||This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (November 2014)|
|Author||Iain M. Banks|
|Cover artist||Richard Hopkinson|
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Followed by||The Player of Games|
The novel revolves around the Idiran-Culture War, and Banks plays on that theme by presenting various microcosms of that conflict. Its protagonist Bora Horza Gobuchul is actually an enemy of the Culture.
Consider Phlebas is Banks's first published science fiction novel set in the Culture, and takes its title from a line in T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land. A subsequent Culture novel, Look to Windward (2000), whose title comes from the previous line of the same poem, can be considered a loose follow-up.
The Culture and the Idiran Empire are at war in a galaxy-spanning conflict. Horza, a mercenary capable of altering his appearance at will (a Changer), is assigned the task of retrieving a dispossessed Culture Mind by his Idiran handlers. The Mind, while fleeing attacking Idirans who consider its existence an abomination, has taken refuge on Schar's World, a Planet of the Dead. Planets of the Dead are graveyard worlds left untouched to stand as a monument to their now extinct civilisations and are nominally forbidden to both the Culture and the Idirans, being under the control of godlike incorporeal beings called Dra'Azon. Horza, however, was one of a group of Changers allowed to be on the planet as stewards and witnesses to its devastation. He may be the only person in the Galaxy, and certainly the only one known to the Idirans, who would be allowed to return. On the way to Schar's World he encounters, and joins, a band of mercenaries and pirates, led by Kraiklyn, on their ship, the Clear Air Turbulence. All the while he is doggedly pursued by a Culture Special Circumstances agent, Perosteck Balveda. The Culture also realizes that Horza is the key to getting to Schar's World and retrieving the Mind. Their plan is to place an agent with him and hope that the agent can get to the Mind first and somehow leave with it.
The plot takes many digressions on the way to the denouement. As the book opens, Horza is undergoing a grisly execution (by drowning in sewage) after killing and impersonating a governmental minister of the gerontocracy of a society which has aligned itself under the Culture's protection during the war. Here he meets Balveda for the first time when she, as the Culture's representative, exposes Horza as an Idiran agent. He is rescued at the eleventh hour, and Balveda is captured and apparently summarily killed, when the Idiran advanced war fleet invades the planet, and he is informed of his mission to return to Schar's World and retrieve the Culture Mind for the Idiran war effort. However, the Idiran starship on which he is travelling is soon ambushed by a Culture war vessel, and Horza is ejected so as not to fall into enemy hands. Drifting in an escape suit, he is picked up by an independent ship, the Clear Air Turbulence (CAT), crewed by a Free Company of mercenaries, and he is forced to fight and kill one of them (while still in the shape of a very old gerontocrat) in order to prove his value as a potential recruit and avoid being left for dead.
Horza soon resolves to take over the ship by replacing the Captain, Kraiklyn, who leads them on some disastrous pirate raids which kill several of the crew. The first raid fails because the team is unaware that the temple they plan to rob has been built of light-reflective crystal, causing their energy weapons to backfire unpredictably. The next raid takes place on the Orbital Vavatch, a massive artificial "ringworld" 14 million kilometres in diameter, which the Culture is preparing to evacuate and bomb in order to prevent the Idirans taking it over. The crew lands on an abandoned Megaship, a vast waterborne cruise ship endlessly circumnavigating Vavatch's single ring-shaped ocean, hoping to salvage its Culture-built (and thus superior quality) iceberg-lancing laser weaponry before the Orbital is destroyed. However one of the crew is killed soon after landing because he missed a briefing warning by the Company that their portable antigravity devices have no effect on the centrifugal force of a rotating reference frame, and more die when the now rudderless Megaship crashes into a colossal iceberg. Horza and a gravely injured fellow crewmember survive, believing the rest of the crew to have perished aboard the Megaship.
They flee the disaster in the damaged CAT shuttle and attempt an approach to Vavatch's encircling landmass, but upon the death of the injured pilot, the shuttle crashes into the sea near an isolated island. There he is taken prisoner by a bizarre cult of "Eaters", led by a monstrously obese homicidal cannibal, whose followers subsist on food that has been prepared in such a way as to remove almost all nutritive value and mixed with excrement. Horza escapes his impending sacrifice by killing the cult leader and his priests using his poisoned fingernails and teeth, and, hijacking a Culture shuttle left on the island to allow the Eaters an option to evacuate, makes his way to the main city of Vavatch where he finds Kraiklyn and some of the few remaining CAT crew are alive. Having now changed his appearance to mimic that of the CAT captain, Horza witnesses a high-stakes game of "Damage", which Kraiklyn has joined in the hopes of winning enough to make up the losses from his foolhardy expeditions with the crew. Damage is a card game enhanced with psychological and emotional pressure by direct mind-to-mind contact, where the "tokens" of play are actual living beings who are killed when a player loses a round. The game is illegal and only played in places where the normal order is breaking down, as in the case of Vavatch, which is being evacuated.
