Cultural Marxism 1: Consider Phlebas


Consider Phlebas is not generally considered to be the best way to start the Culture series, and in fairness it’s not how I did, having previously read Use of Weapons and The Player of Games. And by almost all standards these are better books, and surely more likely to hook new readers. But Consider Phlebas has one significant thing over both of them: it is by far the best introduction to the Culture, which is to say to the specific idea of Iain M. Banks’s peculiar society.

It is not quite a Marxist society, although this is mostly because the notion of labor within the Culture has been so thoroughly upended that large swaths of Marx simply fail to apply. But it is blatantly a society a Marxist would love, along with numerous other stripes of western leftism. And inasmuch as “Marxist” is the standard epithet for “further left than we want to admit to the Overton window,” whatever that might be for a given speaker (and note, of course, that “cultural Marxism” is a phrase designed specifically to tar feminism and anti-racism with that brush), a post-scarcity liberal utopia that indulges near limitless sexual perversities and where everybody has a “drug gland”  offering highs on demand would certainly seem to qualify in an, if you’ll forgive me, cultural sense.

And it is certainly true that Banks’s underlying premises of the Culture are distinctly Marxist in tone; not merely his declaration, in his 1994 essay “A Few Notes on the Culture,” that he believes “a planned economy can be more productive - and more morally desirable - than one left to market forces,” a statement he follows with an extended critique of capitalism, but also his declaration that “the Culture, in its history and its on-going form, is an expression of the idea that the nature of space itself determines the type of civilisations which will thrive there,” a fundamentally materialist worldview that in many ways leads inexorably to certain Marxist and utopian premises, at least when coupled with Banks’s (seemingly emphatically untrue) supposition of a galaxy teeming with life.

The result is, as Banks has said in interviews, his idea of an ideal society, and this is clearly its appeal to no small number of its readers as well. But, crucially, that’s not the point. Nor is the point some “serpent in the garden” explanation of utopia’s fall or inadequacy. Rather, the point is that the utopia of the Culture is positioned in a world in which other civilizations exist, some very much hostile to the Culture, and the Culture, as a result, has the same interference-heavy quasi-imperialist policy as the Western liberal tradition that it elsewhere takes to its logical conclusion. Or, perhaps more broadly, that utopia is not dependent on any particular assumption of some sort of inherent goodness in human nature (“A Few Notes on the Culture” offers several explanations of what the Culture does with its megalomaniacs), nor is the utopia itself innately “moral.”

This, at least, is a point upon which Consider Phlebas remains topical. It has, after all, been the great and dismaying failure of Obama’s Presidency for much of the left, namely the way in which the anti-war credentials he ran on were systematically undermined in a haze of drone strikes and extrajudicial killings. And, for that matter, it’s a faultline in the British left vividly exposed by the Labour Party’s divisions over bombing in Syria and Hillary Benn’s well-received speech framing the bombings (historically ineptly, it must said) to progressive opposition to fascism. While it’s not as though nominally leftist political parties have a great history of strong anticapitalist principles either, the capacity of the western liberal tradition for killing a lot of people in the name of being helpful is genuinely vast.

Banks remarks with intelligent wit on this, talking in the afterword to the book about how the Culture went to war due to the desire “not to feel useless,” and how “with a sort of apologetic smugness, Contact - and therefore the Culture - could prove statistically that such careful and benign use of ‘the technology of compassion’(to use a phrase in vogue at the time) did work, in the sense that the techniques it had developed to influence a civilisation’s progress did significantly improve the quality of life of its members.” It’s a cutting account of the liberal (and neoliberal) mantra of “we have to do something” that led to the gloriously sick phrase (barely) inaccurately ascribed to Václav Havel, “humanitarian bombing.”

Implicit in this is the central cleverness of Consider Phlebas, which is that it presents the Culture in the highly atypical scenario of being actively at war. Indeed, it goes one step further and presents them as the antagonists of the story, although I’m using the word in conscious distinction from “villains.” Indeed, Banks plays a careful game here - the book’s prologue is from the perspective of a Culture Mind, several interstitial chapters (as well as the final chapter) are from the perspective of Culture characters, and the main character, Horza, is a mercenary working for the Idirans (the Culture’s opponents in the War) as opposed to an Idiran himself. The result is that it’s clear throughout that the Culture are the good guys, or at least clear that the Idrians, conquest-driven religious fanatics that they are, are decisively not.

But the result is still a book that is constantly holding the Culture at a remove, examining it critically. The overall point of the narrative is that Horza has backed the wrong horse - his late-book explanation that he’s fighting the Culture out of an honest disagreement with them dripping with irony. But the critique is nevertheless made, and at length, that the Culture’s heavy intertwining with technology is, as Horza puts it, “an evolutionary dead end,” whereas the Idrians, for all their flaws, are “on the side of life - boring, old-fashioned, biological life.” And this establishes the Culture as something other than a straightforward leftist fantasy world.

