Consider Phlebas, the first of Iain M. Banks’s CULTURE novels, introduces readers to the Culture, a machine-led intergalactic civilization that offers its biological humanoids a carefree, utopian lifestyle. Though most centuries are free from worry, Consider Phlebas takes place in the middle of the Idiran-Culture War.
The Culture is an intergalactic utopia, but readers should not come to Consider Phlebas expecting dystopian narrative. The machines, led by their brilliant and sentient Minds, are benevolent and they seek to offer a paradise to the humanoids in their care. The novel is not even a dystopian narrative in the way Thomas More’s Utopia often seems disturbing in its stringent rules and guidelines. Readers are meant to envy life in the Culture.
The Culture is perfect, or almost, but the universe is not. The Culture, at times, is forced to send its sentient ships to war. Here, the Idirans, a powerful and militant biological race, threaten the Culture. They seek to spread their order to other galaxies and civilizations. They consider the Culture’s Minds an abomination and they hire the mercenary Bora Horza Gobuchul, a shape shifter, or “changer,” to capture a Mind that has crashed and remains trapped on Schar’s World. Here’s the twist: Horza, who hates the Culture, is our hero.
Consider Phlebas is a “space opera,” which offers readers long action sequences filled with starships and laser guns, but there is also a sense of humor at work in Banks’s writing. When we first meet Horza, for example, he is drowning in a vat, a punishment for one of his many crimes. Horza is subjected to many trials, but he is also a gritty and resourceful protagonist. Before long, he takes up with a mercenary band of pirates. Their ship is a bucket of bolts called the CAT, which stands for “Clear Air Turbulence.”
Horza can be cruel and ruthless, but many readers will find themselves rooting for him because he is an underdog. After all, he has taken on perhaps the most difficult assignment in the universe: outwitting a Culture Mind. As if that were not enough, Banks seems to almost enjoy twisting circumstance against Horza. In spite of his best-laid plans, things never seem to go as planned.
However, I eventually grew tired of Horza’s constant frustrations and plot digressions. The novel has a clear objective — capture the stranded Mind — but Horza does not spend much time pursuing it or even engaging with it. Instead, much of the novel is spent on long action sequences, unusual intergalactic games of chance (and manipulation), and even a quick encounter with cultists. The novel’s episodic plot at times felt as much like a short story collection or a video game with constant side quests as it did a novel.
Still, Banks does offer readers an introduction to what has become one of the most popular science fiction settings in the last thirty years. Although there are high points in Consider Phlebas, it is worth noting that each CULTURE novel offers something unique, and these novels can be read independently of the others.