Friday, May 12, 2006

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

I read Iain M. Banks' most recent novel, The Algebraist, in December (review here) and up until its midpoint, I was thoroughly convinced that the book would turn out to be one of my favorite reads of the year. Following that point, however, Banks' intriguing combination of social SF and hyper-imaginative space opera gave way to a humorous but ultimately repetitive adventure story, and the book eventually amounted to a minor work. That first half was still enough to whet my apetite for more of Banks' fiction, specifically his Culture novels, and being a completist I started with Consider Phlebas, Banks' first science fiction novel. This, I now suspect, is a mistake on par with starting to read the Discworld series with The Color of Magic--the talent and the good ideas are there, but they've yet to be developed. Consider Phlebas suffers from many of the faults one might expect from a new writer who has yet to cement and take control of his voice (my awareness of the deficiencies in Banks' prose was certainly heightened by the fact that I had recently read his latest, and stylistically quite accomplished, novel). A greater disappointment, however, was Banks' treatment of the social questions which make up the meat of the novel.

In The Algebraist, Banks juxtaposes the hyper-organized yet cruelly authoritarian Mercatoria with the E-5 Disconnect, a religious cult ruled by a hedonistic madman. The opponents in Consider Phlebas are quite a bit more subtle. In one corner, the Culture--a technologically advanced society of plenty, a Communist utopia, a society made up of morally conscious hedonists, powered and largely governed by artificial intelligences orders of magnitude more advanced and complicated than humans could ever become. The Culture has picked a fight with the Idirans, a race of aliens in the midst of a religious Jihad, who view humans and other alien species as weak and unworthy. Banks never for a moment allows us to entertain a black and white interpretation of this conflict--the Idirans aren't the violent alien menace; the Culture isn't being taken over by machines for humanity's own good. The novel's protagonist is Horza, a human in the employ of the Idirans who nurses a burning hatred of the Culture. Horza's thesis is that by eliminating hunger, scarcity, and injustice, the Culture is doing away with the necessities of human evolution, that its machine masters are either ignorantly or deliberately directing their biological citizens towards stagnation. The Idirans may be murderous invaders, but according to Horza they are still 'on the side of life', messy and violent as it is.

Consider Phlebas is essentially a protracted debate between the pro- and anti-Culture points of view (the Idirans exist mainly as a catalyst for this debate. Their argument for galactic domination is not seriously considered). In Banks' hands, the Culture is an intriguing mix of simple-mindedness and sophistication. It is at the same time as virtuous as its propaganda claims, and quite a bit more messily human than its detractors would have us believe. According to the novel's coda, the Culture goes to war because "The only desire the Culture could not satisfy from within itself was one common to both the descendants of its original human stock and the machines they had ... brought into being: the urge not to feel useless. The Culture's sole justification for the relatively unworried, hedonistic life its population enjoyed was its good works". The Idirans, and with them a sizable portion of the galaxy, believe that the Culture is incapable of sustaining a prolonged military effort, that its pampered citizenry will rebel at the first suggestion of sacrifice or discomfort, as opposed to the Idirans who view sacrifice and service as a way of life (and yes, the real-world comparisons come in hot and heavy throughout the novel). What they, and we, discover, is that life in every form must always find reasons to struggle, and having found them, will pursue that struggle relentlessly.

The terms in which Banks couches this debate--the question of whether human society can thrive, and maintain its humanity, in conditions of plenty, or whether scarcity and conflict are necessary for human advancement--are quite a bit more sophisticated and nuanced than I am used to seeing, but the substance of the discussion remains unchanged, as does its conclusion. Life, in the end, is life. Messiness and violence can't be bred out of it, nor can repurposing or retitling them alter their fundamental nature. The Culture-Idiran war claims a fantastic toll in lives (the number is purposefully absurd, and its off-hand mention is clearly meant to shock the readers), and yet it is ultimately a minor, insignificant conflict, an exercise in vanity and self-justification on both sides. That is, ultimately, what the novel boils down to--war is bad and wasteful, but ultimately a human endeavor, and death awaits us all no matter the rightness of our cause or the purity of our ideals (a quotation from Eliot's "The Waste Land", 'consider Phlebas' is apparently the phrase one turns to after 'memento mori' throughly percolates into the cultural consciousness and becomes unusable as a title). 471 packed pages is quite a bit of effort to go to in order to say something that most human beings work out by their late teens, especially if the novel doesn't do much beyond expressing this philosophy.