All of which said, there are problems. Banks opts for a pulpy “ripping space adventure yarn” plot and structure that’s entirely reasonable for what he’s doing, which is introducing the Culture via something that’s not really a part of it, but that leaves an awful large number of bits in the book where you’re going “can we stop with all these explosions and get back to the urgent philosophical discussions?” (And Banks is much better at one than the other.) Beyond that, the plot is meandering, at best. Horza’s mission - the retrieval of a lost Culture Mind (i.e. artificial intelligence) - lacks any real sense of urgency. This is in the end not accidental, as part of the book’s point is the disparity between the individual scale and the historical scale, but this, in turn, only serves to set up a larger thematic infelicity.

Through most of the book it is Horza’s opinions of the Culture that serves as the main thematic focus. These are not minor concerns, touching on real questions like the validity of transhuman aspirations and the degree to which good old-fashioned Darwinian struggle is necessary to a society. But the book’s end, as it zooms out and provides an overall picture of the war, takes a very different approach, emphasizing the death toll of 851.4 billion, the fifty-three planets and six stars destroyed, and the fact that Horza’s entire species was wiped out while also describing it as “a small, short war that rarely extended throughout more than .02% of the galaxy by volume and .01% by stellar population” that was nevertheless rated by the galaxy’s celder civilizations as “the most significant conflict of the past fifty thousand years, and one of those singularly interesting Events they see so rarely these days.” (There’s also a sly reveal that the war took place in the 13th and 14th centuries, which is to say that actual Earth-based humanity had absolutely nothing to do with it, a point that it is easy to assume otherwise about through the book.)

But these two things don’t quite connect; the latter is a point about the relative futility of war, with a side about emphasizing the relative pointlessness of individual action (with basically none of the events in the book having any discernible or clear impact on the outcome of the war). The former is a broad philosophical point about, essentially, human nature. Both are interesting, but they’re different books, and Consider Phlebas doesn’t actually quite connect the two.

But equally, it doesn’t have to; there are nine more books in the Culture series after all that can explore these and other issues. Consider Phlebas has a different job, which establishing Banks’s deeply and fundamentally brilliant notion of a problematic utopia. As a matter of historical fact, it accomplished this, which is to say, more Culture books exist. But from the position of 2015, when the Culture is a ten-book classic sci-fi series, it is perhaps more important as a historical artifact of that series than as a book in its own right.


Kate 5 years, 1 month ago

Two paragraphs into this review and I've already learned two new concepts. Edumacation!

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5tephe 5 years, 1 month ago

Well I purchased and read this based on your plan to review the series. And while I haven't read any of the others, I'll agree with you that this didn't seem the best of starts. The most compelling thing in it was the basic concept of the Culture.

I have some other issues with his vision of utopia, but perhaps I should read some more of them before I frame my critique. Are you planning on covering them in order?

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Aylwin 5 years, 1 month ago

Good piece, which I finally have time to comment on. At, er, some length

The central concept of introducing his utopia from a hostile perspective is a clever one, and to some extent a bold one, but not quite as daring as it could have been. As you say, it's qualified my making very clear very early on that the Idirans are bad people (a little over a dozen pages into the book they're nuking cities and abandoning their own landing forces to the mercy of the enemy, on the orders of Horza's best Idiran buddy), so we're never likely to take Horza's point of view without a hefty pinch of salt.

Horza's critique is also nobbled by the way that it his hostility to the Culture is very explicitly accounted for psychologically, his antipathy to blurring the lines between people and machines, life and technology (in either direction) explained in terms of his repressed discomfort with his own people's origin. As in real life rhetorical tactics, psychoanalysing someone to explain why they think as they do condescendingly undercuts the validity and meaningfulness of their view, changing the question from "what's wrong with this person's argument?" to "what's wrong with this person to make them believe such self-evident nonsense?". Poor little Horza, he hates the Culture because he hates himself. Diddums.

I suppose it's a general issue with argumentative fiction, a sort of Uncertainty Principle phenomenon - the fuller and more individual the psychological representation of a character, the more the clarity of the general philosophical ideas that character is employed to espouse is muddied by their entanglement with the character's peculiarities. Which of course from a postmodern point of view echoes the general inextricable entanglement of ideas with the subjective peculiarities of the person putting them forward, but with a somewhat different significance because fictional characters are designed subjectivities. Their ideas do not actually spring from their personalities and backgrounds, rather their personalities and backgrounds are chosen to frame the existing ideas given to them (either by creating original characters or assigning ideas to existing characters deemed a suitable match for them), so that the deck is inevitably being stacked in one way or another.

