The Ambiguity of Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
I think I was about nineteen years old when I first learned about Iain M. Banks. I was living in Scotland at the time and just about every stranger who got stuck talking to me wouldn’t have to wait long before they found out that I wanted to be a writer. Iain Banks, I soon learned, was a famous novelist who was known to visit a pub that I frequented. Inspired by that knowledge alone I started to read some of his more literary oriented fiction, but I didn’t actually get around to his science fiction novels until recent years.
For those of you who don’t know, Iain M. Banks is mostly famous for his Culture novels. For those of you who do, you’re probably aware that the series has a reputation for a couple of duds as well as some utter masterworks of science fiction. The Player of Games and Use of Weapons are so roundly respected that a lot of readers actually recommend you skip over the other entries in the series. These people are obviously insane, not least of all because after you’ve read the absolute best that a series has to offer, what on earth would encourage you to read the rest? Besides which, as I’m working my way through the books now, the oddly titled Consider Pheblas has actually showcased some of the more compelling sci-fi ideas I’ve read in recent years, even if I do recognise why some people would consider it a bit of a trudge.
Nevertheless, I’m curious as to what the rest of the fanbase thinks about the Culture: Humanity’s dominant power in Banks’ sci-fi saga, a civilisation at the forefront of a decades-long galactic war, and, more importantly, the side that Horza, the protagonist of Consider Phlebas, has chosen to fight against. To be specific, at the outset, Horza has allied himself with a millennia-old alien species that holds little regard for human life. Horza is a shapeshifter, not entirely human himself, but his biology is a heck of a lot closer to folks like you and me than it is to the three-legged beasts that aim to conquer Earth’s greatest empire.
At first, I thought his reasoning for working against humanity was a little underdeveloped: He didn’t seem to have a personal vendetta against the Culture. Yes, he had some ideological issues with them, and a healthy dose of paranoia regarding the artificial minds that run their civilization, but the book never made much of an effort to convince you of the danger that the Culture represents. In fact, at times you wonder why Horza would be bothered to get involved with such a dangerous conflict at all.
I do think the flat characterization is a bit of a fail for Banks on this occasion. Horza often comes off as a two-dimensional James Bond type. But there are aspects of Consider Phlebas that are much more fleshed out than any Ian Flemming novel: namely the Culture itself.
While Horza treats us to a handful of propaganda lectures regarding the evils of the Culture, we’re given enough glimpses of their inner workings and the people who populate it to realize they’re not necessarily a bad bunch. In general, they come off as kind, educated and enormously empathetic, a quality that works in stark contrast with the meanness that most other characters in the book demonstrate at one time or another. It would have been nice to explore some concrete reasoning behind Horza’s paranoia regarding the Culture, but, as it stands, having a protagonist whose goals I didn’t agree with did create the fascinating effect in me of not knowing how I’d like the story to end. After all, if the hero of the story is fighting against something you consider to be good, do you really want him to win? In this regard, I can’t think of another book that left me disappointed, satisfied and relieved all at the same time, but that’s what happened here, a complicated political tale with a skillfully achieved sense of ambiguity that more than made up for sections I felt more lacking. On top of all that, Consider Phlebas is basically a really enjoyable space adventure. It’s a bit heartless at times, and certainly doesn’t try to endear you with loveable characters or romantic quests, but Banks’ rich imagination ensures that anybody will find something mind-blowing, thought-provoking, or just downright fun within its pages. I look forward to completing the sequels and discovering if Banks will force me to reevaluate my opinion of the Culture after this first outing, something I strongly suspect he’ll do, ambiguity being the primary currency he seems to trades in.
You know, it was only a few years after I moved back to Ireland that I heard Iain M. Banks died. I do wonder sometimes if I’d brushed by him in that pub in Scotland. I didn’t have any idea what he looked like and it was a pretty tiny place, so there’s a chance I did. Regardless, it’s nice to have gotten into his work at all. He’s left quite a bibliography in his wake, and I imagine if I’m lucky enough to live a long long life, I’ll probably get through the whole lot of it. If you ever ran into a famous author while getting drunk in a pub in Scotland, let me know in the comments below. And if you’re looking for more science fiction videos to watch check out my series on the Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov.