||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. The Dra'Azon, godlike incorporeal beings, maintain Schar's World as a monument to its extinct civilisation, leaving it nominally forbidden to both the Culture and the Idirans. Horza, however, was one of a group of Changers allowed to be on the planet as stewards. The Idirans believe the Dra'Azon guardian may let him in, and thus assign him to go there and retrieve the Mind.
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) at the hands of a Culture-aligned gerontocracy. Here he meets Culture Special Circumstances agent Perosteck Balveda for the first time. 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 Schar's World. 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 a pirate ship, the Clear Air Turbulence (CAT). He is forced to fight and kill one of them 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 two disastrous pirate raids in which several of the crew perish. After the second failed raid (targeting a massive sea ship on the orbital Vavatch, which is due to be destroyed by the Culture), Horza is taken prisoner by a bizarre cult living on an island on the orbital. He escapes his impending sacrifice by killing the cult leader, a monstrously obese cannibal, as well as his priests. He 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 watches Kraiklyn play a high-stakes game of "Damage"—a card game featuring direct mind-to-mind contact, where the "tokens" of play are actual living beings who are killed when a player loses a round.
Kraiklyn loses the game, and Horza then follows him back to the CAT, kills him, and returns bearing his guise. There, to his dismay, he is introduced to the newest crew member, whom he recognises as a disguised 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 CAT on a wild ride through the immense starship which is carrying out Vavatch's evacuation. 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. A Vavatch drone, Unaha-Closp, has been trapped on the ship; he reluctantly joins the team.
Horza and his crew land on Schar's World and go in search for the Mind in the labyrinthine Command System, a vast complex of subterranean train stations. They soon discover that the Mind is also being hunted by a pair of Idiran soldiers 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. Horza's situation is further complicated when his crewmate Yalson reveals that she is pregnant by him. The CAT's crew encounter the Idirans in one of the Command System stations, and in an intense firefight apparently kill one and 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. The captured Idiran, Xoxarle, frees himself and kills his guard. The second Idiran, who had been mortally wounded but not killed, sets one of the trains for a collision course to the station, which kills Yalson. The enraged Horza pursues Xoxarle, who overwhelms him, but dies at the hands of Unaha-Closp and Balveda.
All of 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 to the surface. Horza fails his mission, with the Mind returning to the Culture. 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, including the extinction of the Changer species. In an epilogue, the Mind becomes a starship, and names itself the Bora Horza Gobuchul.
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 that novel, 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