And indeed, some of you may have noticed that although by now I've gone on about this book for four paragraphs, they've all dealt with topic and theme, with the plot nowhere in sight and the characters only briefly mentioned. This is, frankly, in keeping with Banks' approach. The novel's beginning sees Horza tasked with the retrieval of the AI core of a Culture vessel, which made a daring escape from an Idiran attack and hid itself on Schar's World, a neutral and heavily protected planet. Before he can go about completing this task, however, Horza is dumped into space in the middle of a space battle, captured by pirates, captured again by cannibals, caught in the crush to escape a soon-to-be-destroyed orbital platform, and forced to punch his way through a gigantic spaceship in order to escape the Culture's clutches. Will he survive all of these ordeals? Yes, of course he will, as the plot obviously requires that Horza make it to Schar's World, and yet nearly 300 pages are spent in this bouncing from peril to peril. Their purpose is obviously to showcase both Banks' ability to invent bizarre races, exotics customs, and magnificent technological edifices, and more importantly, to act as a backdrop to the ongoing discussion of the Culture. By showing us how the galaxy perceives the Culture, and how Horza reacts to this perception, Banks complicates our understanding of that society. Unfortunately, with no inherent tension to hold our interest, and with Banks pausing frequently for yet more info-dumps or yet more social philosophy, the novel's first 2/3 drag.

As I've already said, Banks' prose isn't up to the level I had come to expect from The Algebraist. In that later novel, he had learned the invaluable skill of making the info-dump interesting and unobtrusive, and much more importantly, he had learned the importance of humor. The frequent use of humor is one of The Algebraist's most compelling qualities--we can trust an author who won't take himself too seriously, and who recognizes the absurdities inherent to his premise and chosen style. Consider Phlebas' topic is, admittedly, a more serious and sombre one than The Algebraist's, but that difference doesn't excuse the earlier novel's humorlessness. Even in the most difficult, most hopeless situations, people make jokes--it is a fundamental human fact. There are almost no jokes in Consider Phlebas (actually, there are four. And none of them are particularly funny) and the novel's tone is unrelentingly tragic. Without humor to leaven it, that tragedy soon comes to seem ponderous and self-important. The characters, never particularly rounded, are further flattened by Banks' choice to deprive them of an important aspect of their personalities.

Unskilled, humorless prose, indifferent characterization, preachy and obvious philosophy--by almost every criteria Consider Phlebas is a flawed, perhaps even a failed novel. Even taking into consideration my unfairly heightened expectations, is there any point in continuing with Banks' back-catalogue? I think if the problem were only with the prose, I'd be perfectly willing to move on to one of his later and highly-praised novels--Use of Weapons or Look to Windward. As I've said, the talent is clearly there, and I already know that Banks develops it. But looking at summaries of the other Culture novels' plots, I get the distinct impression that ideologically, Banks never moves far away from Consider Phlebas' rather simple point. The Culture is virtuous and simple-minded; no, the Culture is decadent and inhuman; no, the Culture is subtle and bent on shaping the galaxy in its own image; no, the Culture is all of the above, and so entirely human and, in its own way, no different than any other empire. This is the not-too-surprising conclusion that Consider Phlebas reaches, and I don't get the impression that the other Culture novels do more than explore its ramifications in greater detail. Am I wrong, and if not, is there still something to read for in Banks' oeuvre?

22 comments:

telepresence said...

