“Consider Phlebas” is the opening book in the Culture series by Iain M. Banks. I began reading this book after he passed away earlier this year, although it was published in 1987. It is sociologically relevant due to the exploration of the major warring cultures: the Idirans and the Culture. The main character, Horza, is a shapeshifter who decides to align himself against the Culture. He prefers the Idirans and displays prejudice towards the Culture, who have developed extremely advanced machines and robots. The book explores cultural values, norms, ethnocentrism, stereotypes, and discrimination. Is war inevitable when you have vastly different cultural values? Is it possible for one person to make a difference when such vast social forces are at play? These questions illustrate the powerful ideas explored in “Consider Phlebas.”
While reading this book, I enjoyed the brief scenes of the Culture. Their society is post-scarcity due to their close relationship with their advanced technology, and I look forward to reading more about them in the series. They prefer peace. The Idrians, on the other hand, have vastly different cultural values and practices including religious beliefs and warfare. Similar to Horza, the entire Idiran society views the Culture as a threat due to their incorporation of technology into all aspects of their society and lives. Therefore, the war is fought over ideological differences.
In terms of the plot, there is a sense of bleak inevitability, especially near the end of the book. Horza is trying to get to Schar’s world to retrieve the Culture’s Mind for the Idirans. (Schar’s world is essentially just a memorial now for a past civilization that died.) Horza goes through a series of adventures and misadventures. Along the way, he finds a partner and she gets pregnant, he gains a crew, and he takes them to the planet of the Dead. However, a party of Idirans is already on the planet. One of the Idirans perpetually refuses to call Horza by name, instead referring to him by his species. At the same time, Horza, who has met a Culture drone named Unaha-Closp refuses to acknowledge this name or the fact that the drone is its own person. This demonstrates a bit of the ethnocentrism by both the Idirans and the Changers.
In the end, it isn’t his nemesis, the Culture agent, Balveda, that kills him. It is his own Idiran “ally”. This speaks to the differences in the two societies. There is a lovely train metaphor in the book, which one of the Idirans uses to kill Horza’s team. In the end, only Balveda and the Mind survive. It’s tragic. War is tragic.