Tuesday, July 5, 2011

100 Books 34 - Iain M. Banks' CONSIDER PHLEBAS

Long have I been aware of Iain Banks, and Iain M. Banks (who are the same man, just publishing under slightly different names in slightly different genres) and his Culture novels, and lo has the wheel finally spun around to him. Almost I took up his The Wasp Factory, which I picked up on the basis of the title (I am perhaps known among you as a bit of an insect fancier), but since my short, happy reading of Alastair Reynolds' Troika last month, I've wanted more space opera and I didn't need the multitudes on Twitter to tell me that meant it was Culture time.

Like many of my fellow readers, I have more than a touch of sequential compulsion, by which I mean if I'm going to read (or watch) a series, I'm going to read it into the ground unless it gets really terrible, so I decided, if I was finally going to get me some Culture, I was going to start from the first book, and yes, I am aware that Consider Phlebas is not sequentially that first, merely the first written or published, but that works for me. Besides, there's the title.

I'm a T.S. Eliot fan. I'm such a T.S. Eliot fan I could drive you insane at a party. Go on. Give me a martini and ask me about The Waste Land and the many genre works that reference it (my favorite of same is Tim Powers' Last Call , which concerns the frenzied efforts of many pretenders to the American Fisher King's throne left abandoned in the wake of the death of Bugsy Siegel. You knew Siegel was more than just a gangster, didn't you? And you knew John Prine knew all about it, right? If not, drop what you're doing and go read that book STAT. You'll be very glad you did. Look. Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!).

"Consider Phlebas", as anyone with the wit to use Wikipedia should already know, is a phrase from The Wasteland. Phlebas is the drowned Phoencian sailor the reader/listener sought via a pack of tarot cards; dead as Section IV starts, he is now a cautionary tale, a warning to others sailing on. "Gentile or Jew/O you who turn the wheel and look to windward/ Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you." Pay attention, you doofus.

Several very interesting and intelligent articles exploring (or inventing, for yeah, a lot of them are a stretch) the parallels between Consider Phlebas and The Waste Land are out there waiting for you to Google them if you're interested. Mostly they focus on how Consider Phlebas' sort-of-protagonist, Horza, starts off the novel drowning and ends it on a sterile, dead planet that is indeed a waste land. Horza, they say, is both Phlebas and the Fisher King. It's interesting stuff, but it's really a distraction from both what is cool about this novel, and what is kind of disappointing. In defense of the parallelers, though, Horza's story (if it can be called any one being's story it is probably Horza's, but more or less by default) is a similar momento mori for others.

In the Culture, Banks has created a fascinatingly decadent society, in which people are genetically modified to get high off the products of their own glands and in which scarcity is barely even a concept, so effectively have the means of production been mechanized. All the yucky stuff is handled by machines, and even big decision making is mostly carried out by super-intelligent, super-efficient, super-awesome artificial intelligences called Minds. Somehow, these Minds and machines never get tired of doing the grunt work and so have never turned against their human masters -- indeed, it would seem they regard their biological co-citizens as much like pets as like partners, but I'm not sure of this because we are seeing the Culture mostly from the outside in this novel, from the perspective of one of its enemies; Horza is an agent for a cranky alien race who can't stand the laissez faire disorder (and secularism) of the Culture and have declared war on it. As to why he chose to side with the aliens, well, as he declares at one point (after, I imagine, drawing himself up to full height, clearing his throat loudly to make sure all eyes are upon him and raising a Finger of Declamation to emphasize the great portentousness of what he is about to say), he disagrees with the Culture.

That's all. Just disagrees. As to what he disagrees with the Culture about, er, well. Yeah. We never really find that out. As such. Or if we do it's in one tiny internal monologue line I missed and can't be arsed to look for now because I find I don't care too much.

Cue SAD TROMBONE right here.

But so, anyway, we only get glimpses of the Culture. One of its Minds has escaped a trap and gone to ground on a dead planet that is being kept as a sort of sanctuary/bad example museum -- that planet's original inhabitants failed to make it into space before destroying themselves, you see, AHEM (poignant to contemplate, this week, isn't it, as the very last launch of the United States' space shuttle is set for this Friday?). Horza is rescued from literally drowning in shit to go try to retrieve that Mind before the Culture does, but like all good missions (at least that make good novels), Things Go Awry and we spend a good chunk of the novel following Horza Among the Space Pirates, which... should be more fun than it is, actually. Especially since the pirate captain, one Kraiklyn, has to be the worst chooser of missions EVER.

But though each quest for booty for Horza and Kraiklyn's crew ends in disaster, it's not very engaging disaster because we never really have the feeling that anything is at stake*. The careful neutrality Banks has established -- the Culture is neither good nor evil, same with the alliens, same with Horza and most of his sort-of antagonists (with one very vivid exception I wouldn't dream of spoiling for you except to say imagine Jabba the CANNIBAL Hut) -- works against us here; we're not just skimming around the edges of the Culture but around Horza's own story, detached, disengaged, aloof, like perhaps a Mind itself might. Which might work except that the Mind this story concerns is rather a scrappy one; its scenes, though few and far between, riveting and desperate as we watch an entity born/designed to work with near-infinite resources struggling to make do with primitive relics of a long-dead race to conceal and defend itself. I mean, WOW.

Another wow factor is at the scale at which Banks has dreamed here. While some have sneered that the Orbitals in this milieu are ripped off from Larry Niven, they're still damned impressive (and as others have argued, giant ring-shaped habitats that occupy an entire planetary orbit may have just joined the sci-fi commons, as have spaceships and bug-eyed monsters and extrapolation from current conditions before them) even when, as here, we visit them only to loot them before they're (very impressively) blown up -- atomised, actually, illustrating as vividly as anything could just the stupefying level of abundance the Culture apparently enjoys. Most space operas would have societies salvaging resources from such a tremendous infrastructure, but here even an ocean's worth (more than an ocean's worth: this planetary orbit-filling structure is itself filled mostly with an ocean!) of fresh water is casually vaporized. I'm very interested in a society that does this, aren't you?

Points must also be rewarded for the agonizing climax, in which lots of different machines, literal and figurative, are set into motion for lots of different reasons, all at cross purposes, and literal and figurative crashes ensue, all in slow motion. This would be a masterpiece of intricate and elegant plotting, taut with unbearable tension (and tinged with more than a little humor), keeping the reader desperately turning pages... if she gave a shit about any of the characters' fates at that point. Your mileage may vary there. As a technical achievement, though, the finale of Consider Phlebas is kind of awe-inspiring. I'm sure J.J. Abrams or someone is dying to film it. With maximum lens flare.

And so, while I'm a bit annoyed with the near-dullness of Consider Phlebas I'm going to keep on (after the current challenge is completed, for I'm only allowing myself one book per author, which means my detour into George R.R. Martin-land has really cost me ground) with the Culture novels, under the theory that putting them aside because the first book didn't give me enough would be a bit like dismissing Peter Greenaway's The Falls after only watching an early entry like Squaline Fallaize's.

And I love The Falls even more than I love The Waste Land.

*True, one development about 75% of the way into the book finally gives us a sense of something actually being at stake, but it's too little, too late, and anyway completely undermined by the novel's pretty unsatisfying, Passage-esque conclusion.

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