I don't think my advice will be very useful to you. I love Banks, but when I read his books I think I'm looking for and getting vastly different things than you are. I read Banks' Culture books for their setting flavor and color, or for certain side incidents or conversational snippets and turns of phrase, or for the bits or what are basically very high tone pulp adventure (Consider Phlebas feels like a pricey boutique version of Star Wars).

It feels to me like Banks sets up a question about the nature of humanity with the Culture, but then immediately...spoofs the question perhaps? Between the Ship names (a good 10 percent of my enjoyment of his books is the ship names alone), the people names (Perosteck Balveda, Bora Horza Gobochul), I dunno, I don't see the books as humorless. I see them as vaguely humorous throughout, comedies really.

All those theoretically heavy questions about the state of humanity really became irrelevant long ago, it's like building a gigantically complex building with the words "What Are We Going To Do About The Mastodon Issue?" affixed to the front, while people play polo on elephantback on the front lawn.

Like with Neal Stephenson, I'm mostly here for the candy, and plot or the overarching obvious philosophical bits, enh.

That being said, I think you've got a much better shot at enjoying Use of Weapons than Look to Windward. If you don't enjoy Use of Weapons either, I'd probably recommend giving up on Banks.

Alison said...

I'd probably put 'Player of games' ahead of Use of Weapons, though I like them both. What I don't like about Banks is the juvenile student-culture side to his books (like someone talking at length about all the drugs they did ast night) and some of the humour seems to be in that category. What I like is the imaginative 'setting flavour and colour' as telepresence said. I just like to live in a space world, in my imagination.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Clearly the setting, flavor and color are a large part of Banks' appeal, and I did enjoy the inventive aspects of The Algebraist. As I said, in Consider Phlebas I found the prose so poor that reading the descriptive passages became a chore, and even more so since they were obviously filler - the characters had to get to Schar's World, and I was eager for Banks to stop showboating and get his plot going. Maybe that does mean that he's not my kind of writer. I think I'll give him one more chance before I decide.

Telepresence:

It feels to me like Banks sets up a question about the nature of humanity with the Culture, but then immediately...spoofs the question perhaps?

That's an interesting observation, but I don't think it works in the case of Consider Phlebas. The novel is too deliberately dark and tragic, the frequent discussions of the Culture too prominent.

But I agree that the ship names are cool. There aren't too many of them in Consider Phlebas, though.

telepresence said...

For sheer volume of cute/funny Ship names/personalities, Excession is the way to go, half the book is Ships meeting and talking to each other.

You know I really have to reread Consider Phlebas, I just don't remember it being so heavy and self serious as you describe. I haven't read it in years though, and I've read so many Banks books since then, I may have just forgotten.

Eldritch00 said...

I've got you on my LJ feed, and I have to say that though our tastes in reading hardly seem to jive, I find your blog entries pretty much fascinating reading.

You've even got me pausing to rethink my impressions of, say, Consider Phlebas, both while I was reading it and after I was done. As you can see though, we virtually had opposite reactions to it!

I'm tempted to tell you to try another of his works, but the only other titles I've read are The State of the Art and Excession; though I loved both of those more than Consider Phlebas, I'm not entirely sure they'll change your views about Banks.

Still, whatever you decide to do, I'll keep reading. Like I said, I do enjoy your posts even when we don't agree. At the very least, your reviews are much better written than my informal ramblings!

Andrew Ducker said...

I don't think I can add much to what you've already had in the comments, except to say that I wasn't very sold on Consider Phlebas, but Use of Weapons, Player of Games and Excession are three of my favourite books.

Jenny D said...

I totally stalled on CONSIDER PHLEBAS, never finished it; have only read a handful of the Banks SF titles. Yet the non-M., non-SF Banks is one of my absolute favorite writers; have you read any of those books? Lots of them have minor appealing SF-type elements, and they are all wonderfully good: CROW ROAD and CANAL DREAMS perhaps my favorites among the early ones, but amazing recent ones include COMPLICITY, THE BUSINESS and (especially--if you only read one, try this one first--based on my sense of your tastes, I think you'll really like it) WHIT. But you pretty much can't go wrong--I'm sure I'm forgetting some other favorites.