Kraiklyn is wiped out of the game, losing all of his tokens, and Horza then follows him on his way back to the CAT, kills him and returns bearing his guise. There, to his dismay, he is introduced to the newest crew member - although disguised, he immediately recognises her as Perosteck Balveda. Just as Horza immobilises her with a stun gun, Culture agents outside try to capture the ship. Horza manages to lift off and takes the Clear Air Turbulence on a wild ride through the immense interior spaces of the city-sized ex-Culture GSV starship which is carrying out the evacuation, and they escape into space after shaking off their Culture pursuers, although a Culture drone, Unaha-Closp, is also trapped on the escaping ship and becomes a reluctant member of the team. As the fugitives warp away from Vavatch, they see the Orbital destroyed by the Culture warships. Balveda, now exposed as a Culture agent, in turn exposes Horza; seeing no reason to continue his deception, he instead recruits the remnants of the crew to carry out his mission.
Horza and his crew land on Schar's World and go in search for the Mind in the labyrinthine Command System, a vast subterranean complex built as a nuclear warfare command centre (ultimately, though, it was germ warfare which wiped out all life on the Planet of the Dead). They soon discover that the Mind is also being hunted by a pair of Idiran soldiers, survivors of a larger commando group, who have killed all the Changers stationed on the planet, and who regard Horza and his crew as enemies, having no knowledge of the Changers' alliance with the Idirans. Horza has kept Balveda alive, possibly as a hostage, and she goes along with the mission, awaiting her chance to swing the outcome in the Culture's favour. Horza's situation is further complicated when his crewmate Yalson reveals that she is pregnant by him.
The Free Company encounter the Idirans in one of the Command System stations but after an intense firefight, they apparently kill one and manage to capture the other. After tracking the Mind to another station, the drone Unaha-Closp discovers it hiding in the reactor car of a Command System train, but while the team are distracted, the captured Idiran, Xoxarle, frees himself, kills the guard and sets an ambush for the others. Meanwhile, the second Idiran, who had been mortally wounded but not killed, has managed to set one of the trains for a collision course. As the runaway train smashes into the station, Xoxarle springs his ambush, and Yalson is killed. The enraged Horza pursues Xoxarle, who catches Balveda and breaks her arm to slow Horza down. In the climactic fight, Horza is overwhelmed, but thanks to the combined action of the drone and Balveda, Xoxarle is finally killed. Although the Mind has been rescued, the cost has been terrible - all the crew of the Clear Air Turbulence have been killed, the drone is severely damaged, and the fatally wounded Horza dies soon after Balveda gets him back to the surface.
Following the final chapter, an appendix tells of the continued lives of the surviving characters, and a summary of the causes and course of the Culture-Idiran war.
Consider Phlebas, like most of Banks's early SF output, was a rewritten version of an earlier book, as he explained in a 1994 interview:
"Phlebas was an old one too; it was written just after The Wasp Factory, in 1984. I've found that rewriting an old book took much more effort than writing one from scratch, but I had to go back to do right by these things. Now I can go on and start completely new stuff.
Literary significance and criticism
The book was generally very well received as a fast-paced space opera with a morally ambiguous hero and lots of grand scenery and devices.
Banks said in an interview:
'There's a big war going on in [Consider Phlebas], and various individuals and groups manage to influence its outcome. But even being able to do that doesn't ultimately change things very much. At the book's end, I have a section pointing this out by telling what happened after the war, which was an attempt to pose the question, 'What was it all for?' I guess this approach has to do with my reacting to the cliché 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. And it sets you thinking what difference, if any, it would have made if Jesus Christ, or Karl Marx or Charles Darwin had never been. We just don't know.'
- Review at SFReviews.net
- Richard R. Horton review
- Cover art gallery at Upcoming4.me
- Analysis of Consider Phlebas on Lit React