Getting back on point, the Horza-Culture debate makes this the book in which the Culture's name carries most significance (Banks being big on the significance of names), positioning it as one side of a practical and philosophical opposition with Nature as forces in personal and social development. It's a positioning that effectively endorses Social Darwinist associations of biological evolution with capitalist or nationalist ethics of competition, accepting their claims to represent nature (especially human nature), but rejects the premise that that association with nature is a mark of rightness, and embraces instead an alternative ethic of consciously directed cultural development, encompassing socialism, AI and transhumanism in a drive "to take the unfairness out of existence". All of which would tie in with Banks's atheist and rationalist perspective, in which the way things are is an incidental fact, something with no special claim to be a guide to the way things should be.

Though, while that's a harmonious position, and one that's expressive of what the Culture stands for, I don't think it's exactly Banks's line on the world at large. He seems to remain somewhat wedded to a notion of natural selection, competitive success, as a token of a kind of virtue, and to position the Culture's self-managed development as merely part of a wider natural-selective process, which will reward or punish it according to how well it embodies the logic of that underlying drive. Both of his Culture mouthpieces here, Balveda and Fal, are at least willing to entertain such views. (The trial-by-combat idea of there being a more than accidental relationship between righteousness and competitive effectiveness, between "good" and "good at", bobs up again in the odd concept of "confliction" in Surface Detail, but that's for another day.)

Mind you, I think the exact way the Culture relates to that wider context shifts slightly with later books. The series develops the view, hinted at here in the larger galactic-historical perspective given in the appendices, that the Culture is probably not a potentially all-encompassing future mode of development for life in general (a possibility which seems implicit in the debate elements of this book), but just one more mortal component of a far vaster tapestry of rising and falling and self-dematerialising civilisations (the practice of Subliming, only hinted at here through the Dra'Azon but becoming a key concept later in the series, makes the Culture's approach to progression a kind of wilfully arrested development, from one perspective. The Culture approach is suggested to be morally superior to progression to "the next level", but it puts a kind of ceiling on the Culture's capacity to represent "onwards and upwards").

That idea of larger natural processes beyond the span of any culture's capacity to remake the world is tied in with another recurrent idea of the series, the sense that however powerful and benign you might be there's an ineradicable nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw roughness to the material world, and that meaningful right depends on ruthless might. That's the basic logic of Special Circumstances, of course, which at some point Banks describes as being both the part of the Culture least typical of its day-to-day life, and the one that most truly expresses its fundamental nature (perhaps bouncing off John le Carre and "the intelligence services are the only true reflection of a nation's character"). If we're thinking of the Culture in a Marxist frame, that running idealist/realist tension/harmony cries out to be viewed in dialectical terms.

Which brings me to the question of the Culture's imperialism. I'm not sure it's being strongly problematised here, though the moral questions are certainly present, and certainly become a major concern in later books. Interference in the development of other peoples is not really one of the forms of interference denounced by Horza and defended by the Culture's representatives - considering Horza's allies, how could it be? I've said that Banks skews the terms of the debate in the Culture's favour, but I don't think he's being quite so straw-mannish as to offer a supposedly serious critique of the Culture's imperialism while presenting it in opposition to the representatives of a cruder and more brutal sort of imperialism on the same grand scale.

I'm also not sure I agree with your take on where Banks was coming from in real-world terms, on chronological grounds. The book was published in 1987, so it was written in a world of competing, mutually-fearful imperialisms grappling for dominance and laying claim to the future, rather than a world with an apparently secure hegemony, able to remain above the fray if it felt like it but feeling pressure to "do something" on moral grounds. I would suspect the account of the Culture's motivations arose more from a first-principles consideration of how a utopian society would/should behave in an unsaved world (and perhaps from observation of the more high-minded strains of 19th-century imperialism, and even of the philanthropic impulse in rich people) than from close reflection of contemporary debates. It prefigured, rather than arising from, the actual fashion for "humanitarian intervention" which really took off in the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s. Banks had a bit of a knack for this sort of thing - Look to Windward must be a contender for the most profoundly post-9/11 book published in 2000.

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Aylwin 5 years, 1 month ago

Oh dear, that last comment did turn into a bit of an essay, didn't it?

