What better novel to inaugurate Space Opera That Doesn’t Suck than Consider Phlebas? This 1987 novel by the (sadly) late Iain M. Banks wasn’t Banks’ debut novel, but it was the first novel to feature his star-spanning, anarchistic utopia, the Culture.
Banks chooses to introduce the Culture not from the perspective of a sympathetic observer, but rather from the point of view of an enemy. The Changer Horza sees Minds, the artificial intelligences that dominate the Culture, as anti-life and the culture of the Culture as an anti-evolutionary dead end. Accordingly, when the Idiran-Culture War breaks out, Horza casts his lot with the Idirans. The Idirans might be violent, repressive, bigoted religious fanatics but at least they are on the side of life. Or so Horza sees it. And a shapeshifter like Horza is a valuable asset.…
His cover blown, shackled to a cell wall, waiting for a rising tide of waste to drown him …
Horza is retrieved by his Idiran allies after a mission gone horribly wrong. This is unusual behaviour for the Idirans. Although Horza was undone due to no fault of his own (thanks to a Culture agent), the Idirans are unforgiving and uncharitable. They are the sort of allies who would normally leave an exposed agent to die.
Horza lucks out because his past makes him uniquely valuable to a new front in the Idiran-Culture War. Pursued by Idirans, a Culture Mind managed to go to ground on Schar’s World. Schar’s World is one of the so-called Dead Worlds, a world whose civilization exterminated itself millennia ago. It is preserved by the godlike Dra’Azon as a monument to folly. It is off limits to the combatants in the Idiran-Culture War.
A direct attempt by the Idirans to land on Schar’s World is almost certainly doomed to failure. There is a loophole, however. To the Dra’Azon, Horza isn’t a combatant: he is a former member of the Changer outpost allowed by treaty on Schar’s World. Where Idiran soldiers would be met with force, Horza might simply be allowed to land.
All Horza has to do is to get to Schar’s World. How hard could that be?
This is not set in our future but rather the past. The Idiran-Culture War began in 1327 AD and raged for almost a century. This means the humans within the Culture are not Earth humans, but an assortment of can’t‑believe-it’s‑not-humans evolved on other worlds from entirely alien lineages. I am aware of the precedents but still, that’s pretty silly.
It may be an indication of Banks’ personal politics that the vast, subterranean complex on Schar’s World that provides a stage for the final chapters of the novel is a vastly scaled up but entirely recognizable riff on the late President Reagan’s Peacekeeper Rail Garrison. The late inhabitants of Schar’s World spend vast sums of treasure on an admittedly impressive (still functioning after thousands of years!) weapons system that was ultimately completely irrelevant to the final conflict that annihilated them.
Showing off utopias from the perspective of outsiders is a pretty common tactic; it allows the author to display all the shiny brasswork of their worldbuilding, as the native inhabitants show off their culture to the uninformed and always curious newcomer. Banks changes the game by having Horza start out as a well-informed enemy of the Culture. He isn’t some wide-eyed victim of mesmeric sleep cast into an unfamiliar future, or a castaway balloonist washed up on the shore of a grand experiment. Horza knows all about the Culture, or thinks he does, and he does not like what he sees.
The events that follow Horza’s rescue cast a certain amount of doubt on the reliability of his judgment. It is remarkable how few of his plans and those of his allies go as hoped (and it is clear that their plans that would have failed even had chance not taken a hand in events). It also helps tilt the scales that the Idirans are not subtly malevolent in their excesses. They are brutal fanatics who cheerfully commit war crimes and exterminate entire species. We eventually find that the Idirans wouldn’t even be dangerous if they were not being covertly supported by another, greater, galactic power. They are not supermen, but pawns.
One might then wonder if the Culture only seems utopian because the author is pitting it against genocidal religious nuts. That does seem to be a pattern in the early Culture novels like The Player of Games and Excession: it’s easy to look good if the alternative is cultures like the Idirans, the Empire of Azad, and the Affront.
The book takes its title from this passage from Eliot’s The Waste Land:
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.
If you sense that the title telegraphs a plot that will not develop entirely to Horza’s benefit, you would not be wrong. But protagonists determined to act upon utterly mistaken notions are prone to having colourful adventures — which is fun for readers, if not the protagonist. Banks also regales readers with a plethora of exotic settings, from obscure alien temples to vast, doomed artefacts out in space. He also introduces a number of lurid degenerates amongst whom you would not want to be shipwrecked.
Consider Phlebas was well received when it came out; it was the first of nine novels (and a short story collection) set in the Culture. It’s my impression that Banks’ appeal was initially greater in the UK than in the US. I am not sure why. Sure, the title of the first Culture novel is suspiciously literary, but the sort of people who would object to a T. S. Eliot reference in a title probably wouldn’t recognize one anyway. The plot is certainly energetic enough. And while it is true the Culture is, well, communistic, so is a certain popular American SF franchise. It’s a puzzler.
Unsurprisingly, Consider Phlebas has never to my knowledge ever fallen out of print. It is available in a variety of editions here.