I’ve merely dabbled in science fiction literature, which is a mystery to me because I’ve positively revelled in sci fi movies over the years. Seeking to redress this shameful imbalance, I sought advice on a good sci fi tale and, amongst the suggestions, was the Culture of Iain M. Banks and, more specifically, the first from this universe, Consider Phlebas (1988).
Having not especially warmed to books by Iain Banks, I was not expecting to feel much differently about those he wrote with an M. in his name. However, always ready to take a gamble, I dived in and found myself in a a very different place from where a book had ever set me before. I was off world. But, from the very first page, I was hooked.
Consider Phlebas introduces us to the Culture, a space travelling society that relies on machines to spread its ideals of education and knowledge. It is at war with the Idirans, a brutal race served by slave creatures (just as the Culture is served by machine drones) and who uphold spirituality and belief in gods. When one of the Culture’s space craft crashes and its controlling Mind escapes to Shar’s World, a Changer – Bora Horza Gobuchul – is given the task by the Idirans to recover the Mind before the Culture can. This is not so simple, largely because Shar’s World is a Planet of the Dead, ruled over by an ominpotent being. Also, Horza has his own ongoing battles – internally, as he continues to justify his hatred of the Culture, and externally, in his ongoing duel with Perosteck Balveda. Balveda belongs to Special Circumstances, in other words, she is a Culture spy.
The fates conspire against Horza and part of the excitement of Consider Phlebas is produced by never knowing what will befall our unlikely hero next. At one point he finds himself on Clear Air Turbulence, a pirate vessel under the control of the largely inept captain Kraiklyn. The ship is manned by a strange bunch of humanoids, including Yalson, the slightly furry and courageous female crew member who gives a possibility of another kind of future to Horza, this man who can change his appearance to that of any victim and has venom in his teeth and under his nails.
Horza is not a perfect hero – far from it. He is a killer and he is driven by goals and desires that he keeps secretive. Life means very little to him. Although he may be troubled by thoughts of love – love he has abandoned and love he fears now – he is merciless. Nevertheless, as the story progresses and, for example, we find Horza at the mercy of a bunch of the grotesque Eaters (they eat everything that no-one else would eat, including humans), we warm to him and accept him at his word, which is that he is committed to destroy a culture that hates spirituality and puts its faith in the machine. The fact that the Culture that we see is many times more attractive and appealing than the monstrous Idirans helps to give the book some of that confused yet rather entertaining morality that Banks sought.
Likewise, Culture agent Balveda makes her own journey through the tale, demonstrating how blurred the distinction is between hero and enemy, good and evil. People change and not only on the outside.
Apart from the story, that races along, the strength of Consider Phlebas lies in the beauty of the writing. It is evocative in the extreme and yet this is achieved through the minimal amount of words. You can see the orbital worlds, the monumental spaceships, the games, the snow covered mountains and the tunnels that fall away for many miles with all the vigour and colour that you need to put yourself there. The moments of tenderness, the fear and wonder that characters feel, whether humanoid or not, and the brutal and violent fights are all vividly realised in the most economic of styles. It’s a beautiful style.
I realise that I have arrived late to Iain M. Banks’ Culture. However, I’m very glad it was there waiting for me when I found it.
Many thanks to Anthony Riches for putting me on the right path.