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.