Consider Phlebas
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ibsn13: 9781857231380
series: The Culture - Book 1

Iain Banks POV:

He had to convince them. He had to have them on his side. There was no other way he could carry out his mission, and he had come too far, done too much, killed too many people, sunk too much of his own purpose and determination into the task, to back out now. He had to track the Mind down, he had to go down into the Command System, Idirans or no Idirans, and he had to have the rest of [them] with him.

A long time ago in a galaxy without any post-scarcity societies managed by hyper-intelligent AIs (to my knowledge), I read Consider Phlebas once, liked it a lot but, at the time, I wasn’t aware that it was part of a larger series so I didn’t seek the other books out.

Many years later, I forgot that I had previously Consider(ed) Phlebas, so I picked the book up again, quickly realizing that I had already read it but I decided to continue reading it anyway because I had enjoyed it a lot the first time. Now, I was aware of the Culture series and was interested in reading more of it but I never did.

Many many years later, like now, I realized that reading brings me a lot more joy than I thought it did and so now I spend more of my free time reading because I enjoy it so much. I want to read more of Iain Banks’s Culture books, so here we are, re-Consider(ing) Phlebas a third time and it’s better than ever.

First things first. Who are we considering exactly? In T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land Phlebas is a drowned sailor who, apparently (I don’t know I’m not a poet), represents the futility of death and decay.

Appropriately, Consider Phlebas, the Iain Banks novel, is an anti-war anti-narrative satire of science-fiction and space opera stories. Consider Phlebas depicts the meaninglessness of war (instead of valorizing it) through the lens of an anti-hero who mostly sucks, is a conspiracy theorist and, perhaps worst of all given the premise of The Culture books, is a humanoid-focused materialist with a distrust and hatred for the AI intelligences that manage a big chunk of the universe.

He looked for the Culture ship, then told himself not to be stupid; it was probably still several trillion kilometres away. That was how divorced from the human scale modern warfare had become. You could smash and destroy from unthinkable distances, obliterate planets from beyond their own system and provoke stars into novae from light-years off… and still have no good idea why you were really fighting.

It’s not usually preachy and yet contains a lot of philosophical ideas that you can spend a lot of time unpacking if you’re into that. I rarely re-read books, there’s not enough time in the day for that, but there are some books like Consider Phlebas or Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun that are so dense that they’re begging to be.

‘Don’t you have a religion?’ Dorolow asked Horza.

‘Yes,’ he replied, not taking his eyes away from the screen on the wall above the end of the main mess-room table. ‘My survival.’

‘So… your religion dies with you. How sad,’ Dorolow said, looking back from Horza to the screen. The Changer let the remark pass.

The exchange had started when Dorolow, struck by the beauty of the great Orbital, expressed the belief that even though it was a work of base creatures, no better than humans, it was still a triumphant testimony to the power of God, as God had made Man, and all other souled creatures. Horza had disagreed, genuinely annoyed that the woman could use even something so obviously a testament to the power of intelligence and hard work as an argument for her own system of irrational belief.

It has the trappings of the genres it’s making fun of; some scenes are played straight so unless you’re told beforehand that Consider Phlebas is a satire you might not realize it is one until you’re halfway through the book. The overarching theme of the meaninglessness of war permeates throughout the entire text and this makes it hard to ignore the satirical tone.

They had flown through the scattered stars without encountering anything out of the ordinary: no messages or signals, no distant flashes from battles, no warp wakes. The area around them seemed calm and undisturbed, as though all that was happening was what always happened: just the stars being born and dying, the galaxy revolving, the holes twisting, the gases swirling. The war, in that hurried silence, in their false rhythm of day and night, seemed like something they had all imagined, an inexplicable nightmare they had somehow shared, even escaped.

It’s got a little bit of everything in it (even some light romance) but don’t be surprised when things go a little awry. It’s a grim story but it does have many lighter moments; if you’re anything like me you’ll find yourself chuckling a lot throughout the text. Iain Banks will set up a joke and he’ll pay it off 100 pages later with an extremely delayed punchline.

He could see some of the others not far away, to his left and right, pushing and striding through the cane grass and bushes with their rifles held high to one shoulder. They were all gradually getting covered in the dark green moss, which Horza supposed might be useful as camouflage (providing, of course, that it didn’t turn out to be some horrible, previously undiscovered sentient killer-moss… He told himself to stop being silly).

If you’re OK with reading a novel that both deconstructs a genre that you may know and love while also taking the piss, you should consider Consider Phlebas.

This might be the last time I re-re-Consider Phlebas for a while, I’ll be quite busy reading the other NINE books in the series.