I can still recall buying Consider Phlebas on a rainy winter’s afternoon in Christchurch in the very early 90s and reading it entirely in the space of a couple of days. No slight thing, given its comparative length at 467 pages. I was a student at the time, which makes dedicated, compulsive reading feasible. Consider Phlebas was then the first of what became Banks’s sequence of Culture novels, but to my mind it remains one of the most compelling and challenging novels in the sequence, a masterpiece in the sense of being the first and necessary proof of the author’s skill. Over the years, I’ve seen other reviewers relegate Consider Phlebas to the status of an earlier, less accomplished work — the first but not the best, as fantasy literature.com has it — but this seems to me to fundamentally misunderstand its impact and importance.
If you’re inclined to read CP as part of a series, it does offer some challenges, the first of which would be a roughly two-part structure, in which the first part is relatively disjointed, almost picaresque, a sequence of accidents and violent incidents as the protagonist Bora Horza Gobuchel weaves his way towards the location of his main mission. Each of these incidents, from a disastrous raid on a remote temple to a crashing megaship to a gruesome encounter with an apocalyptic cult and its grotesque, cannibalistic leader works exceedingly well as a set-piece. In terms of narrative they are superb and compelling, a combination of action, suspense, and vivid detail. But beyond setting the scene for the novel’s broader conflict between the imperialist, religiously conservative Idirans and the liberal, pan-humanistic but no less expansionist Culture, what do these incidents achieve?
To my reading, the arbitrary violence and random danger are quite the point. War, of course, is chaotic and often absurd. But more than this, Banks’s galaxy of cultures and species, despite its high technology and tiers of civilization, is no utopia. Rather, we observe through the context of Horza’s encounters the persistent strands of hedonism and fanaticism, and the fear of disorder that motivates both the Culture and the Idirans. Horza is fond of accusing the Culture of trying to suppress the “messiness” that is organic life, but the first half of CP illustrates just how violent and precarious that messiness can be.
This would still be simply scene-setting if it were not for its connection to the second significant challenge of CP. Horza, our primary point-of-view character and protagonist is aligned against the Culture and sides with the religious zealotry of the Idirans for his own reasons. From the beginning Horza, a Changer, one of a species of biological weapons designed to infiltrate and impersonate other humanoid species, has been engaged in a struggle for identity. This might seem natural for the doppelgänger, always marginal, always forced to mediate between multiple identities merely to survive. As Banks makes clear, this is the challenge for all intelligent life. Who are we? asks Fal ‘Ngeestra, Culture Referer, whose intuition matches the intelligence of the Minds: Information being passed on... Life is a faster force, reordering, finding new niches, starting to shape; intelligence — consciousness — an order quicker, another new plane. The Idirans, at the apex of their ferocious evolutionary ascent, are driven to assert a fixed identity lodged in their genetics. Even the refugee Mind, quest object, fears the corruption of its information/identity as it shelters in its hiding place.
Understand this about CP, that the framing Culture-Idiran War is really a struggle for identity that consumes and shapes Horza’s path, and you begin to see how compelling and emotionally demanding the ending really is.
Who are we? Who do we identify with: the Culture, the Idirans, Horza the Changer, his doomed crew?
Oh you who look to windward...
Enquire of the Internet what "Look to windward" means and you're likely to find multiple, circular references to CP and the Culture series. But if you treat it as the fragment of poetry it is, to look to windward from a sailing ship suggest looking into the wind, either along the course you have passed, as the wind blows you, or to look out for any object bearing towards you with the wind behind it. The metaphor, then, is an admonishment to consider where you have come from, and the threat that is not before you but follows in your wake.
Eventually, Horza fails, defeated by the irreconcilable tensions between the fanaticism of the Idirans he has committed to and the technical superiority and perhaps moral superiority of the Culture. Indeed, it is the Culture, and it's "clever" anticipation of all eventualities that prevails. But in his last moments he grasps for and retains that fragmentary expression of identity, a name, a coherent, tragic self. For Fal and the Culture Minds—those who look to windward and prevail—there is a certain validation in this rescue, just as the outcome of the Culture-Idiran War is inevitable. But buried in this moment is another realization, as we learn that the rescued Mind later assumed the name of Bora Harza Gobuchel, the reason for which is a "long story"— indeed, the long story we have in hand.
Deep in the Command System on a Planet of the Dead, a desolate war monument to the mass destruction of an intelligent species with its own weapons, Horza and the hidden Mind both come to recognize the fragility and contingency of consciousness. For Horza, it is a single, all-too-late point of identification with the Culture: "Horza realized that his own obsessive drive never to make a mistake, always to think of everything, was not so unlike the fetishistic urge which he so despised in the Culture: that need to make everything fair and equal, to take the chance out of life."
Last century, when I first read CP, I was inclined to assign Banks’s other motto, the sardonic quote from the Koran, as a reference to the Idirans. But now, I can see another irony at play: the moral calculus of the Culture may indeed be that contained carnage is preferable to idolatry, to religious fixation on absolute ideas. What makes CP so compelling is the nuance of this theme set against the brilliance of the explosive action narrative Banks deploys to deliver it. Eventually we will choose to side with the Culture, and later novels, more contained, mannered even, will focus more and more on the implications of the Culture’s own use of weapons as it expands and consolidates its version of interventionist utilitarianism. But the emotional sub-current is equally relevant: what are the costs, who are we, really, to decide? Consider Phlebas...
Who was once handsome and tall as you.