Consider Phlebas

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Publisher: Orbit (1988, first published in 1987)

ISBN: 0 70883 707 7

Précis: The war raged across the galaxy. Billions had died, billions more were doomed. Moons, planets, the very stars themselves faced destruction, coldblooded, brutal, and worse, random. The Idirans fought for their Faith; the Culture for its moral right to exist.

Within the cosmic conflict, an individual crusade. Deep within a fabled labyrinth on a barren world, a Planet of the Dead proscribed to mortals, lay a fugitive Mind. Both the Culture and the Idirans sought it. It was the fate of Horza, the Changer, and his motley crew of unpredictable mercenaries, human and machine, actually to find it, and with it their own destruction.

Be warned! To proceed reading below here is to risk spoilers about the story of the book. It is recommended that you proceed only after having first read the novel.

Summary: A Culture Mind, recently having escaped the destruction of it's manufacturing ship tries to escape back into Culture space. Unfortunately caught by Idiran forces it abandons ship, destroying the ship at the same time and using the blast as a signal for help. While the method of signalling is itself unusual even more unusual is that it used it's hyperspace field generators to effect a landing on a world, a feat previously thought impossible by both sides. Taking refuge on a planet of the dead, protected by the Dra'Azon, it awaits the arrival of help.

Bora Horza Gobuchul, a changer - limited shape shifter, is rescued by Idiran forces and given the task of retrieving the Culture Mind for the Idirans. Due to the Dra'Azon's influence direct military action is out of the question, so a more subtle approach must be taken. Because Horza has been on the world before it is hoped that the Dra'Azon will permit him entry. Before he can really even begin this task the light cruiser is attacked by a Culture craft and Horza is forced to eject.

Equally determined to rescue the Mind, the Culture sends one of it's best Special Circumstances personell to try and intercept Horza before he can arrive - namely Perosteck Balveda. Meanwhile the fighting will continue over who controls that volume of space and hopefully a Culture craft can be sent in soon to pick up the Mind, Dra'Azon permitting.

Horza is found by Privateers out scouring for sellable debris and equipment, as well as paid mercenary actions. Barely escaping death in a duel he begins to intergrate into the crew and starts to formulate plans to continue his mission. After two botched raids Horza finds the opportunity to strike after the privateers captain, Kraiklyn, plays a game of Damage. Killing Kraiklyn and impersonating him he takes over the privateer ship and prepares to take it to Schar's World, where the Mind is hiding.

Meanwhile Perosteck Balveda, in Horza's absence, has managed to infiltrate the privateer's crew - requiring drastic action on Horzas part. Rapidly leaving the port where the game of Damage was being played Horza manages to capture Perosteck Balveda and begins the slow crawl to Schar's World.

The Culture, aware of Horzas escape and intended destination seed the area around Schar's World with fake messages and make rendezvous with the Idiran units in the area impossible. Proceeding ahead anyway, and crypticly warned by the Dra'Azon, he and the mercenaries make planetfall on Schar's World.

Immediately they discover that, contrary to expectations, a band of Idirans had survived the abortive attempt to breach the quiet barrier protecting the world. They were now somewhere down in the tunnels looking for the Mind. Heading into the tunnels signs of a fight between the Idirans and the Mind are found while there is still no sign of either the parties themselves.

Proceeding further in Horza finds the remains of the Idiran party with the Mind. A fight breaks out ending with the capture of the remaining Idiran and the fatal wounding of the other. The Mind they had captured turns out to have been an illusion projected by a remote drone from the mind. Taking the captured Idiran in two, who refuses to believe that Horza is on it's side, they continue the search for the Mind.

The remaining, near death, Idiran manages to set one of the trains in the command system running on a collision course up the tunnel. Picking the same moment to escape the remaining Idiran manages to kill another of Horza's companions, grabs a weapon and begins a second fire fight. Between the crashing train and the Idiran's fire only Horza, Balveda and the drone Unaha-Closp are left and Horza begins a wild and furious rampage after the Idiran.

Eventually Horza and the Idiran catch up with each other and in the fight Horza is fatally injured and the Idiran is killed. Balveda manages to take the injured Horza, the Mind and the drone Unaha-Closp back to the privateer ship. But before she can apply medical aid to the Changer he dies. She then takes the ship safely back into Culture space.

Comments: Again this is the briefest of summaries and it glosses over an awful lot of detail and sub plots. However that said you can see, even with the simple summary, that the story is somewhat unconventional already. The leading hero of the story, the person from whose perspective the entire story is pretty much told, dies. In an interview Iain relates that originally Horza escapes in the ship with Balveda and the Mind, but that such an ending would defeat the entire tone and point of the book.

I tend to agree. Indeed to understand the book and it's message one need merely reflect on the two snippets of text he quotes on the first pages of the book, before the index.

Idolatry is worse than carnage. The Koran, 2: 190.

Gentile or Jew,
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
T.S.Elliot, 'The Waste Land', IV.

The first quote is somewhat obvious in his handling of the Idirans. The second is where I feel the true power of the book lies. Throughout the book there are under-currents of identity and how actions spell out your intentions far more than thoughts. Horza with his obsession about who he was and his feelings of lost identity. Fal'Ngeestra, not mentioned in the summary, who worries about the ethics of killing and the Culture as a whole, expressed through a variety of people and the epilogue, that worries about becoming like those they are fighting - the Idirans.

The T.S.Elliot quote clearly alludes to these under-currents. And it is in the process of examining these under-currents that the book acheives mastery among science fiction. Throughout the book we see Horza's view of the Culture and it's motives and by the end of the book we are so used to them that we have forgotten quite how skewed they are. Then in the epilogue we hear, biased somewhat to the Culture's view, a summary of the war and the reasons it occured.

It is in that epilogue that Consider Phlebas achieves it's third layer of plot and meaning. (The first being the story itself, the second layer being about Horza's questions of identity and the general questions about that being asked by many characters.) At this third level he discusses a problem of living in a pratical paradise - what do you do and why? What is the justification for living in paradise? Something that I haven't seen in many other works.

All in all I love this book, it's richness and depth of plot have kept me coming back to it. I have re-read it some twenty, or so, times and each time I find still more to it that I have missed on previous readings. It created a bold start to the Culture series of books.

Philip R. Banks
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