Anyway, I am now going to gratuitously take issue with one word, not because I'm actually being that pernicketty, honest, but because I think it's a moderately interesting side-issue.

near limitless sexual perversities

I don't think this is quite the right image of sex in the Culture. I mean, perversity is in the eyes of the beholder, and common practices in the Culture, such as group sex, would certainly be regarded as perverse by many in the here and now. But I get the sense that Banks (rowing in a somewhat different direction on the question of nature here) tends to the view that "real" perversity is an unhealthy and socially-avoidable thing, whether the source of it is diagnosed in Freudian terms of repressed sexuality or as a product of wider social ills. Hence that the sexual ideal of the Culture is a hippyish conception of wholesome, untroubled, "natural" letting-it-all-hang-out, the removal of inhibitions and iniquities removing the oddities that arise from them, rather than different-strokes-for-different-folks.

I'm thinking specifically of sadomasochism here. It's something that crops up quite often in Banks's books, and which is always treated disapprovingly in the cases I can think of. (My wildly unsubstantiated and probably grossly out-of-order speculation would be that he had some leaning that way himself and was not comfortable with it.) Most particularly, in The Player of Games Azadian S&M porn is presented as part and parcel of the pathology of an oppressive society, as something quite alien to Gurgeh, the Culture observer, and as part of a continuum leading to horror. Hence my feeling is that fetishistic perversity is something meant to be generally absent from the Culture, not because it would not be permitted but because the inhabitants are construed as being too healthy-minded to be drawn to it.

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triturus 5 years, 1 month ago

Banks treats S&M slightly more ambiguously in Complicity, where Cameron and Yvonne experiment with some sub / dom sex that isn't explicitly presented as 'wrong', although it has to be said that their relationship is not depicted as an entirely healthy one. But otherwise I tend to agree that he does seem to treat it as something apart from the expression of 'free love' that the Culture enjoys.

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Aylwin 5 years, 1 month ago

Oh, and I like how the edition depicted helpfully labels it "A Science Fiction Novel". Just in case the honking great spaceship wasn't enough of a clue.

Um, hoping that commenting about being able to tell what sort of book you're looking at by seeing a spaceship on the cover doesn't mean I'm turning into Brad Torgerson...

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Doctor Memory 5 years, 1 month ago

I think this is a consequence of the state of Banks' career circa 1987. He was already a fairly well known (in the UK at least) writer with three published non-SF novels -- and a bit of an enfant terrible based on the reception of The Wasp Factory. Anyone who picked up "Consider Phlebas" expecting a straightforward follow up to "The Bridge" would have been somewhat surprised to say the least.

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triturus 5 years, 1 month ago

Good essay, and I'm looking forwards to the rest of the series.

Can I ask, are you going to cover Banks's non-Culture SF novels as well? I ask partly because a couple of them at least are really good and I'd be interested to read your take on them, but also because there's at least one clear case where the writing of one non-culture book (The Algebraist) had an obvious influence on the Culture novels that came after it.

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Aylwin 5 years, 1 month ago

Hey, and another thing! In understanding its place in the series, it makes a lot of difference to know that it's not actually the first Culture book written. That was actually Use of Weapons, followed by The Player of Games, both written in the 1970s (as was Against a Dark Background). Consider Phlebas only came along in 1984, just before the success of the non-M books, beginning that year with The Wasp Factory, put him in a position where he could get his sci-fi published, after some rewriting (apparently a lot, in the case of Use of Weapons).

Which makes a lot more sense of the relationship between the Culture books. In the chronology of composition, Consider Phlebas belongs to the early phase of Culture writing, along with those two early novels and the Culture bits of The State of the Art, but in terms of ideas it's on the cusp of the new era that began in earnest with Excession.

In the other early writings, the Culture is a straightforward utopia, forming the cutting edge of social and technological progress in an environment of more primitive and unenlightened humanoid societies. Consider Phlebas begins the reconfiguration of the Culture as a humbler part of a larger and more varied world, with the Idirans as the first important non-humanoid civilisation to appear, the intimation in the appendices that all this is just a small part of the history of a much larger and vastly older galactic meta-civilisation, and the Dra'azon as the first glimpse of the Sublimed. It also gives, in the secession of the Peace Faction, the first example of the Ulterior, though that's a less significant innovation, since that disruption of the monolithic quality of the Culture itself only features significantly in Excession, whereas the other changes consummated in that book set the tone for the remainder of the series.

Whereas looked at in publication order the line of development seems to zig-zag wildly, in the original order of composition it becomes a perfectly straigthforward progression. The fact that the larger world was not part of the original scheme also makes a little more sense of the rather dissonant note of enduring Culture exceptionalism in the later books.

And it makes it easier to understand that offbeat manner of introducing the Culture - even if this was the public's introduction to it, for Banks the Culture was a long-established fictional reality which he was already in a position to look at from less obvious angles, rather like the appearance of The Lord of the Rings against the backdrop of a mythology long-developed by its author but then unknown to the public.

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