Matt Ruff said...

My experience with the Culture novels was similar to yours. I started out of sequence, with The Player of Games, which was a fun read (but fun in spite of, rather than because of, the political/philosophical soapboxing). Then I went back to Consider Phlebas, which disappointed me for the same reasons it disappointed you. I tried one more -- Use of Weapons -- got bored and gave up.

I dunno, maybe he writes too fast. I think there's also an inherent dramatic problem in writing about a Utopian social system that actually works.

riemannia said...

Well, I'm a Banks fan and I've even reread Consider Phlebus when I'm not much of a rereader.

My favorite Banks may be the non-Culture Feersum Endjinn, with Inversions coming a close second. I thought Look to Windward one of his most powerful books though it may be a bit of a slog to get to that ending.

Whoever talked about juvenile student-culture is right. It's a Banks tic, I guess, although not so present in the three books above, iirc.

All that said, you and Banks may not be a match. Btw, The Algebraist is my least favorite Banks.

Lilian said...

Sadly, I almost entirely agree with the esteemed Mr Ducker above (ie read the non sf novels, abandon the sf ones, except OHMIGOD Whit is where he started going downhil, read The Bridge, which Mr IMB himself I think has ackowleged is way his best.
I'm fond of Banksie but I think it's fair to say he's been churning em out way too frequently for a good long while now (tho I think he's now taking a bit of a breather) - the early non sf ones show no lack of skill and loads of fermenting imagination.
But Consider Phlebas bored me, and Player of Games, I think it was, made me feel physically sick. If I want gratuitous torture scenes with no interest in characterisation or humour then well.. well, I don't.

LIlian said...

Arg, I got my attributions wrong. I meant, I agreed entirely with Ms Jenny D.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Lots and lots of helpful (and, naturally enough, conflicting) advice, thank you guys. I think I will give Banks' SF one more chance, probably Use of Weapons, but now Jenny and Lilian have got me interested in his mainstream fiction. I'll keep a lookout for that too.

niall said...

Right. Well, we already know we disagree about the merits of the humour in The Algebraist, and I read Consider Phlebas sufficiently long ago that I can't remember much detail about it (other than that it didn't suck, and it's the one with the giant underground train, right? Or something). I also am not the hugest Banks fan in the room; the other books of his I've read have been fun, but they're not (for example) the sort of thing I'd give to someone to convince them of the virtues of modern sf. (I do plan to give Use of Weapons a go at some piint, though.)

That said, I'm a bit confused by your conclusion:

The Culture is virtuous and simple-minded; no, the Culture is decadent and inhuman; no, the Culture is subtle and bent on shaping the galaxy in its own image; no, the Culture is all of the above, and so entirely human and, in its own way, no different than any other empire. This is the not-too-surprising conclusion that Consider Phlebas reaches, and I don't get the impression that the other Culture novels do more than explore its ramifications in greater detail.

In particular I'm confused by the idea that exploring the nature of the Culture in greater detail (which, you're right, is what the later books, at least the ones I've read, tend to do) is somehow a waste of time. They are like us in that they face the same challenges that we do (politically, if not socially), but (a) there is value in examining those sorts of questions anyway, and (b) there is value in examining the responses that are generated by a culture (small-c) with a different dominant sociopolitical mindset.

Whether or not Banks's exmainations of those sorts of questions is to a certain extent a separate issue--I think he's been quite good at times. I'm just not convinced that knowing that the Culture is not as radically different to us as it first appears makes any further stories set in the Culture wasted time.

(P.S. Best Culture ship name = GSV Just Another Victim Of The Ambient Morality.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Yup, underground train.

Is exploring the Culture in great and grim detail necessarily a bad thing? I suppose I'm being a little harsh and judgmental here, but the impression I get from Consider Phlebas and from the summaries of the later Culture novels is that Banks has said everything he wants to say about the Culture, and that the later books in the series are merely variations on that theme. I could very easily be wrong - it was one of my reasons for asking more experienced Banks readers for their input.

