A covert agent fights his way through a hazardous galaxy in Iain M. Banks’s dynamic 1987 novel ‘Consider Phlebas’

June 5, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 5, 2019

Iain Banks, who published many of his science fiction novels as Iain M. Banks, falls into what for me is quite a large category of knowledge — or perhaps I should say quasi-knowledge. This Scottish writer’s name is something I’ve heard or read and am aware of, but I could not really tell you anything specific about him.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction credits Banks, who died in 2013 at age 59, with 33 titles. His debut novel came out in 1984 and was followed by books in each of the following two years. In 1987, impressively, Banks published a whopping three books; he maintained a relatively brisk pace for the rest of his life. Consider Phlebas, which was part of that trio, is part of my local library’s catalog of digital books. On the cover is a legend labeling the volume as “A Culture Novel.”

Prior to this spring, on a good day, about the only bit of information my brain could have dredged up about Banks, besides his being a writer, is that he had authored a science fiction series named after something called the Culture.

In fact, Consider Phlebas is the first novel in what ultimately wound up as an 11-book series that spanned most of Banks’s wiring life. I had very little idea what to expect from the series as a whole or the debut entry in particular, in part because the library catalog description is a bit vague. I’ll confess that I anticipated some highfaluting book of ideas, a notion that may have been fostered by my associations with the word “culture.”

However, Consider Phlebas is considerably different from my wild guess at what it might be. The work is a spirited adventure centered on the exploits of a covert operative with the unfortunate name Bora Horza Gorbuchul.

The agent, who goes by Horza, is a Changer, a member of an obscure subspecies of humans who are capable of adjusting their body’s shape, mass and exterior features over a matter of hours, days or weeks, depending on the extent of the alterations. When we first meet our protagonist, he’s been caught impersonating an influential government official on the edges of an extremely violent far-future galactic war.

This shape-changing ability alone would make Horza a prized intelligence asset. But he also features a number of cybernetic enhancements, and he’s undergone rigorous military and mental training, all of which make him unusually lethal. Moreover, unlike most of his fellow Changers, who have adopted a Switzerland–like policy of neutrality, Horza has thrown in his lot with the Idirans, a race of massive three-legged religious fanatics who are locked in a bloody struggled with the Culture.

When confronted in a gruesome prison cell by one of his captors and a representative of the Culture, Horza tries to pitch the locals on joining the Idirans.

“Can’t you see you’re going to be taken over anyway? Probably by the Idirans, but if not by them then by the Culture. You don’t control your own destinies anymore; the war’s stopped all that. Soon this whole sector will be part of the front, unless you make it part of the Idiran sphere. I was only sent in to tell you what you should have known anyway — not to cheat you into something you’d regret later. For God’s sake, man, the Idirans won’t eat you—” 

“Ha! They look as thought they could! Monsters with three feet; invaders, killers, infidels… You want us to link with them? With three-strides-tall monsters? To be ground under their hooves? To have to worship their false gods?” 

“At least they have a God, Frolk. The Culture doesn’t.” The ache in his arms was coming back as he concentrated on talking. He shifted as best he could and looked down at the minister. “They at least think the same way you do. The Culture doesn’t.” 

“Oh no, my friend, oh no.” Amahain-Frolk held one hand up flat to him and shook his head. “You won’t sow seeds of discord like that.” 

“My God, you stupid old man,” he laughed. “You want to know who the real representative of the Culture is on this planet? It’s not her,” he nodded at the woman, “it’s that powered flesh-slicer she has following her everywhere, her knife missile. She might make the decisions, it might do what she tells it, but it’s the real emissary. That’s what the Culture’s about: machines. You think because Balveda’s got two legs and soft skin you should be on her side, but it’s the Idirans who are on the side of life in this war—” 

“Well, you will shortly be on the other side of that.” The Gerontocrat snorted… 

The first half of Consider Phlebas proceeds at a breakneck pace — literally, in at least one case. Horza is saved from his initial predicament by his Idiran spymaster, who assigns him an important new mission. But by the end of the second chapter, after being forced to flee from a doomed Idiran cruiser, Horza is drifting in a vast interplanetary void, hoping to be rescued yet again.

By chance, Horza is picked up by a ship called Clear Air Turbulence; he falls in with the crew of mercenaries under the half-baked leadership of their captain, a cocksure man named Kraiklyn. As Horza ponders whether to complete his assignment or chart a completely new course for himself, the mercenaries lurch from one messy situation to another. Their misadventures include a sojourn on Vavatch, an artificial station so vast that it has its own ocean — an ocean that itself is so large that it in turn is plied by mile-long “megaships.”

‘Consider Phlebas’ by Iain M. Banks.

Matters settle down somewhat as Horza resolves to recover a Culture artificial intelligence that the Idirans had tasked him with retrieving. This McGuffin, known as a Mind, is embedded in a skeletal interstellar vessel that has taken refuge in the labyrinthine tunnels of a distant planet after encountering a much better equipped squadron of Idiran warships. (By the time Horza makes this decision, oddly, he’s been exposed to lethal sewage-oriented situations not once but twice.) The bonds of Horza’s ad hoc group of comrades are tested sorely by this mission, which he only persuades them to embark upon under duress.

Banks has created an amazingly intricate universe. He has a knack for getting his protagonist into and out of perilous situations, and the action set pieces are executed with flair. The characters in Consider Phlebas are well drawn but not entirely sympathetic; for all his moral certitude that the Idirans are superior to the Culture, Horza is almost as self-centered and opportunistic as Kraiklyn’s crew. And some of the situations and violences is off-putting; even Horza himself cringes at a few of the situations he endures and decisions he must make.

Still, Consider Phlebas made for an intriguing read, although not one I’d recommend to non-genre fans. I expect I’ll delve into more of Banks’s work in the future.

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