a mercenary capable of altering his appearance at will (a Changer), is assigned the task of retrieving a dispossessed Culture Mind by his Idiran handlers. The Mind, while fleeing attacking Idirans who consider its existence an abomination, has taken refuge on Schar's World, a Planet of the Dead. Planets of the Dead are nominally forbidden to both the Culture and the Idirans, being under the control of god-like incorporeal beings called "Dra'Azon". Horza, however, was one of a group of Changers allowed to be on the planet as stewards and witnesses to its devastation. He may be the only person in the Galaxy, and certainly the only one known to the Idirans, who would be allowed to return. On the way to Schar's World he encounters, and joins, a band of mercenaries and pirates, led by Kraiklyn, on their ship, the Clear Air Turbulence. All the while he is doggedly pursued by a Culture Special Circumstances agent, Perosteck Balveda. The Culture also realizes that Horza is the key to getting to Schar's World and retrieving the Mind. Their plan is to place an agent with him and hope that the agent can get to the Mind first and somehow leave with it.
- Plot conflict
The plot takes many digressions on the way to the denouement. As the book opens, Horza is about to die an extremely unpleasant death after killing and impersonating a member of the gerontocracy on a world not yet part of the Culture. Here he meets Balveda for the first time. He is rescued by the Idirans and given his mission to find the Culture Mind on board an Idiran ship, which is quickly destroyed by a Culture ship. Drifting in an escape suit, he is picked up by the Clear Air Turbulence, where he has to fight and kill one of the crew (while still in the form of a very old man) in order to prevent them dumping him back into space.
Resolving to take over the ship by replacing the Captain, Kraiklyn, he participates in some disastrous pirate raids which reduce the crew to a fraction of its original size. The last raid takes place on the Orbital Vavatch, which is soon to be destroyed to prevent the Idirans taking it over. He crash-lands in a shuttle craft and is made the prisoner of a bizarre cult consisting of an obese homicidal cannibal leader and his followers, who subsist on food that has been cooked to remove almost all nutritive value. Killing the leader with his poisoned fingernails, Horza eventually makes his way to the main city on Vavatch to find Kraiklyn. Here he witnesses a game of "Damage", which Kraiklyn has come to play in the hopes of winning enough to make up the losses from his foolhardy expeditions with the crew. Damage is a card game enhanced with psychological and emotional pressure by direct mind-to-mind contact, where the "tokens" of play are actual living beings who are killed when a player loses a round. The game is illegal and only played in places where the normal order is breaking down, as in the case of Vavatch, which is being evacuated.
Kraiklyn is wiped out of the game, and Horza then follows him on his way back to his ship, and having completed the task of assuming his appearance, kills him and boards the ship. There, to his dismay, he is introduced to the newest crew member: Perosteck Balveda.
Horza takes the Clear Air Turbulence on a wild ride through the massive spaces of the Ex-Culture GSV which is carrying out the evacuation, and escapes into space having shaken off his Culture pursuers. There Balveda, having been exposed as a Culture agent, in turn exposes Horza. Horza sees no reason to continue the deception and instead recruits the remnants of the crew to carry out his mission.
- Plot resolution
The final chapters are action-packed as Horza and his crew try to find the Mind in a vast subterranean complex built as a nuclear warfare command centre (ultimately, though, it was germ warfare which wiped out all life on the Planet of the Dead). Complicating matters are a pair of Idiran soldiers who are also on a mission to find the Mind and treat Horza and his crew as enemies, having no knowledge of the alliance of the Changers with the Idirans. Horza has kept Balveda alive, possibly as a hostage. For her part Balveda goes along with the mission, awaiting her chance to swing the outcome in the Culture's favour. What she sees makes her doubt her part in the War.
Consider Phlebas, like most of Banks' early SF output, was a rewritten version of an earlier book, as he explained in a 1994 interview:
"Phlebas was an old one too; it was written just after The Wasp Factory, in 1984. I've found that rewriting an old book took much more effort than writing one from scratch, but I had to go back to do right by these things. Now I can go on and start completely new stuff."
Literary significance and criticism
The book was generally very well-received as a fast-paced space opera with a morally ambiguous hero and lots of grand scenery and devices, some original to the genre with Banks, some borrowed from other authors: the Orbitals for example show the influence of Larry Niven.
There is a debate among Banks fans about which Culture book is the best introduction to the fictional utopia. Consider Phlebas is an obvious contender, being the first published. The Player of Games is sometimes suggested as being easier to read.
There is also considerable debate about the lengthiness and gore of the Eaters segment of the story, as well as its necessity. Many fans find the explicit and lengthy descriptions of cannibalism and ritual sacrifice to be unnecessary, and argue that the entire segment has no real reason to exist, due to having minimal impact on the story and arguably not significantly advancing the character of Horza.
Banks said in an interview:
'There's a big war going on in [Consider Phlebas], and various individuals and groups manage to influence its outcome. But even being able to do that doesn't ultimately change things very much. At the book's end, I have a section pointing this out by telling what happened after the war, which was an attempt to pose the question, 'What was it all for?' I guess this approach has to do with my reacting to the cliché of SF's 'lone protagonist.' You know, this idea that a single individual can determine the direction of entire civilizations. It's very, very hard for a lone person to do that. And it sets you thinking what difference, if any, it would have made if Jesus Christ, or Karl Marx or Charles Darwin had never been. We just don't know.'
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