(a) there is value in examining those sorts of questions anyway, and (b) there is value in examining the responses that are generated by a culture (small-c) with a different dominant sociopolitical mindset.

True on both counts, but if the later books in the Culture series sublimate plot for the sake of these explorations in the same way that Consider Phlebas did, and if these explorations are as unsurprising as the one in Consider Phlebas (really, the moment Horza starts ranting about the evils of the Culture you pretty much know how the debate is going to turn out), then I don't know if I want to bother with them.

Dr. Vector said...

I've read all of Banks's SF books (except the Algebraist, which I just haven't gotten around to yet) and several of his others, and I think he has grown tremendously over the years. Consider Phlebas is far and away his least complicated and least interesting book. Don't give up on Banks on the basis of that book alone!

Since the technological and cultural milieu doesn't change noticeably from one book to the next, there is no point in reading his books in publication order. Especially if you want to see if he has anything interesting to say, but found CP unpalatable. Use of Weapons is basically CP refought, this time with the murderous bastard protagonist being pro-Culture instead of anti- (and also a bit of a shape-shifter). Jump to Excession or Inversions--which make a nice little set once you've read them both--or especially Look to Windward.

You're thoughtful and perceptive and you write well. I'd hate to see you give up on Banks on the basis of what is probably his weakest book. Partly out of sheer selfishness, because I'm curious to see what you'll think of Look to Windward, whenever you get around to it.

One more thing. Although I haven't read it, I'm not surprised that you were underwhelmed by the Algebraist. I haven't been blown away by any of Banks's non-Culture books, SF or not. My favorite is Feersum Enjin, but even that was pretty flat compared to, say, Excession.

Hope this helps.

niall said...

Just came across Clute's original reviews of Banks in Look at the Evidence. He doesn't spend much time on what the Culture is or is not; he does think that the book is a mess: "If only Iain M had turned the volume down, if only someone had the gumption to excise the odd half acre of fallow Vance, a phoenix of art might have burned into our vision our of the chaos and the splat. Maybe next time." He is rather kinder to The Player of Games, and seems to like Use of Weapons a great deal.

For what that's worth.

Fernando Hugo Rodrigo said...

Finally, a review which is closer to my impressions on this book.

I has just finished Look to Windward, and it is much better, though not extraordinary either. Of course, I am Spanish, and I have read both of them in my language, so on the prose matter, I don´t know for sure if it is a problem of the author or his translators (poor translation, I feel, for the number of ortographic errors).

To me, Consider Plhebas is a failure for many different reasons, but one is this: does the autor really have a clear view on what The Culture is, and, is he really able to convey it to the reader?

And then, characters. Horza gets himself in an adventure (a macguffin, really; that Mind is is after is not so important after all) which may put him in real danger (as we will see) but for no clear motivations. Even that one which is supposed to function as such does not work: he hates the Culture, ok, but why so much interest in recovering that Mind? Loyalty to the idirians? And how come he suddenly, when they are in the planet, he seems so comprehensive with the Culture agents, and sensitive and emotional with his companion (another horrible female character; is it a tendency in science fiction? Haven´t we learn anything with Heinlein´s failures on that aspect?)?

And the lenght... Most of the action scenes are so detailed... when they are not neccesary, and do not lead to the supposed goal of the character.

Anyway, it is just my opinion. Good blog; I am happy to have discovered.

baeraad said...

I am not sure I agree with your description of what the book is really about (though I admit that it's very much something you can have different opinions on - I'm getting the impression that Banks put an honour in being subtle with his messages). I didn't really get the feeling that the main question was "is the Culture a good thing or a bad thing?" The morals of what the Culture does gets questioned once or twice, but the main question seems to me to be, "is the Culture viable - or will it inevitably collapse under the weight of its own denial of what human nature really is?" And the answer there turns out to be yes, it is viable, and its philosophy is no less human than the Idirans'. I didn't feel it really went much further than that.

