"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen
IV. Death By Water
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
- T.S. Eliot, from The Waste Land
This is an easy book to appreciate, but a hard one to truly love. Though it is literary and thought-provoking, its plot is disjointed and episodic, its characters flat and detestable, and it lacks any real emotional hooks. It's a mediocre space opera at heart, with some interesting "big ideas" pasted over the surface. And though it does pack a punch, it's delayed -- blindsiding you only after the novel has concluded, somewhere in the appendices.
Consider Phlebas introduces us to the Culture, the intergalactic society that will dominate the majority of Banks's SF oeuvre. In this, the first Culture novel, we see it at war with the Idirans, a large reptilian species. The conflict has been long, vast, and bloody, and both sides are utterly intractable.
"The Culture went to war to safeguard its own peace of mind: no more. But that peace was the Culture's most precious quality, perhaps its only true and treasured possession."
For the Culture, this is a war of ideas - a secular holy war. It has nothing to do with conquest or colonization, control of resources or territory, or any other material concern. The Culture defines itself by its good works toward other societies, and so if it stood by while the Idirans attacked and vanquished other less-powerful nations, the Culture would risk "the loss of its purpose and that clarity of conscience; the destruction of its spirit; the surrender of its soul."
This is similar to some of the justifications the US and the UK (and other colonial powers in this post-colonial age) use for getting involved in foreign conflicts that are ostensibly none of their business. But in reality, this kind of do-gooding almost always has some ulterior motive, and it often balloons into something far bigger and messier than expected.
As it does for the Culture in this novel.
"The Idirans were already at war, conquering the species they regarded as inferior and subjugating them in a primarily religious empire which was only incidentally a commercial one as well. It was clear to them from the start that their jihad to 'calm, integrate and instruct' these other species and bring them under the direct eye of their God had to continue and expand, or be meaningless."
The Idirans fight with as much (if not more) religious fervor than the Culture - and they had seriously underestimated the motivation of their enemy, expecting the Culture to make its point and quickly back down. This did not happen, and soon the Idirans find themselves desperate and in over their head. The Culture is bigger, more powerful, and far more technologically advanced. It's only a matter of time.
It's this setting that I love about the book - these big historical ideas, these massive cogs turning. Neither side of the conflict is really justified, but both are understandable in some ways. Despite being made up of lizards, machines, and cyborgs, this is a very human war.
Against this vast and deadly backdrop (48 years long; 851.4 billion casualties - though the "historical perspective" at the end of the book describes it as "a small, short war that rarely extended throughout more than .02% of the galaxy by volume"), the adventures of our protagonists seem tiny and trivial indeed.
We open with main character Bora Horza Gobuchul, a Changer (i.e. shapeshifter) agent who supports the Idirans because he hates and fears the Culture - which he sees as alien and dominated by machines, as well as uncomfortably secular. Though the Idirans are aggressive and ruthless, they are at least familiar and religious. To Horza, they "are on the side of life in this war."
The loose plot, then, follows Horza as he attempts to locate a Culture Mind (a superintelligent computer) that has fled to a Planet of the Dead - where both Idirans and Culture are forbidden to go, lest they awake the wrath of its god-like guardians, the Dra'Azon. But Changers are permitted, so Horza is recruited to find and capture the rogue Mind - which may, theoretically, give Idir an advantage in the war.
However, this plot is very loose, since much of the book is taken up instead by separate, elaborate set pieces that reek of space opera cheese (not always a bad thing, but here...) and have little to do with the overall thrust of the story. The cast of characters is multitudinous, flat, expendable, and loathsome, adding nothing enjoyable at all to the mix.
Some of these sections are well-done and memorable - such as when Horza finds himself on a deserted island populated by a horrifying, disgusting cannibal cult. Or a thrilling chase scene within the bowels of an unimaginably vast spaceship. But mostly, the book feels aimless and disjointed.
The climax, when it finally arrives, is worth the slog. The final confrontation, in the abandoned tunnels beneath a frozen, dead world, pits Horza, the remnants of his crew of space pirates, and captured human and machine representatives of the Culture, against two cold-blooded Idiran soldiers and the desperate, hiding Mind. This final section of the book is gripping, exciting, powerful -- I only wish what led up to it was even half as well done.
For what feels, most of the time, like a by-the-numbers space opera adventure, this book really is pretty unique - in the way that it ends (decidedly not the way these types of stories are supposed to end), in the ambiguity of its entire concept (which side is right? or, really, which side is less wrong?), and then in the sublime appendices, which manage to contextualize the entire story into something bigger, deeper, sadder, and yet somehow more profoundly insignificant than expected. The millstone of history - of our known universe - just keeps pulverizing all of us into dust. What does it matter who we are, what we have done?
And this is what Banks was going for:
"There's a big war going on, and various individuals and groups manage to influence its outcome. But even being able to do that doesn't ultimately change things very much... I guess this approach has to do with my reacting to the cliche of SF's 'lone protagonist.' You know, this idea that a single individual can determine the direction of entire civilizations. It's very, very hard for a lone person to do that."
All of this pushes what is otherwise a very mediocre space opera into something - not incredible, maybe not even good - but something impressive and deeply thought-provoking. It's almost enough for me to forgive the book some of its flaws - and yet, just think of how sublime this book could have been with all this meta-commentary AND an amazing story! So I respect a lot about it, and I'm glad I read it, but I don't love it. There is definitely hope for better things to come in the later Culture novels, though.