Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas Cover Art by Mark Salwowski*

Two weeks ago, I finally completed Iain M. Banks' first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas. I had tried to read the novel a few different times, always stalling-out about halfway through the book. I have blogged before that I found Banks' portrayal of cannibalistic religious primitives particularly distasteful (as it were). That aspect of Consider Phlebas was a definite turn-off for me.

Although I am a Marxist - and therefore belong to the only political and philosophical tradition to make a serious effort on a world scale to abolish religious practice - I don't consider atheism an essential part of Marxism in the 21st Century. By the mid-to-late 20th Century, religious movements were frequently our most important allies in attempting to challenge the social conditions faced by the poor and oppressed. In fact, I'd have to say that secular liberalism is today perhaps the greatest ideological reinforcement for inequality on a world scale.

So why did I return to Banks? Undoubtedly, the panel on Iain Banks at Diversicon 21 inspired me to go back and try again.

And I am glad I did.

It is in the second half of the novel that things really start moving. There's even a dungeon crawl of sorts that goes on for the last couple of hundred pages of the book. But the thing that really blew me away was a brief description of one of the Culture's General Systems Vehicles (GSV). These are truly huge starships operated by an AI. They can transport millions of people at one time. They can manufacture just about anything people could possibly need. They are mobile, post-scarcity habitats.

Which is the most important idea in the book. The GSVs are an expressive totality of the Culture itself. As long as you have one GSV, the Culture continues to exist, and can rebuild, extend, and reproduce itself. In this way a post-scarcity society makes itself very difficult to kill. This is very important since the Culture's neighborhood includes quite aggressive and militaristic political formations such as those of the Idirans.

*Image used by permission of of Mark Salwowski


  1. I've never completed a Banks novel either, I'm embarassed to say, but I've read a bit about the Culture and I think it's had some influence on my sci-fi imaginings indirectly. This gives me yet another prod to get around to it.

  2. I've neglected Banks for far too long given that he has written a lot about the implications of a post-scarcity future/present, but I've always found M. John Harrison's SF more engaging and he covers similar ground albeit from very oblique angles.

  3. These are the two of his I've read as well; I need to get to the others, but I've been distracted by Linda Nagata's Nanotech Succession books.

    1. I am digging "Player of Games" which I started a few days ago. It starts with one of those "Oh no, you don't REALLY want to do THAT" moments with the main character. Banks would have been a real bastard as a GM.