I may be reading my own stuff into it, but to me it seemed to be like this: the Idirans are conservatives, all brutality and dogma and racism and all that nasty stuff. The Culture is hippie-dippie progressive and want everything to be as nice and fun as possible. And Horza is the kind of smirking libertarian douchebag who sides with the former even though he disagrees with them about everything, because there is just something about the latter that makes his skin crawl. To me, the novel felt very much like Banks' earnest attempt to understand that mindset - to try to imagine why someone would look at one enormity after another committed by the reactionaries and still stubbornly insist that wanting to make the world a better place is still worse, somehow. (when Horza finds all his Changer friends slaughtered by the Idirans and still, a few chapters later, insists that he works for them because he "disagrees" with the Culture, I felt that I was definitely supposed to think there was something badly wrong with him)

So one of my impressions is that the message is that the Culture could plausibly exist, saying nothing of whether it would be good or bad if it did. Another impression, which quite possibly contradicts the first, is that it's not about the Culture at all but is rather a study of how one particular personality type would feel about the Culture.

As for the novel itself... well, I can't complain that nothing happened in it or that there were no stakes, like I did about The Player of Games (here). But if anything I liked it less, mostly because Horza is such a loathsome piece of smug macho-manhood that I kept reading only because someone told me he dies in the end. I realise that he's probably not supposed to be especially sympathetic - he is, in a sense, the villain protagonist - but over five hundred pages was just too long to read about a character I despised.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

It has (obviously) been a long time since I read this book, baeraad, so I'm not sure I can offer a very coherent response to your observation - it makes sense, but I think I'd have to read the book again to say anything in response one way or another. Which I probably will end up doing, along with the rest of the Culture sequence, in the next few years. But I'm not sure when that will be, since I find myself strangely reluctant to pick up the Culture books I haven't read yet (Against a Dark Background, Inversions, The Hydrogen Sonata) knowing that once I've finished them, there won't be any more.

Pestaa said...

this was my first banks novel of any kind. i thought it was going to be part of a series with teh charracters developing and making further apprences, but clearly not. it did take me a few months to read as i am not a fast or consistent reader. i liked the scale and granduer of the setting. the names of ships and characters. to begin with it had a feeling of being more adult and gritty, but didn't expect it to stay quite so downbeat.
some of the action scenes were to drawn out and that final build up nearly killed me. and to just wipe characters out the way he does, certainly a different approach. i think i need to read another one to make up my mind if anyone can suggest

Rachel Pierson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachel Pierson said...

I started to read Consider Phlebas recently, and gave up after two chapters. I found it to be tedious, boring and poorly-written. In between chapters 1 & 2, I sought out and watched the BBC's 1996 adaptation of Banks' The Crow Road, to see if a different genre might let me see what others seemed to appreciate in his works. However, I found that to be equally rambling, irrelevant, and plodding. Ultimately, it's a story without a surprising conclusion, and with more than a few gaping plot holes and long-winded digressions. E.g., there's one particular sub-plot in The Crow Road (and I don't think I'm giving away too much of a plot point here) that involves one of the main characters accidentally burning down one of the other main character's father's barns when they were children. It's presented as if it were a meaningful part of the plot, the full relevance of which will presumably be revealed later. A Chekhov's Gun. However, ultimately it could have been completely left out for all the difference it made to the final outcome.

When I read or watch a story, I expect the author to focus in sharply on relevant and interesting details that actually develop the plot. Instead, with Banks' work I constantly find myself asking the question "is this aside actually going to be worth absorbing this time, or is it just going to be another one of those long, rambling and ultimately fruitless shaggy dog story digressions that I've been suckered into reading previously by the same author", and a part of my brain that's necessary for enjoying literature goes to sleep as a consequence. The last novel I read that made me feel that way was Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, at school more than 20 years ago.

All-in-all, I don't think I'll be delving into any more of the Banks back-catalogue. All those irrelevant, narcissistic digressions are just too brain tumour -inducingly dull to wade through, and ultimately fail to disguise the fact that there's no meaningful underlying plot to speak of.

Post a Comment