Consider Phlebas (1987) by Iain M. Banks

Available works by Iain M. Banks


Set thousands of years in the future, the peace-loving, machine-led intergalactic civilisation known as the Culture dominate the galaxy, encompassing a total of 18 trillion people. Consider Phlebas is the first work in Iain M. Bank’s Culture series (1987-2012) which to date count a total of ten novels. More utopian than other notable postmodern space operas, Consider Phlebas nevertheless paints a bleak outlook for humanity, with human agency in structural decline as a result of all-powerful machine intelligence, and the human biological baseline eroded by technology.

The Culture is at war with the militant race of alien giants known as the Idirans. The Idirans have charged the mercenary Horza Gobuchul to recover a Culture AI, known as a Mind, which has crash landed on the planet Schar’s World. Horza is a posthuman known as a Changer, a military by-product of a long-forgotten war. He is basically designed to be an infiltration unit, weaponised with poisonous glands under his fingernails, and with the use of drugs able to shapeshift and impersonate other people. Changers are only one of many offshoots from the human baseline in the Culture, home to so many that it no longer makes sense counting them. It follows, that the question of what qualifies as human has long since become nonsensical. Horza’s quest to recover the stranded Mind is really only a small sideshow in the overall conflict between the Culture and the Idirans. By the same token, underlining the insignificance of events in the overall fate of the Universe, Horza is caught up in a series of isolated side-plots that have little bearing on the novel before he finally arrives on Schar’s World.

The Culture is held together by several hundred thousand Minds, relatively small ellipsoid machines, the sentient part of which exists in hyperspace. Due to the primitive surroundings the stranded Mind finds itself in, it is forced to think in three dimensions, instead of the four dimensions (hyperspace included) it normally operates in. As a result it is going through something of an identity crisis. Dictatorial, yet entirely benevolent, the Minds have facilitated a post-scarcity, utopian world where humans primarily engage in recreational pursuits: sport, the arts, romance. Banks’ world of benevolent gods puts the work in stark contrast to Cyberpunk’s typically pessimistic application of advanced AI, and his space opera peers’ – such as Bruce Sterling, Dan Simmons and David Zindel – apocalyptic machine-god visions. Still, there is a sense in Banks’ work that humanity has been lulled into a false state of complacency.

While the militancy of the Idirans works as a counterpoint to the peace-loving Culture, it would be wrong to reduce the narrative tension to a Manichaean binary. There is a lot of sympathy for the Idirans, who at the end of the day only fight to preserve their culture. The Idirans understand only too well the human hubris of unbridled technological expansion. Contrary to popular belief, they are in fact no longer expansionist, and only really desire to be left to their own devices, remaining true to their genetic baseline, not mixing with machines. Horza himself describes the Culture as a rogue cell, a cancer with no off-switch.

The gradual marginalisation of human agency adds a certain bleakness to Banks’ account. As does the narrative focus on a mere sideshow, a small part in a conflict that has been going on for eons. While the Culture does manage to secure the stranded Mind, the events described in Consider Phlebas don’t seem to alter the order of the galaxy in any meaningful way, and thus begs the question whether Horza’s quest, in a civilisation of 18 trillion people, was nothing but a vainglorious, soon to be forgotten episode in the grand scheme of things. Banks’ intervention is in many ways a direct opposite to space opera’s glorious traditions. And Horza has little in common with the line-up of swashbuckling heroes in Dan Simmons Hyperion Cantos (1989-1997) or David Zindell’s Neverness Universe (1988-1998).