Retro Review: Consider Phlebas

I first heard of Iain M. Banks when the Hydrogen Sonata was released in 2012. I know, I know, I was a few decades late to the game there. Anyway, I read the glowing reviews of the Hydrogen Sonata and thought, “perhaps I should read this guy.” Then I took a look at the length of the Culture series, 10 novels of weighty length and said, “maybe later.”

Fast-forward two and a half years and a Culture book finally came up to the top of my TBR pile. Thus me posting this review nearly thirty years too late. (Also, being fair, Consider Phlebas would have been a challenging read for me at age eight. I didn’t even start on Asimov until I was about 11 or 12.)

Ok, enough with apologia, I read this book and I have thoughts! Thoughts and opinions! Fair warning, this review will include spoilers. I know, shock, spoilers for a 28 year old novel.

Life at the edge of utopia

I do want to like Consider Phlebas, and I will probably read other Culture books in the future, and the way it explores ideas of utopia is key to that. The universe of Consider Phlebas is one at war. On one side, a giant species of tripedal religious fanatics and on the other a vast network of human-like and post-human (but interestingly, not Earthling) species and subspecies who have formed what is effectively a post-scarcity communist utopia.

The tripeds believe that it’s their relgious and moral duty to subjugate lesser species, while the utopians of the Culture have been engaging in a much gentler form of subjugation, contacting younger species and occasionally manipulating their development in order to increase the likelihood that these species will see the light of AI mitigated utopia.

I find it very interesting that Banks makes it evident immediately that there is a moral grey zone here. Our first encounter with the Culture is a diplomat who has detected and outed a spy serving the tripedal Idirans. He’s going to be executed in a truly vulgar and awful manner, and she makes a half-hearted attempt to commute his sentence.

But when his spymaster comes to rescue him, she’s found to be bristling with weapons and seems to be every bit as much of a spy as he was. She turns out to be an inveterate survivor, and in the later scene handily manipulates this same spy, and the team of mercenaries he’s managed to wrestle control over into accomplishing her goals for her while she stands back and watches.

By the time the story ends it becomes very clear that she could have wrestled control of the spy’s team and his vessel away from him at any time, but chose instead to provide a finger on the scales, reserving her hidden capacity for violence until the most opportune moment.

By contrast, the theocratic Idirans are booming, loud, overt, petulantly destructive and strangely impatient for a species Banks makes such a point of repeatedly reminding the audience is effectively immortal.

And this gets to where Consider Phlebas falls down worst – its treatment of religion.

Religion’s Bad, Mmmkay

Parts of Consider Phlebas come across as a castigation of religion every bit as severe as His Dark Materials.

This point is driven home with jackhammer subtlety during an episode in which the protagonist, the Idiran-serving spy from the beginning has become stranded in a freshwater ocean on a three-million kilometer diameter ring shaped space habitat due to be demolished as part of the war.

For some reason the administration of this satellite have allowed a cult of cannibals, ruled over the most cartoonishly “monstrous because he’s fat” character since Baron Harkonnen who somehow has convinced all of these people to murder any passers-by or each other in an orgy religiously motivated self-degradation.

Meanwhile a Culture shuttle with an artificial intelligence sits there, blithely ignorant to what’s going on literally right next to it. Apparently the AI which is tasked with flying the ship doesn’t bother switching on external cameras when it’s on the ground.

The takeaway from the misadeventure is that religion brings people to make irrational and destructive choices that harm both themselves and everybody around them.

Later, we encounter two Idirans whose names I’ve chosen to forget in favour of calling them Dumb and Dumber. These two collossal assholes have managed to sneak onto a world which is believed to hold a highly advanced AI belonging to the Culture. The protagonist of the story has been sent, by the Idirans, to recover this AI and bring it in for interrogation.

However the Idirans, woefully ill-equipped to complete their mission have decided, against all logic, that it’d be better to destroy the AI and lose its intel. Furthermore, when the spy turns up, claiming to be working for them and with a Culture agent rather obviously his prisoner, they decide, for religious reasons, nope, gonna just kill everybody instead.

Irrational, self-harming, destructive.

Dumb forces the mercenaries to keep him as a prisoner and promises to be a bad one, despite repeat assurances from the spy that he’ll be brought home alive and successful in his mission, if he just cooperates.

Instead he makes two escape attempts, killing people each time.

Dumber decides to kill everybody, including himself, with a giant fusion powered armored train. Because religion. Yeah!

The good, the bad and the ugly

It’s interesting that Banks could manage so successfully to, with only a few characters create a nuanced, interesting view on what impact a post-scarcity technologically mitigated utopia would have on the universe, while failing so wholly to provide the same nuance about religious civilizations occupying the same milieu. On one hand the Culture, its agents, and the mercenaries who occupy its periphery are crafted with loving detail. These are intricate characters with complex inner lives beautifully rendered.

Even the stock tropes (the reluctant spy who must One Last Job during which he discovers camaraderie with his enemies, the smart-ass robot who is too useful to be discarded for his attitude, the decadent space casino, the mystery world)  are done with the loving detail of pinhead’s puzzle box.

And then the Eaters and the Idirans stomp all over chewing scenery and being cartoonishly evil because their religions tell them to. And it makes for a jarring juxtaposition.

I understand this is one of Banks’ early works, and the things he does with the Culture are interesting enough that I’ll probably pick up another of the books in that series in time. It’s fine to be critical of religion in fiction. I am very fond of Pullman. But to treat most characters with such delicacy and then to have a bunch of stock religious zealots crash the party (literally) makes for a disconnect in tone and structure which wounds an otherwise engaging read.

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